Millers face first genuine test of progress
Add the 17 points back on to last year's tally and we were one of the best teams in the League. Better than Gillingham, who went up via the play-offs. Only two teams won more games than us. And yet, and yet...
We didn't "feel" like one of the best teams, somehow. We were certainly competent, we were certainly hard to beat, but this nagging doubt was there. If we'd started on 0 points like everyone else, would we have amassed the same points tally? If we'd been at the top of league in the early stages, would more teams have come to Don Valley with the sole intention of defending (as Accrington did late on the season)? Did the fact that most people had us down to get relegated mean that teams came to DVS to win early on, and left themselves open? We did brilliantly well last year, but the season ended with the peculiar sensation that we didn't really know whether we were a good team or a run of the mill one.
The question still remains unanswered, certainly from the wins in the league.
Accrington are tipped by most pundits to struggle and, although we beat them, it was a tighter match than you'd expect from a team tipped for promotion against a team tipped for the drop. But, then again, Accrington have a small squad and teams with smaller squads tend to do ok early on before dropping off as injuries, fatigue and suspensions bite into their playing staff.
Grimsby were hopeless last year (retaining their league status thanks only to Luton's massive points penalty), but Newell has revamped his squad significantly over the summer. With the team still bedding down, it's hard to say if the mid-week win was good or not.
Rochdale, though, we can judge. They arrive with, by and large, the same squad that has been up and around the play-offs for the last few years. They have the same manager and the same approach. They'll play the same style of game.
Last season, the Rochdale came at DVS highlighted the conundrum on the pitch. We drew (thanks to a last minute Reid goal), but only after they were reduced to 10 men. Their passing was crisper, more focussed than ours was. Their willingness to retain possession and confidence to do so under pressure vastly exceeded ours. Sure, we had the character and the grit and the energy to keep at it until the 93rd minute, but they had poise and guile and we had (after a weak first half showing from Ryan Taylor) a punt upfield for Broughton to chase.
The distinction wasn't about aesthetics. Yes, neat passing football is easier on the eye, but direct football is at least as exciting, if played with energy and vigour. The distinction was that they made us play long ball stuff, because we couldn't keep possession as well as they could under pressure.
In other words, Rochdale were a decent side, who came to our home ground and dictated how the game went. For a side that's looking to combat a 17 point deduction by making sure it loses as seldom as it can, that's fine.
To transform that sort of side into promotion contenders, though, the roles have to be reversed. We have to dictate the game to Rochdale.
If we are to challenge for the top spots this season, we'll need all the grit and charater and solidity that we showed last year, but we'll also need some guile and inventiveness in our play. Sunday's match will give the first proper indication of how near, or far, we are from where we need to be.