Rotherham take the positives where they can

The foot of the league table saw a small but significant event last weekend. While Tottenham Hotspur supporters fretted about scoring just two points so far this season, Rotherham United fans were celebrating finally moving onto one point after a 4-1 victory over Grimsby on Saturday.

This mean the Millers are the first of the three clubs in League Two – Bournemouth and Luton being the others – to eradicate the points deduction imposed on them at the start of the season for failing to agree a CVA to exit administration. Had Rotherham not been hit by the 17 point penalty, they would currently be 4th.

Reaching a positive points number is a significant step for Mark Robins’ men and provides something to celebrate for the long-suffering fans, who’ve had precious little to cheer about in previous seasons.

Landlord disputes

Rotherham’s financial troubles have overshadowed much of the past few seasons for the club. It was as recent as 2005 that the Millers were still in The Championship, but this summer, following an ongoing dispute with the landlords of Millmoor, the directors took the decision to abandon their spiritual home and move a few miles down the road and temporarily move into Sheffield’s Don Valley Athletics Stadium.

It’s really the Championship years, and the over-reliance on one source of income, that has been the Millers undoing. The club were brought by scrap and recycling businessman Ken Booth in 1987, when the club were also in administration. Booth provided much-needed cash to get the club on a steadier footing and after ten years of dipping between the bottom two divisions, Rotherham made back-to-back promotions and climbed into the Championship in 2001, where they were to stay for four seasons.

But football at a higher level also came with a higher wage bill and it was this started the crippling debt, the effects of which are still being felt today. In 2003, the 83-year-old Booth was at the helm of a club at the foot of the Championship, a near-unpayable wage bill and around £3m worth of debt.

Booth, looking to exit, wrote off the £3m and passed the club over to local solicitor Peter Ruchniewicz, even lending the new chairman over half a million to start his tenure. But this came at a price. The Booth family kept ownership of Millmoor and wrote in several perks, including VIP tickets for home and away games, first pick on cup tickets, free use of the club’s physio, plus advertising at key points around the ground. The new owners had to continue paying rent to the Booths.

The Millers continued to flounder, though, both on and off the pitch and they were relegated in 2004 with still mounting debts – at this point Rotherham United were estimated to be losing around £140,000 a month.

Soon afterwards, local businessman Denis Coleman took over the club and immediately set about addressing the financial problems, nt helped by the fact the club had no tangible assets. After frantic fundraising to plug the funding gaps – including much bucket-rattling at the nearby Sheffield teams – United and Wednesday – the short-term future of the club was secure and soon after taking over, Coleman managed to negotiate a CVA with the creditors.

While this meant that many of the non-footballing creditors, bar the Inland Revenue, wrote off large chunks of their debt, the Booth family were a special case. The rent was renegotiated and a condition of the CVA was that the benefits enjoyed by the Booths were retained.

It’s these continued benefits that have hampered Rotherham in recent years, with many potential buyers put off by the fact Millmoor is still owned by the family and their insistence the benefits be a condition of any sale.

After the Booths threatened court action this summer – and with still growing financial problems that saw Rotherham come within minutes of being liquidated – the Millers took the decision it would be cheaper to leave Millmoor for the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield rather than continue to pay the Booths rent.

A pressing need for a return of Rotherham

The past year has been especially difficult for Rotherham United, with Coleman’s first CVA – and the ongoing costs from the rent at Millmoor – failing to clear the debt which, if anything, got considerably worse, meaning a second spell in administration was necessary.

This move saw Coleman become the first, and only, person to be banned from club directorship under the FA’s fit and proper person test. Under the rules, a director who oversees two insvolvencies at a club receives an automatic ban. This doesn’t take into account Coleman took over an ailing club, with financial problems that were no fault of his, and took the only viable option open to him as chairman by entering into a CVA.

Meanwhile, the start of this season and the temporary move to Don Valley was not going any smoother. Firstly, the League imposed a 17 point deduction, with no right of appeal, for failing to satisfy the rules for clubs entering administration. The club was given around 24 hours to accept this decision or be thrown out of the league.

Next, because of what it deemed ‘exceptional circumstances’, the League set out several conditions of Rotherham’s future in the Football League. One of these was that the club had to pay a £750,000 bond to play at the Don Valley Stadium. Given that, over the past four years, Rotherham have been one of the poorest and most financially troubled clubs in the country, this extra cost did nothing to help the Millers’ finances.

On top of this, the club had to promise they would return to Rotherham, where the council is building a new community stadium is being built, within four years or risk being expelled from the League. Of all the punishments, this one seems the most bizarre.

The Don Valley Stadium may be in Sheffield, but the distance is barely five miles from their old home of Millmoor. Why it should be such a concern that the Millers return to Rotherham within four years, especially considering the costs of building a new stadium in this current economic climate, seems entirely arbitrary.

This is the same League that seems unconcerned by the rise of out-of-town stadiums springing up around the country as if they were going out of fashion, and the same League that gave the green light for Wimbledon to make the considerably longer – and permanent – relocation to Milton Keynes. How this is ok under League rules, but Rotherham’s temporary move to Don Valley isn’t, makes no sense whatsoever.

Back to on-the-pitch matters

Happily, Rotherham haven’t let matters off-the-field distract the footballing side of business and despite starting on minus 17, Mark Robins’ team have swiftly fought back into positive numbers, playing some great attacking football, combined with a very solid defence.

The Millers have been in impressive form this season, recording just one loss – a last minute goal away at Chesterfield – and have knocked Championship sides Wolves and Southampton out of the Carling Cup. Their 4-1 victory over Grimsby on Saturday has taken them to within two points of the Mariners, who’ve had a disasterous start to the season with just two victories – in the Carling Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy respectively – to show for their efforts.

Indeed, if new boss Mike Newell can’t turn matters around at Grimsby, they may find themselves being caught by another of the points deduction trio, Bouremouth, who sit 11 points behind the Mariners on -8.

Meanwhile, if Rotherham keep up this form, they may yet find themselves challenging for the playoffs. Were they to reach this, you suspect their plight would attract considerably more sympathy than Leeds, who fought back from a 15 point deduction last year to reach the League One play-off final.

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