Sunderland v Rotherham United: Paul Warne and Chiedozie Ogbene plot Millers’ long road to the Championship

SPEAKING ahead of Rotherham United’s week of destiny on the road, Paul Warne – as he often does – made a dry observation and afforded himself a wry smile in the process.

In the aftermath of his side’s tense victory over Oxford United, he commented: “Luckily, the two games have fallen really well.

“As far north as we can go and virtually as far south as we can go. Which is great when you are a team virtually in the Midlands.”

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Climbing tough gradients at the end of seasons has invariably been the way during Warne’s remarkable time in charge of the Millers. Plus ca change.

Getting tight: Rotherham United’s Chiedozie Ogbene is squeezed out by Oxford’s Mark Sykes and Cameron Brannagan but hopes not to be in the promotion race. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

The Stadium of Light now awaits on an evening when a victory for the visitors, whose only win in 12 previous visits to Wearside arrived way back in November 1959, would all but secure them a hat-trick of instant promotions back to the second tier under Warne – barring some disastrous events on Saturday.

The Millers, who have drawn upon their reservoirs of character to triumph in their last two home matches, head into the game on the back of successive losses on their travels at Burton and Portsmouth, when a combined total of five concessions equalled the tally of goals they had conceded in their previous 19 away league games in 2021-22.

They face a Sunderland side who are one of only two EFL teams to record a half-century of home points so far this season, along with Sheffield Wednesday. Only Manchester City have scored more home goals than the Black Cats.

Fortunately, there are some substantive positives. Rotherham have won at Hillsborough, Portman Road, Stadium MK and Home Park already this season and made a statement or two along the way. Only a fool would doubt them this evening.

Dan Barlaser celebrates scoring Rotherham's second goal against Oxford from the spot with Michael Smith. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Warne said: “We will go into the games and hopefully in one of these two, we can manage to scrap out a win.

“The lads aren’t fazed by big stadiums or anything else like that. I think they will fancy themselves going there (Sunderland).

“As a player, who doesn’t want to play in the big games and big stadiums against the big clubs? The lads will.”

While the Millers have their own cherished mission tonight, so have the Black Cats.

Paul Warne, Rotherham United manager, on the promotion race (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

In normal seasons, both clubs would be home and hosed in terms of their respective missions of securing a top-two place and play-off participation, but these are not straightforward times. Sunderland passed the 80-point mark at the weekend, but remain in the thick of a frenzied four-way fight for three play-off spots alongside Plymouth, Wycombe and Wednesday.

Alex Neil’s side can clinch a top-six place if they win tonight and the Owls lose at struggling Fleetwood. Whatever happens this week, it will be the teams who miss out on the second automatic promotion spot and the top six who feel the pain most by mid-afternoon on Saturday.

After last year’s shattering relegation heartache at Cardiff, the Millers – battling with MK Dons for a two-top spot with Wigan, who have all but confirmed promotion – require no motivation whatsoever.

At the same time, Warne also offers a spot of perspective.

“If you’d offered me before the (Oxford) game that MK are going to win and we are going to win, I’d have definitely taken it,” he said.

“It would have been lovely if MK wouldn’t have tried as hard! But it is testament to the league this year that there are so many teams who have 80-plus points.

“But there’s so many good teams in this league. I’d love to think we will get promoted, but whoever does take the second spot, if it isn’t us, will have definitely deserved it.”

Should Rotherham and Sunderland not get a definitive result this evening, they are at least safe in the knowledge that they have another chance on Saturday.

The Millers head to relegation-threatened Gillingham, while the Wearsiders also visit a side who are fighting for their League One lives in Morecambe, when they make their first ever league trip to that corner of Lancashire.

For Rotherham’s sake in particular, they can make things a lot more straightforward for themselves this evening against a Sunderland side who were comprehensively beaten 5-1 in the reverse fixture in South Yorkshire.

Winger Chiedozie Ogbene, outstanding in that autumnal routing, commented: “We’re in a good place. We’ll have a game plan for Sunderland and hopefully we can get a win there so we won’t feel too pressured on Saturday at Gillingham.

“Sunderland know what they’re playing for, we know what we’re playing for. It’s not going to be an easy game. We just need to go there and show desire and hunger, which I know we will do. We need our supporters away from home as well.”

Last six games: Sunderland DWWWDW; Rotherham WLLWLW.

Referee: R Madley (West Yorkshire).

Last time: Sunderland 1 Rotherham 1; September 17, 2019; League One.