THE HILLS were alive with the sound of a group of invigorated footballers pushing themselves to the absolute limit in the Austrian Alps last summer – and it has made for the sweetest of music for Rotherham United.
The birth of Yorkshire’s latest compelling football story which will hopefully be crowned with promotion later this month arrived at that unlikely, if idyllic venue. Never has the air been more uplifting.
For the Millers’ White Rose rivals Huddersfield Town, inspiration in their own remarkable rise to the Premier League in 2016-17 famously originated from the bonds brokered among players during a Bear Gryll’s-style survival trip to a remote Swedish island in the 2016 close season.
Meanwhile, runaway League One champions Sheffield United’s strong jaw and resolve in that same season was first honed during some boxing sessions that same summer, which sharpened up their mentality for their own promotion assault.
Rotherham players found themselves being taken out of their comfort zone in Austria. It was certainly no picnic, just ask captain Richard Wood.
His word to describe running up daunting gradients in the fierce summer sun and then go back for more and do it all again? Horrible..
But it provided the emotional fuel for nine-and-a-half intoxicating months which will culminate in an immediate Championship return if the Millers beat Shrewsbury in the play-off final on Sunday week. One more steep hill to climb.
Given the Millers’ players collective will and stubborn refusal to take no for an answer, which has been worn as a badge of honour throughout this season, few would bet against them achieving that mission.
Wood, who netted a memorable opening goal in Wednesday’s semi-final second leg win over Scunthorpe United, said: “In Austria in pre-season, it was so tough to get up at seven in the morning and do the hill runs.
“It was a slog with three or four sessions a day. It was horrible. But right from that moment, we stuck together and helped each other through it.
“That is how it all started. It was horrible and an awful week, fitness-wise..
“But it was good camaraderie in session after session. It was like: ‘not again!’
“We would come to the session and the lads would push each other on and some were sprinting off in front and you have then got to keep up with them. That is how it was and it set the mentality off. The gaffer has not let up on that all season and fitness wise, you know what he is like.
“We have had our ups and downs this season, but I think we have grown as a team confidence wise and know what we are about and we are never-say-die. Psychology in football is massive and it is a confidence game.”
The Millers’ all-for-one and one-for-all mindset is plainly about the group and not the individual, but the sight of old stager Wood gaining some personal kudos after being the unlikely scorer of his side’s key midweek opener was an enriching one.
It helped secure a first professional appointment at Wembley for the 32-year-old and his sweet moment earned him an infinite amount of brownie points with his children in the process with any tears being ones of celebration and not disappointment.
Wood, accompanied by his two young sons who were proudly wearing Millers shirts when he spoke on Wednesday night, said: “My children had been having nightmares all week and getting worked up about it and they were more nervous than me (before the game).
“To score a goal for them and get through saved me tears. I don’t have to put up with them now and they are happy for another 10 days!
“It is unbelievable and a great feeling. You cannot replicate those sort of feelings in football. To score as well, I lost the plot. I am absolutely buzzing.
“It is a great achievement to do what we have done, irrelevant of what happens. To come where we did in the league after last year is a massive achievement in my eyes. The manager and the staff have done a great job and the lads have performed well and grown as a team all season.
It is a great achievement to do what we have done, irrelevant of what happens. To come where we did in the league after last year is a massive achievement in my eyes.
“Irrespective of what happens, it has been a good and enjoyable season and put smiles on the fans’ faces again.”
Having never been to Wembley as a causal visitor, let alone as a fan or a player, May 27 will be a special occasion for Wood and his family, although the hardened professional in him only wants to contemplate victory on his maiden visit there.
Wood, aiming to follow Craig Morgan and Matt Clarke in lifting a trophy for the Millers at Wembley, added: “I have not even been to Wembley to watch a game, so it is going to be good walking out. It is a massive honour to do that and it will be a proud moment. But there is no point going there if you don’t win. We need to make sure we prepare right and finish the job.
“I have wanted to go to Wembley for a while and take my children and get to a game. It is just that when I have got the kids, it is a bit far to go and get back for their school. Playing every week as well, it is hard to go to a game on a Sunday if it is my day off and come back on Monday for school.
“It will be a good occasion and day out for my family and one that I will remember for the rest of my life, result pending.”
Thankfully next Sunday arrives on a Bank Holiday weekend. But you suspect the Wood family would have been out in force, come what may...