IN THE balmy days of autumn when that dispiriting relegation of the season before was quickly being forgotten in a flurry of goals, it appeared as if Rotherham United would breeze through League One and back into the Championship.
Seven wins were accumulated in their first 11 games, three of them by way of five-goal hammerings to shell-shocked visitors to the New York Stadium.
With an attacking fulcrum like Kieffer Moore to finish moves and build around, Paul Warne’s Rotherham looked in the mood for promotion.
But then the goals dried up, Moore attracted interest from parent club Ipswich, the nights got darker and the statistics dropped off sharply.
In the next 11 games, Rotherham won just twice and plunged below the play-off line.
On Saturday, they earned only a third draw of the season thanks to Semi Ajayi’s lash from four yards that ended a goalmouth scramble and rescued a point against lowly Plymouth Argyle.
On the face of it, a draw with a side 13 places below them in the table would count as two points dropped and a continuation of the poor form, but coming on the back of another salvage job at Blackpool seven days earlier, there is a fighting spirit in the Millers camp that could yet herald a turning point.
“The last two games we’ve shown we can do that and I hope that gives us the belief that if we do go behind, we can come back and draw or win the game,” said Will Vaulks, the midfielder who commendably dropped back into the heart of defence following Richard Wood’s dismissal early in the second half.
“You’re going to go behind in games, it’s inevitable, you can’t have people scoring worldy’s like last week, you’ve got to show that you can earn points other ways.
“I’d love to go back to blowing teams away but I’ll take winning games from scraps.”
It would appear that teams in the third tier have cottoned on quickly as to how to tackle Rotherham at the New York Stadium, if Plymouth’s limited ambitions are anything to go by.
Deploying a very defensive set-up, they were content to let Rotherham’s easy-on-the-eye ball-players like Vaulks, Ryan Williams, David Ball and Anthony Forde run at them in the first half.
This the Millers men did with great enthusiasm, if without a cutting edge.
Chances were carved out but with no great regularity and when captain Wood was sent off on 53 minutes for a second bookable offence – Warne had no complaints either with the decisions or his captain’s aggression – the dynamic of the game changed completely.
We need a good Christmas to get us back up where we need to be. I think our form will get better because now we’ve shown we can win games from behind.Rotherham United’s Will Vaulks
Suddenly Plymouth had a new lease of life and they took the lead and what looked like the win when Ryan Taylor stooped in front of Vaulks to thunder home a near-post header from a corner.
It was a moment to savour for Taylor, the Rotherham lad who spent six years and made 143 appearances with his his hometown club, and he deserved better than the bottles that were thrown at him when he went to celebrate with family in the home end.
Rotherham could have put it down to one of those days, but almost how they did at Blackpool the week before when a late rally brought three points, they conjured a leveller three minutes into stoppage time when Ajayi pounced after Joe Mattock’s initial shot in a goalmouth scramble had been saved by Plymouth goalkeeper Kelle Roos.
“People were shocked at the start of the season when we were just running all over teams,” said Vaulks, who believes the Millers have learnt the lessons of last season’s wretched relegation.
“I think we can still do that. We had a sticky spell where we were conceding from set-plays but if we can fight and scrap and scrape a few results, then hopefully the good performances take care of themselves.
“When teams come here and sit in we’ll have to be patient, and try and break them down. I thought we were doing that in the first half. I know a few people were getting frustrated but there’s not much you can do when they sit 11 men behind the ball.
“That was us last year – you get to half-time and it’s 0-0 and that’s great but eventually your legs tire and we showed it last year by conceding goals late on because it’s hard if you don’t have the ball.”
As one of the few remaining members of that morale-sapping campaign, Vaulks believes the battling characteristics gained over the last two weeks will be a vital attribute in the bid to bounce back at the first attempt.
“Hopefully the last two results are a bit of a turning point for us.
“We need a good Christmas to get us back up where we need to be. I think our form will get better because now we’ve shown we can win games from behind.”
His manager concurs.
“The last couple of performances, when we’ve gone behind, it’s shown that the character is there and the lads want to do well,” said Warne.
“We’ve got weaknesses. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m Pep (Guardiola). Going forward we’re good, and even with 10 men we limited Plymouth. But we need to get stronger at the back.”
Rotherham United: Rodak, Emmanuel (Clarke-Harris 86), Wood, Ajayi, Mattock; Williams, Vaulks, Towell, Forde (Newell 86); Yates (Frecklington 55), Ball. Unused substitutes: O’Donnell, Frecklington, Purrington, Ihiekwe, Cummings.
Plymouth Argyle: Roos, Sawyer, Edwards, Bradley, Taylor-Sinclair, Diagouraga, Fox, Grant (Wylde 76), Carey; Jervis (Ainsworth 71), Taylor (Fletcher 89). Unused substitutes: Cooper, Miller, Songo’o, Threlkeld, Fletcher.
Referee: A Haines (Tyne & Wear).