BY Vince Cooper
To some degree, calling Millmoor a ‘Gone Ground’ is incorrect as youth football is still occasionally played on the pitch to this day. But in professional football terms it became ‘Gone’ in 2008 when Rotherham United moved out, and into the New York Stadium.
Rotherham United FC were not formed until 1925, but the origins of the club lay 55 years before that with Millmoor coming into existence in the 1890s.
The first users of Millmoor were the Rotherham Church Institute team who played in the Sheffield Association League.
Thornhill Football Club started out in 1875 and during their early years they played in the Sheffield & Hallamshire League and were regarded as the town’s second biggest team behind Rotherham Town. At this time the team played their matches at the Red House Ground.
Rotherham Town spent three seasons in the second division (and were Liverpool’s first-ever opponents) before folding in 1896 after finishing 15th of 16th and failing to apply for re-election. This left Thornhill – who had by now added ‘United’ to their name – as the number one team in Rotherham.
By the turn of the century the Town name had re-emerged, with a club who had started as Rotherham FC becoming Rotherham Town (after also being Rotherham Athletic for a while). They began competing in the Midland League which they had won twice during their previous incarnation.
Meanwhile Thornhill United became Rotherham County in 1905 and two years later they moved to Millmoor.
The reason for leaving the Red House was that the ground did not meet regulations set by the F.A. for staging Cup ties. According to contemporary reports the pitch was ten yards longer on one side than the other.
The deal for Millmoor was originally a seven-year lease at £40 per annum. The club asked for volunteer help from the local community and the Midland Iron Company provided bricks and mortar to build a stand in return for tipping rights. By 1913, thanks mostly to the work carried out by the volunteers The Rotherham Advertiser was calling the new stadium ‘A paragon of what a football ground should be’.
Thornhill had joined their neighbours in the Midland League in 1903. The league was started in 1889 just a year after the Football League itself came into existence.
Clubs in the Midland League came from a wide area and included some of the reserve teams of Football League clubs as well as a number who would get elected to the Football League in due course, with some clubs who had failed to win re-election dropping down.
Rotherham County quickly became a leading force in the Midland League and won the competition four years running from 1912 to 1915,
When ‘official’ football resumed in 1919 the Football League expanded from 40 teams to 44 and County were one of the teams added to make up the new number. In their debut season they finished 17th out of 22 teams in the Second Division. Meanwhile Rotherham Town also tried to get into the league at the same time but their application was turned down.
Although they splashed out £1,000 on future Wales international Harry Millership when players from the former Leeds City were put up for auction in 1919 after the club were disbanded, County struggled both on and off the pitch during their early years in the Football League. Perhaps surprisingly the attendance record for Millmoor came in 1920 when 21,000 attended a match with local rivals Sheffield Wednesday. The club were relegated in 1922-23 along with Wolverhampton Wanderers to the Third Division (North).
A fourth-place finish the following year did little to hide the financial woes the club were enduring. In 1924-25 they hit a new low when finishing bottom of the Third Division (North) and they then merged with Rotherham Town to form Rotherham United.
Any good players that were found during this period were quickly sold to more financially stable rivals. A case in point was Jackie Bestall. The inside-forward made his debut for County in the 1924-25 campaign and was an ever-present the following season.
Halfway through the 1925-26 season, and shortly after Rotherham County became Rotherham United, Bestall was sold to Grimsby Town for whom he would make almost 500 appearances and also win an England cap at the age of 34. He has a street named after him in Grimsby and also a lounge at Blundell Park.
Jack Lambert; one game for the club
Centre-forward Jack Lambert also joined the club. He would later move on to Arsenal scoring in the Londoners’ 1930 F.A. Cup final win.
Lambert’s time at Rotherham was brief but noteworthy. During the 1922-23 season he joined Leeds and was included in their list of retained players for the following season. However, he started for Rotherham in their 2nd Division match against Bradford City scoring the winning goal.
This was his only appearance for the club as the F.A. decided he had no right playing for the them, fined Rotherham £25 and forced him to return to Leeds.
After the merger, the new club Rotherham United, successfully applied for a place in the Football League and began life in Division Three (North) where they would remain for 25 years. The new name did bring about some upturn in fortunes on the pitch as United went from 22nd to 14th in their first season but the following year they were back close to the re-election zone in 19th.
The club’s original colours were blue and yellow but after the merger they switched to black and gold and then, in 1928 to the red and white they have worn ever since. But the new colours brought about no improvement in form. They continued to dwell among the bottom clubs and after the 1933-34 season they were forced to (successfully) apply for re-election again after finishing 21st. There were a couple of flirtations with the upper reaches, including a 6th place in 1937-38, but it was mostly finishes towards the bottom.
During the 1930s independent greyhound racing was staged at Millmoor but it was a short-lived venture lasting a mere three years.
In the Second World War years, Football continued although matches were regionalised and many teams used soldiers based nearby as guest players. Rotherham won both the Third Division Cup and Division Three (East) just as the War was ending and used these successes after the conflict as a springboard to better times.
