After spending two years with Rotherham United as a player, Neil Warnock returned in 2016 and he completed a miraculous ‘Great Escape’ to keep the club in the Championship.
Warnock was a winger during his professional career that spanned 12 years between 1967 and 1979. His senior debut came with Chesterfield, but he joined Rotherham two years later.
Known for his no-nonsense attitude – which has transferred over into management – Neil played for the Millers when they were in Division Three. He played 52 times for the South Yorkshire outfit and he scored five goals.
Warnock went onto have spells at Barnsley and Scunthorpe United before he retired aged 30 to focus on management.
He had humble beginnings with the likes of Gainsborough Trinity and Scarborough. But he is most well-known for his time with Sheffield United between 1999 and 2007.
The 72-year-old guided the Blades to promotion to the Premier League in 2006. This set them up for their first year in the top tier since 1993/94.
If we fast forward to 2016, Rotherham were on the lookout for a new manager after the departure of Neil Redfearn. At this point, the Millers were deep in trouble.
They sat 22nd in the Championship after 30 games and they were three points adrift of MK Dons and Bristol City above them.
Warnock, a manager renowned for getting clubs promoted, had a simple task – come in and keep a disjointed Rotherham team in the Championship.
The Millers made a slow start under Warnock. They failed to win any of his first three games in charge. A 0-0 draw with Birmingham was followed up by away defeats to Burnley and Reading.
This left Rotherham with a lot of work to do to avoid relegation. They were now six points away from MK Dons, who sat on 32 points after 33 Championship games.
They were in desperate need of a positive result that could give them something to build on. Thankfully, that is just what they got in his fourth game.
11th-placed Brentford travelled to the New York Stadium to face the relegation strugglers. In the first half, Matt Derbyshire punished the Bees for some sloppy defending to give his side the lead. Alan Judge equalised before Danny Ward smashed home the winner in the 71st minute.
This victory worked wonders to boost morale, which was especially important as it was before their trip to Hillsborough. Unsurprisingly, Warnock was particularly excited for this game and he lapped up all the abuse that he was getting from the Owls fans.
Sheff Weds sat in the play-offs at this stage so it was a tough test for Rotherham. But they put in what would prove to be a typical performance under Warnock to earn a famous victory over their arch-rivals.
Matt Derbyshire got the only goal of the game after Lee Frecklington did brilliantly to set him up. The Millers now had two wins on the bounce and belief was starting to build…
The games were not getting any easier for Rotherham. They there then tasked with hosting Middlesborough at the NYS. Boro sat second in the table and they were a point behind Burnley with a game in hand.
This was an almighty challenge for the Millers, who put so much effort into their derby win a couple of days earlier. Aitor Karanka – who will not be on the Christmas card list of any Rotherham fan this year – was their manager and his side should have really been out of sight by the final ten minutes.
David Nugent and Gaston Ramirez both missed chances and Rotherham capitalised. In the 88th minute, Jonson Clarke-Harris picked out Frecklington in the area, who fired the ball home to steal the victory for the hosts.
After beating two of the top six back to back, they hosted promotion-chasers Derby County next. The Millers were again on the back foot and three quickfire goals from the Rams placed them well in control.
As we reached the 80th minute, Darren Wassall’s side were 3-0 up and cruising. But a crazy seven-minute spell turned the game on its head.
Ward got a goal back in the 83rd minute before Leon Best made it 3-2 two minutes later. The New York Stadium was now bouncing and Derby were all over the place.
Best then got his second to complete the unlikely comeback. What makes it more impressive is that if there was an extra few minutes, the hosts would have won…
The Millers then travelled to Portman Road to play Ipswich Town, who sat just outside of the play-off positions. Warnock’s side performed well and Best scored his third goal from just two games to earn the visitors a valuable 1-0 win.
This victory was their fourth from five games and it moved them out of the bottom three. It was going to be near on impossible to top the drama from the Derby game again, but they came close to doing that against Leeds United.
Two red cards and a last-minute penalty: this Yorkshire derby had it all!
Before Derbyshire’s sending off, Rotherham were deservedly ahead. But a fortunate deflected goal from Luke Murphy levelled the game and Leeds then looked likely to win it.
That was until Frecklington was brought down in the area by Marco Silvestri in the 89th minute. Silvestri was sent off, so defender Giuseppe Bellusci had to take the gloves.
Greg Halford stepped up to take the spot-kick. Despite the long wait, he was as calm as you like as his effort nestled in the bottom corner…
The Millers then kept their unbeaten run intact as they drew 1-1 with relegation rivals Bristol City. This meant that with six games to go, they were six points clear of MK Dons who occupied the final spot in the bottom three.
Warnock’s men travelled south to face the Dons next in what was the most important game of their season. All their hard work could be undone with a defeat. To the relief of Rotherham fans, their team showed no sign of nerves at Stadium MK.
Derbyshire’s goal so soon after the kick-off helped matters, but the visitors always looked in control. Best, Kirk Broadfoot and Richie Smallwood added to their advantage as they earned a massive 4-0 win that all-but secured their Championship status…
Rotherham followed this up with three straight draws that mathematically secured their Championship status. There were no sombreros or pink champagne this time around, but this survival was no less satisfying.
After completing his task of keeping the Millers up, Warnock departed that summer. It was a shame that he did not stay. But what he did over this unforgettable 16-game stretch had already written his name into Rotherham United folklore.
What the Rotherham fans think of him…
Warnock took over at Cardiff City in October 2018. His sole aim was to earn a record-breaking eighth promotion as a manager.
Anyone foolish enough to doubt him were proven wrong at the end of the 2017/18 campaign. They finished runners-up that year to return to the Premier League after four years in the second tier.
They were relegated after one year and he left in November 2019. He took his sixteenth managerial job in June 2020 as he became the new Middlesbrough boss.
They were in relegation trouble when he took over, but he successfully guided them to safety. He has recently extended his stay at the Riverside until the end of the 2021/22 season.
Warnock clearly caught the Rotherham United bug while he was manager. He has been quick to help his old club out whenever he can, as he let Semi Ajayi and more recently Lewis Wing join the Millers.
Rotherham are a club that Neil holds close to his heart and after what he did in 2016, the Millers supporters will always be grateful to him as well…