MISSION one has been accomplished with two games to spare, leaving Rotherham United manager Paul Warne with a conundrum.
Does he rest key players ahead of the play-offs or does he field his strongest side to maintain momentum with a Wembley final in sight?
Rules have been tightened since Huddersfield made 10 changes for their final Championship match at Birmingham last season with their top-six place assured.
The EFL state: “For any League match played on or after the fourth Thursday in March (including season 2017-18) any team sheet for a league game should include at least 10 outfield players who featured on the team sheet for the league match before.”
Following Saturday’s victory that secured a play-off berth and which was achieved through Michael Smith’s early strike and Caolan Lavery’s 90th-minute tap-in, Warne was able to relax at Rotherham’s ‘end-of-season’ evening, sitting alongside chairman Tony Stewart.
“It takes the pressure off the lads a little bit,” said adopted Yorkshireman Warne, who even went as far as to offer to buy all the players a drink.
“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to perform to our max in the last two games, but it does allow me to possibly rest a couple.
“I can just jig it up a little bit. I’m giving the lads a few days off now just to give them a bit of down time. Hopefully, they’ll press the refresh button and be football-lively when they come back.
“I’ll definitely still try to win the next two games because if you go into the play-offs in good form, great.
“It might let me not play Smithy, for example. He takes a battering every week. I took Bally (striker David) out because I thought he was looking a little jaded. He’s had a couple of games off so he might be able to come back in.
“It might let me look at different things. I don’t mean I’m going to disrespect the league and make eight changes. I wouldn’t do that.
“But it does allow me to tweak a little. I don’t have to go to sleep the next couple of Fridays knowing it’s a do-or-die game the following day.”
Warne believed their midweek exertions at Gillingham and a 3am arrival back home had taken their toll against a Bristol Rovers side who had not played for a week.
“We didn’t really fire on all cylinders at any time,” said Warne. “The players looked goosed. The three in the middle, Richie, Matty and Will, worked hard, but just looked a yard short for them. It’s not a criticism. It’s just the way it was.”
I’ll definitely still try to win the next two games because if you go into the play-offs in good form, great.Rotherham United boss, Paul Warne
Yet Warne was being a tad unkind for his ‘leggy’ Millers side controlled possession for long spells of the first period following Smith’s delightful ninth-minute goal.
It came when James Clarke failed to control a throw-in back to him near halfway and was robbed by the striker, who burst down the left channel before expertly curling the ball beyond Sam Slocombe into the far corner.
Will Vaulks also twice went close before the break, which led to the visitors receiving an almighty rollicking from their coaching staff, the noise permeating through their dressing room into the media suite.
It had the desired effect and, aided by some weak refereeing, Bristol got stuck in only for Byron Moore and Kyle Bennett to blow two great chances to equalise.
It was left to Joe Newell – the only change to the side from midweek – to clip over the cross that Lavery, on for a tired-looking Richie Towell, guided in off the far post to make the points safe.
Of greater satisfaction for Michael Ihiekwe, however, was that no opposing team have scored against the Millers in the three games since he has been restored to central defence alongside captain Richard Wood.
“It was another clean sheet and the lads at the back are really happy though we could have played a bit better as we were slightly lethargic, which is understandable,” said the 25-year-old Scouser, who lost his place in early December.
“We had Wigan and then Gillingham, which were tough, but we showed that we can grind results out. That’s what we have in this squad, a team of tough lads. It’s nice to know we can get these sort of results.
“We are buzzing. We tried going into the game trying not to think about it (clinching a play-off place) too much, but we got the win. We are excited and are focusing on going into the play-offs in good form. We want to be feared by whoever we play in the semis.”
Rotherham went on a 14-match unbeaten run when Ihiekwe lost his place, but, regarding grabbing his second chance, he continued: “It is a testament to the squad really that if you have a couple of games where you have a little dip then someone will come in and take your place.
“At the time, it was Semi (Ajayi) who came in and did really well. But I am happy to come back into the team and, defensively, we have improved quite a lot.
“We have always scored quite a lot of goals, especially at home, but it was little defensive mistakes that were costing us earlier in the season. We have strength at the back and you have to take your chance when you get it.”
Rotherham United: Rodak, Emmanuel, Ihiekwe, Wood, Purrington; Taylor (Williams 65), Palmer (Ajayi 76), Towell (Lavery 58), Vaulks, Newell; Smith. Unused substitutes: Price, Forde, Ball, Cummings.
Bristol Rovers: Slocombe; J Clarke, Lockyer, Craig, Bola; Moore (Mensah 68), Lines , O Clarke, Bennett; Nichols (Telford 68), Harrison (Gafney 78). Unused substitutes: Smith, Brown, Broadbent, Russe.
Referee: A Haynes (Tyne & Wear).