The Rotherham United manager Alan Knill is well accustomed to challenges. When Wales were suddenly short of defenders and he was called up from the Swansea City squad for his only international appearance against the Netherlands, 18 years ago, he found himself marking Marco van Basten - no small ask for an individual who concedes that he was never much more than a "head it, kick it" centre-half. The Dutchman was marked out of the game in a 0-0 draw.
But tasks like that pale into insignificance compared with those which have been punted Knill's way during his initial 11 months in first-team management. The 42-year-old had been in the hot seat at Rotherham United for just two months when, on the eve of an away trip to Southend in February, he learnt from his chairman that liquidation was inevitable if the club had not found a buyer inside six weeks. To survive, Rotherham promptly went into administration and prepared for the automatic 10-point deduction which that now brings. It fell upon Knill to decide whether they should take that penalty immediately, confirming what at the time seemed like inevitable relegation, or gamble on a great escape and take the hit at the start of the 2006-07 season.
"It wasn't a decision I wanted anything to do with," Knill recalls in his sparse office at Millmoor, overlooking the half-built stand which the club may one day have the money to complete. "How the hell do you call that one?" He decided that he might as well keep the 10 points for now and try to stay up, even though he had guided the side to a solitary win since taking over from Harford, whose 17-match run without one presaged his exit from Millmoor, last December. The gamble went to the last Saturday when the Millers managed a point at home against MK Dons. Other results went their way and League One survival was preserved.
Now, Knill's strategy is suddenly starting to look like an inspirational one. Despite an exodus of nine players who did not fancy the prospect of reduced salaries to meet a necessary £800,000 cut in the club's budget for this season, he has guided the Millers to 19th (sixth bottom) of the League One table and 17 points. The 27 points that would have constituted without administration would have them in a play-off position and Knill's efforts have just been rewarded with the League's Manager of the month award for October.
"We liked the challenge. It gave us a focus," Knill says of the -10 starting tally which had United chalked as 2-1 favourites for the drop among some bookies, pre-season. But he certainly did not feel the same way back in June when, after marrying his partner, Deborah, he headed off to Majorca for a week's honeymoon and waited for some calls from some of the players he was trying to sign.
"I only had seven pros on my books and no one would sign for us," he recalls. "After two and a half days on the beach out there I'd been on the phone non-stop so I decided to head back to Rotherham." The marriage, at least, seems to have stood up to this early test.
The message from the agents was loud and clear in those gloomy pre-season days. "It was, 'We'll get back to you' and you'd never hear from them again," says Knill. "If we could just get them through the door we knew it would be OK."
Eventually, he talked to Richie Partridge, a 25-year-old former Liverpool trainee who had not really made it at nearby Sheffield Wednesday and who fitted the target of 20-26-year-olds ("athletic enough to get around the pitch but not so so young they'd be daunted by the prospect") he wanted to sign for the struggle ahead. Partridge signed and so, in quick succession, did the striker Delroy Facey from Tranmere, the midfielder Justin Cochrane (Crewe), the midfielder Martin Woods (Sunderland) and the former Bayern Munich midfielder Eugen Bopp (Nottingham Forest). All were struggling for a first-team place and were promised resurrection by a manager who - unlike the revered Ronnie Moore, who earned United successive promotions from the old Third Division to the First Division in 2000 and 2001 - is renowned as much for his coaching, as for his match strategies. The signings have performed well.
The players say it is hard to put a finger on why Knill - whose playing career as a journeyman defender took him from Southampton to Halifax, Swansea, Bury and Scunthorpe before Moore signed him in 1997 - pulled them aboard, but his passion for the club and their survival clearly had something to do with it. When the Millers were losing £140,000 a month and owed £500,000 to the Inland Revenue last season, there was no shortage of bucket-rattling to be done and this introduced Knill to what a club really mean to their followers.
"Being a footballer, you don't see what Saturday means to people," he says. "But suddenly I was at cheque presentations left, right and centre. I collected one after we'd just got stuffed 4-1 at home to Chesterfield. I was expecting a battering but they just handed over £300 and told me to carry on doing things my way. They ended up raising £1,000."
Knill's own fund-raising efforts included a charity game against inmates at Doncaster prison. Other clubs chipped in, including Sheffield United, who donated the income from their screening at Bramall Lane of a city derby, and the fans of Southend United, whose refusal to pay £120,000 for Millers midfielder Jamal Campbell-Ryce was the start of the club's troubles.
Rotherham's short-term future has also now been secured through its acquisition by a local property developer, Dennis Coleman, and an Italian restaurant owner, Dino Maccio.
After that, the August League table seemed a minor local difficulty. "When you start on minus 10 you just try not to look at the League table," Knill says. "We knew that if we lost the first five we would probably be finished."
Knill's side seemed precisely that after defeats in their first two games. But consecutive wins over Blackpool and Scunthorpe steadied the nerves, on 16 September they celebrated their first "point", after a 0-0 draw at home to Doncaster and a 5-1 thrashing of Crewe on 28 October saw them off the bottom. Fittingly, it is young Will Hoskins, a striker developed in the Rotherham youth team that Knill had managed, who has captured the most plaudits with 10 League goals.
The club are not out of the woods, financially. A new director Giles Brearley, a chartered accountant, revealed this week that the cash drain on the club remained "at a level [we] struggle every month to meet." A £25,000 stamp duty demand has not helped. It is difficult to avoid the impression that an early FA Cup exit at Peterborough suits Knill, who still has the rest of his mountain to climb. "I've said from day one that if we finish fifth bottom we've achieved our goal," he says. "That still stands."Reuse content