IF ANY club are acclimatised to being written off as relegation candidates before a Championship season begins, it is Rotherham United – no matter who is in the dug-out.
Currently it is Steve Evans and in the early Noughties it was another irrepressible character in Ronnie Moore.
Just as Moore took great delight in defying the odds for three seasons running and turning over far bigger clubs – often expensively assembled at a fraction of his side’s cost – during his golden first tenure at Rotherham, you sense that Evans is also developing a taste for it.
Bookmakers rank the Millers, who start their second season back in the second tier at home to MK Dons tomorrow, as favourites for the drop.
Just as they did in their second year at this level back in 2002-03 when Moore’s Millers confounded expectations to finish in 15th spot – and this after a brief flirtation with the play-off spots in late winter.
That season saw Rotherham hit six goals en route to memorable away wins at Burnley and Millwall, claim a famous double against Ipswich – relegated from the top flight in 2001-02 – and also beat Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County.
After victories against the likes of Leeds United, Ipswich Town and Wolves last season, Evans’s Millers also have shown to be no respecter of reputations – even if the bookies continue to pay them little heed.
Evans is the first to acknowledge that this season’s Championship clientèle is arguably the strongest and most well-heeled ever, but do not expect him or his club to be daunted.
Evans, whose sights are firmly on mid-table and could be raised if they exceed expectations early on, said: “There is some really serious investment going on in the Championship. You only need to look across the motorway (at Sheffield Wednesday) to see what is happening there where some big players are arriving with big salaries and expectations.
“You have to look up to Middlesbrough, Burnley, Derby and QPR and there’s probably no one spending more cash each week than Fulham, and then there’s Nottingham Forest. It just continues through the Championship.
“We are blessed to be a part of that. But we what to play a meaningful part.
“We have our own aspirations. The bookmakers say we are going to be relegated, but I didn’t hear them saying Bournemouth were going to be promoted at this time last season.
“Listen, if that’s their opinion, then we have people to prove wrong.
“Three years ago, people said we wouldn’t get out of League Two with the pressures of the new stadium. Then people said Rotherham will consolidate in League One and we got out and into the Championship.
“Far too many people then said we’d go down again, and despite points deductions and some awful decisions going against us on a weekly basis, we rose above all that and stayed strong.
“I respect every one of the teams in the division, but we don’t fear anyone. It doesn’t matter if we are playing MK Dons on Saturday, or QPR, Hull, Leeds or anyone. It doesn’t matter to me, the challenge comes and you have to meet it.”
Evans’s sense of emboldenment is borne out of the squad he has at his disposal, which he says is the best of his managerial career.
The Scot has revealed that he has managed to land most of his targets and a measured summer of recruitment, which has involved a fair bit of patience, has “paid off”.
He said: “You don’t need to know a lot about football to know that we have got better players.
“Our recruitment progress has been fantastic. We have taken our time.
“We have lost one or two we have tried to get. But we have largely got the players we have spoken too.
“It took some time to get some over the line such as Joe Newell and Chris Maguire. Chris spoke to more clubs than a golfer has in his bag, he had so much interest in him.
“But our recruitment has been good. It’s been a mixture of experienced Championship lads and three or four lads with big points to prove.
“Grant Ward has been exceptional and Tom Thorpe is already getting tributes and has already got people at Manchester United shaking their heads as to why he’s come out.”
One player who Evans says he will not be revisiting is Hibernian midfielder Scott Allan.
The Millers were considering another bid despite seeing an offer of £375,000 turned down, but have now decided against it.
Evans added: “His representatives made it clear that Scott at this minute in time, with a young baby on the scene, wished to stay in Scotland.
“If he doesn’t want to be with us, we have to move on.
“I don’t care if you are Scott Allan or Messi. If you don’t want to come to Rotherham United, we don’t want you to come.”