Football / FA Cup Countdown: Millers ready to grind down Newcastle: Magpies will test the Rotherham and their manager's philosophy - Derick Allsop meets Phil Henson the Rotherham manager who pits his wits against Kevin Keegan in the FA Cup tomorrow

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The Independent Online
PHIL HENSON has pursued a football career in relative anonymity since he played a walk-on part in one of the most famous dramas ever to unfold on Old Trafford's stage. Few may recall the willowy youngster who appeared as a substitute for Manchester City during a derby against United in 1974. More vivid in the memory is the final act of the man he replaced, Denis Law. The Scot's instinctive, back-heeled goal condemned his former club to relegation.

Still willowy, and none too ravaged by the passage of the interim years, Henson is quietly shaping the destiny of Rotherham United. Again almost unnoticed by the world outside, he was given the manager's job two years ago and although he could not save them from the inevitable plunge to the old Fourth Division, he brought them straight back up and has raised hopes of another promotion challenge this season.

Tomorrow, however, the exploits of Henson and his 'Merry Millers' will be scrutinised from way beyond the borders of what he dutifully refers to as the 'republic of South Yorkshire'. Rotherham meet Kevin Keegan's Premier League-bound Newcastle United in the FA Cup. At stake is a place in the fifth round, which would equal the club's best performance in the competition, a financial bous and national recognition.

Millmoor's usual attendance will be trebled to a capacity 13,100. Newcastle will have 4,500 supporters present, and another 15,500, who applied in vain, disappointed back on Tyneside. Tickets are changing hands at pounds 50 each on the black market and fans have been warned about possible forgeries.

Henson, a softly spoken, dignified man, is philosophical about the attention his team is suddenly receiving. 'You have to accept the way things are,' he said. 'Big clubs and big names, such as Kevin Keegan, get the attention all the time. That's fair enough. We just hope to do ourselves justice on the day and earn some of the attention.'

He is a little sterner when you question what might attract players to this club and this town sidestepped by the M1. 'We have an excellent set-up here,' he said. 'We have a nice, tidy ground and facilities probably better than any Premier League club have.'

Henson's description of Rotherham's training HQ, seven miles from Millmoor, sounds like a blurb from a holiday brochure: rural setting, five pitches, hotel and restaurant. All this thanks to the benevolence of the club's chairman, Ken Booth, whose family name and wealth were made from scrap.

If Rotherham progress in the Cup, money may be made available to reinforce the squad, but in these recessionary times Henson does not bank on it.

Rotherham has not always had such unassuming or pragmatic leaders. The last time they reached the fifth round, 25 years ago, their manager was Tommy Docherty. The Doc's successors have included Ian Porterfield, Emlyn Hughes and Norman Hunter. The club also experienced the eventful and traumatic stewardship of Anton Johnson.

Henson ended his playing career, at Rotherham, 10 years ago and made an effective switch to coaching the youth and reserve teams. He proved a similar success working with the young players at Sheffield United and eventually returned to Millmoor.

His squad is a familiar blend of experience and youth. The captain and centre-forward is the Jamaica-born Tony Cunningham, formerly of Lincoln, Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday, Manchester City, Newcastle, Blackpool, Bury and Bolton.

Adding to an exotic cocktail is Shaun Goater, a Bermudan international who failed to make the grade with Manchester United. He also failed to take his chances in the Autoglass Trophy tie against Wigan Athletic earlier this week, and Rotherham ultimately lost in a penalty shoot-out.

Even so, Keegan's assistant, Terry McDermott, will have noted the deceptive potency of Goater's languid skills, the left-wing menace of Dean Barrick, the explosive shooting of midfield player Ian Banks, the aerial efficiency of centre-half Nigel Johnson and the shot-stopping competence of goalkeeper Billy Mercer. He will also have recognised their vulnerability to the swift break and cross, and be encouraged by a pitch both flat and green, though sodden underneath due to heavy recent rain.

Henson said: 'The Autoglass Trophy was realistically our best chance of going to Wembley, but I've no doubts we can lift ourselves again for this one. The atmosphere will be tremendous. We'll play as Rotherham United usually play, not in a way just designed to stop Newcastle. We like to play football but we can mix it - play a bit of longer, faster stuff if it suits.

'Our priority has to be the League, but I'm not pretending we shouldn't enjoy this. I would be disappointed if a long Cup run caused a drop-off in our League form, but you can't think like that. All players and managers want to be involved and win as much as they can.

'A tie like this does for me, as a manager, because you like to see your players progress and pit themselves against the top teams. We had a great night when we beat Everton in the home leg of a Coca-Cola Cup tie early in the season, but this is the FA Cup and the occasion is far bigger.'

If Rotherham pull it off, perhaps Denis Law's understudy will at last get the rave reviews those close to his work believe he is long overdue.

(Photograph omitted)