Rotherham United: Two Stadia; Two Identities
In April, David Rawson caught the imagination of football’s online community with a striking post following the arrival of Steve Evans at Rotherham United. Here, with the Yorkshire club about to take up residency in a new stadium and with the new season a month away, David is in wistful mood:
‘If this were a manufacturing company, I’d have shut it down as soon as I walked through the door. I still might have to.’
The words – and the matter of fact tone that they were delivered in – resonated in the pause that followed. The man who had spoken them gave the merest shrug. There wasn’t much else to say.
Jeremy Bleazard of XL Solutions was appointed as administrator of Rotherham United on 18 March 2008. The club, hauled from the brink of extinction only eighteen months before, was again insolvent; firmly, intractably stuck in a spiral of decline that started with its relegation from the Championship in 2005. Bleazard’s appointment was just the latest manifestation of a longer term malaise.
His assessment of the position was bleak. The club’s income was simply not enough to meet its expenditure commitments to its staff, players and coaches, to its suppliers, to the taxman and to the former owner from which it leased the training facilities and the ground it had played on for a century. There were virtually no assets. Commercially, the club was essentially worthless as a bundle of assets and fundamentally unsustainable as a business. It could not go on like this. There was obvious no way to reshape its operations so that it could go on at all.
The administrator’s strategy, boiled down, was to try to get enough cash in to meet the costs of trading through to the end of the season and review the position again while in the meantime, hope something offering a longer term solution might present itself. We hadn’t lost a league club for a long time. He’d do his best.
Again, the hint of a shrug.
Unreal and Overwhelming
Looking out from the top of the glass walled atrium, you can see the floodlight pylons, the white tips of the supports for the roof of the main stand and just a hint of the slate grey asbestos roofs of the home and away ends. Behind stand the cranes in the scrap yard that hems in the ground.
Turn your back on your view, walk through the executive lounge of the 1925 Club and you’re on the top row of the main stand, which slopes steeply down to the bright green of the pitch. The roof arcs round to the left and right, descending in steps as it passes over the stands behind the goals, and then running along the length of the smaller East Stand. Picked out in white in the vivid red seats is the word ‘Millers’; at either end ‘RUFC’. It’s ours.
It feels unreal, overwhelming almost. To think of the journey, from the very cusp of oblivion, from being exiled from the club’s home and the town itself, from the hush of the sterile, half filled athletics stadium in Sheffield to this, is to generate a swell of emotion, a confused, potent mixture of regret and hope, euphoria and loss.
Achievement is Demanded
The name’s the same, but the identity is different.
Years ago, one of the striking things about the first game of the season at Millmoor was how smart the place looked. It was old, outdated even, but every barrier was freshly painted and the pitch was ever immaculate. It embodied something, a culture that recognised its limitations, perhaps, and one which accepted that having a go and doing your best was good enough. A culture of hoping for the best, but expecting nothing.
No longer. Expectation drives Rotherham United now. Achievement is demanded. Promotion to the Championship, a shimmering collective adventure back in 2001, is now an objective to be delivered in the course of a project. A ruthless intolerance of failure has seen three permanent and two caretaker managers in two seasons. Ten permanent signings before August transfer window closed last season. Nine before pre-season training started this year, with more sought. The determination, at all levels, to redefine the club, to reshape its idea of itself, is palpable.
Since Tony Stewart, a local businessman with, previously, only a passing interest in football, bought the business and assets of the club in mid April 2008, the theme has been bold actions and big statements.
Within a month of taking control, he’d taken the decision to end negotiations over a fresh lease of Millmoor and relocate the club to Don Valley Stadium. The move took the club outside its home town and incurred the ire of the Football League, which demanded that it return to Rotherham in five years or forfeit its league place. Stewart never wavered. Despite starting the 2008 season on -17 points, Stewart talked of targeting promotion. Each successive manager has been ‘dynamite’, ‘impressive’, a ‘knock-out’ and each has spoken well of the backing given to them by their chairman. Until they fell short of expectations and were removed from post.
And, although on the pitch we’ve remained in League Two, off the pitch Stewart has delivered. Built in the heart of Rotherham, the New York Stadium largely achieves Stewart’s desire for an ‘iconic’ structure. The design process was painstaking, giving the stadium an appearance different from most newly built grounds and focussing on the rake of the stands and the acoustics generated by crowds within. It’s Stewart’s biggest statement and his boldest action, a representation of what the club now is.
Activity like this creates excitement, demands attention. The bookmakers have us as favourites to win League Two this year. As work on the New York Stadium hurtles towards completion, as the manager proclaims signing after signing and declares his intention to “smash” the record transfer fee paid by the club, the close season becomes a giddy rush. If this translates into the sort of success on the pitch that the present collection of experienced, physically powerful, competent professionals appears capable of, the coming campaign promises to be a breathless, thrilling experience. Hope. Euphoria
Straggling weeds poke through the gravel strip around the Millmoor pitch. A layer of grime coats the seats, turning the whites to grey. Dark patches of damp scar the white walls at the back of the Tivoli End. A dusty piece of paper clings to an interior wall, seeking staff to man the refreshment stands that stand nearby, shuttered and empty. The place stands silent, abandoned, decaying.
And yet, something remains. Something that was here, is here still, but fading, just as the colours of the red seats leach away from lack of use. Gossamer strands of memories are rooted here, somewhere beneath the blistering paint, somewhere within the shade of the empty stands, somewhere in the earth of the pitch from which the dandelions and clover sprout in competition with the grass.
Stretched, but not broken, it is those strands that pull the eye back, to glance at what was, as the feet stride excitedly towards what is to be. Each glance a little shorter than the last. Loss. Regret.
An Ending and a Beginning
The first goal at Millmoor was scored on 2 September 1907 by Algernon Pynegar, a local man playing for his home town team. The last was scored on 3 May 2008 by Jamie Green, a local man playing for his home town team.
The first goal at the New York Stadium is almost certain to be scored by a player signed from another club, with no prior connection to the town of Rotherham. The player will probably be more technically gifted, physically stronger and mentally tougher than Green or Pynegar. They will have been chosen because they are capable of delivering what is expected and demanded of them.
Soon, it will be the start of now and whatever comes next. The roar from the stands of our new home will be deafening, a release of four years of exile. New memories will be begin forming. A new history will begin. A new identity will begin to coalesce.
We stand on the brink, in a moment pregnant with promise. Who we were need not be who we are and need not dictate who we will be. We will travel to the new ground to attend a ritual of becoming.
But on the way home, a quick glance, perhaps, at the haunted stands of Millmoor. There the silence will remain, broken only by the almost inaudible sound of the breaking of the final threads linking what is to be to what once was.
18 August 2012. For Rotherham United FC, an ending and a beginning.