Yesterday, Steve Evans took over as manager at Rotherham United. Lifelong Millers’ fan David Rawson here provides his reaction.
It’s probably three-quarters of a mile, if that. It just feels further.
The red paint on the wooden gates at the back of Millmoor’s Tivoli End has faded a little now. In places, it’s flaked off, exposing grey undercoat and the wood beneath. The same goes for the narrow doors, behind which the old turnstiles stand silent. There’s a silence as you walk across the forecourt towards the main road, the quietness of abandonment, of a place out of time, condemned to the past.
Turn right, walk for a minute. The road takes on a shallow slope here towards the natural basin formed by the river Don’s flow over the centuries. And at the bottom of that slope you can see it, a thing of elegant curves and glass, almost beautiful, slightly out of place. A glance over the shoulder reveals a last glimpse of asbestos roofs and floodlight pylons, sentries guarding a ceremony taking place elsewhere. Then a deep breath and a walk down the hill, towards the imminent future.
The walk is not unburdened. There is a weight: of fragments of memory and shared experience, of the individual hopes and fears of thousands of people, yielded up to make something crucial of something fundamentally unimportant. There is a weight: of soaring joys, asphyxiating lows, of chances missed, opportunities all-too-infrequently seized. There is a weight: of identity, that indefinable quality that drew together individuals over the years to the place a few hundred yards down the road, and an almost incalculable distance away.
It’s inherent in supporting a football team that you impress the qualities that you value onto the club you follow. The special magic of football is that it allows for the embodiment of every noble virtue (it’s rare for supporters to overlay ignoble qualities onto their club, though football easily encompasses these, too), creating a shared sense of collective self as strongly understood as it is impossible to reduce to simple definition.
But let’s try. Standing in the shadows of the home end at Millmoor, straining to hear the echoes of a century’s cheers and cries, you can sense something of it.
We’ve never been flash or brash – (actually, we have, twice – once when we appointed Tommy Docherty as manager and promptly got relegated and once when Anton Johnson oversaw an extravagant lifestyle that club – and, it turned out, he – could ill afford and we nearly ceased to exist). Generally, any successes have been earned by honest hard work and graft, by taking cast off, under-rated or local players, improving them and making them greater as a team than the sum of their collective parts. We’ve accepted our place as a club for whom success is a welcome stranger rather than a familiar house guest.
At our best, we’re the team that’s made the most of what we’ve got. Millmoor was never the Nou Camp, but it could gleam in the sunlight of the first fixture of the season and its pitch could often stand comparison with any in the country. Players would arrive from reserve teams and find the form of their careers. Youth team players would come into the side and prosper, before leaving for better careers elsewhere.
At our worst, we’ve overreached and fallen flat. Relegation from the Championship with one of the smallest wage budgets ever seen in that league, nearly ruined us and cost us our ground and much of our dignity and respect. But we battled through the deduction of 27 points in two seasons, the loss of our manager and the entire coaching staff just as we seemed to be on the brink of something tangible and overcame the crippling disappointment of a play-off final defeat, to be in the promotion hunt going into the final straight of last season.
And then everything changed.
Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe what we saw in the wake of a complete capitulation against Chesterfield (‘Live on Sky Sports!’) was the first glimpse of what we’d become. Ronnie Moore, his face taut with despair and frustration, lashed out at his players and was dismissed. Andy Liddell (hailed by the chairman, Tony Stewart, for his intelligence, his hard work, his commitment) took over temporarily, overseeing no real improvement, before being dismissed from the club on Andy Scott’s appointment.
Scott, praised by Stewart for his hard work, his energy and his intelligence, oversaw a complete overhaul of the back-room staff, with people who’d been with – and stuck with – the club through its financial woes, culled almost overnight and replaced by an array of ‘player development officers’ and other curiously corporate sounding names.
Amid much talk of competitive wage budgets and ambition, Scott turned over a vast number of players over the summer and during the season using the loan system, but delivered only mid table form. Despite the chairman’s disbelief at the “illogic” of the situation, Scott was dismissed, almost a year after Moore’s departure.
The hunt for a new manager began again. The names linked to the job were credible, impressive even. Lee Clark was spotted in the stand at Don Valley. So was Brian Laws. Robins applied for his old job. Phil Brown threw his hat in the ring. Rumours linked Sean O’Driscoll and even Mick McCarthy. The chairman spoke of the quality of the applicants and how the draw of the new stadium had yielded some surprising names.
And at the fringes of the betting, in surprisingly persistent rumours, the name of Steve Evans.
At first, the link seemed to arise from nothing more than a series of interviews in which Evans was noticeably positive about the club (and especially its chairman). But then the local press started picking up the story and, just before the Easter weekend, respected local journalist Les Payne told us that his understanding was that Evans was Tony Stewart’s favoured candidate. On Monday morning, it was confirmed.
Hollowness. A strange feeling, empty of strong emotion, but profound nonetheless. The clothes of expected outrage (‘the man’s a convicted criminal’, ‘he’s graceless, lacking in dignity, not our sort of man, surely’) didn’t quite fit.
The dislocated feeling wasn’t, it turned out, a reaction to Evans, as such, but something wider, deeper, less easily identifiable. It was this: my club had become the sort of club that would appoint a man like Evans to be its manager. Before now, the idea of it was just unthinkable, literally unbelievable. Whatever his qualities as a football manager, the club that lived within the perimeters of Millmoor, would not have entertained the appointment. I knew that club. I knew what it stood for.
This club was different. This club demanded success. This club boasted of the resources it would throw behind the new man, as if the millions of pounds of written off debt were no longer a matter of concern. This club would overlook everything about Evans’ past except the record of lower league success. This club repented of nothing, regretted still less. This club was a more ruthless, unforgiving place, that spoke in terms of delivery and implementation, that had just signed its third three year managerial contract in two years.
In that moment, I thought again of the old gates through which you exited Millmoor. In my imaginings before, I’d assumed it was me walking away from the old ground, out and away towards the future.
But this time, it felt different.
I suddenly realised that I’d had it wrong, that the club that lived in that old stadium had turned its back on me. That club, and all that it represented, was dead and receding into the past.
I was to be left to stumble towards a future just down the road, but suddenly without any assurance of what I might find when I got there. And part of me wonders whether I should move at all, or stand still in the shadow cast by that empty, abandoned stand and remember. Part of me wonders whether that even that short distance from here to there is ultimately bridgeable.
David can be followed in twitter at @davidrawson