The 1946-47 season saw the club finish runners-up to runaway Division Three (North) winners Doncaster Rovers. This improvement came about mostly because of an amazing home record. The Millers went into the final home game of the season against Rochdale, with a tally of played 20, won 20. Sadly, they missed out on completing the season with a 100% record at Millmoor, by drawing that match 3-3 but still finished up scoring 81 goals while conceding just 19.
The leader of the revival, from the touchline, was Reg Freeman. Freeman had taken over as manager from Billy Heald in 1934 and would be at the helm for a total of 18 years. On the pitch it was Wally Ardron who led the way, scoring 38 times in 40 matches.
The success certainly brought the crowds along to Millmoor with the ground enjoying one of its most popular times.
Ardron would remain at the club until 1949 when he was sold to Nottingham Forest after scoring almost a century of goals for Rotherham. He did even better at the City Ground netting 123 times in 183 games.
Meanwhile Freeman led the club to two more second-place finishes, first to Lincoln City by a single point in 1947-48 and then Hull City in 1948-49 (when Ardron finished as the division’s top scorer). The departure of Ardron brought an end to the promotion challenge for a season as the club fell to sixth but in 1950-51 it all came right.
Jack Shaw had been spotted by the club while playing for Erdlington, Doncaster pit team Yorkshire Main Colliery. He was brought along slowly at first but once Ardron departed he became the club’s chief source of goals. In the 1950-51 season he scored 46 in league and cup, a club record, and the led the club to the title. The Millers scored 103 goals in the season and finished it seven points clear of runners-up Mansfield Town.
Shaw continued scoring; he would total 139 goals in 279 appearances for the club, and his goals helped them establish themselves in the second flight before he was sold to Sheffield Wednesday in 1953 as the club prospered despite the departure of long-time manager Freeman in 1952 to local rivals Sheffield United.
The summer of 1951 saw the first major work on the stadium since it had been expanded way back in 1920 as a new main stand was built.
Action from the shock win against Newcastle
Throughout this period, the Millers were never really thought of as a Cup team but the 1952-53 season brought some rare success in the F.A. Cup. By virtue of their position in the second tier, Rotherham were exempt from the competition until the 3rd Round. There they saw off Colchester United after a replay and when the draw for the 4th round was made they were given the daunting task of travelling to current holders Newcastle United.
The Magpies had won the competition for the two previous seasons and 54,356 turned up at St James’ Park with most, no doubt, fully expecting a comfortable home win. But the visitors had other ideas when, after falling a goal behind, they ran out 3-1 winners with two of the goals coming from England ‘B’ winger Jack Grainger.
Fans packed in at Millmoor
Sadly, the Millers couldn’t make further progress, falling 3-1 against another top flight club, Aston Villa at Millmoor in the next round in front of 19,964 fans.
Fans at the Aston Villa match
The club kept continuity after Freeman left, promoting long-time trainer Andy Smailes to take over.
Smailes had enjoyed a decent playing career with Newcastle United, Sheffield Wednesday and Bristol City before joining Rotherham’s playing staff in 1929 as a 33-year-old. He hung up his boots in 1932, left, the club and came back as trainer two years later.
In the 1954-55 season the club came as close as they have to making it into English football’s top flight. The Second Division that season was as tight as it’s ever been. Three teams finished the campaign level on 54 points and just two points separated the top five places. The three teams at the top were Luton Town, Birmingham City and Rotherham. Sadly for Millers’ fans, the other two went up due to a superior goal average.
Through the remainder of the 1950s the club held their place in the Second Division although most of these seasons saw the club battling against relegation. Smailes resigned as manager in 1958 and was replaced by former Peterborough, Nottingham Forest and Notts County player Tom Johnston.
The Scot was at the helm for almost five years. Although most of that time was spent battling relegation, Johnston was to lead the club to their greatest hour to date.
Johnston’s team showed in the 1959-60 F.A. Cup that they would prove a hard team to overcome in knockout competitions. Drawn against Arsenal in the 3rd round, the Millers’ chance seemed to have slipped away when they drew 2-2 at Millmoor. Against the odds they managed a second draw – 1-1 – at Highbury in front of almost 58,000 fans forcing a second replay at Hillsborough where they overcame the First Division giants 2-1. Unfortunately the next round was not so successful as they fell to Brighton & Hove Albion but they’d given notice that cup success was a possible and followed up on this in the following campaign.
In the 1960-61 season the Football League launched the League Cup to enable clubs to gain more revenue by staging midweek fixtures. By this time just about all grounds had floodlights installed and it appeared to make sense to utilise these facilities in midweek.
In the first years of the tournament some teams shunned it (participation wasn’t compulsory) and in its debut years 87 of the 92 league clubs took part with Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Spurs, West Brom and Wolves declining the invitation.
Rotherham entered the competition in the second round, having been given a bye in the first, and recorded a fine victory at Filbert Street downing hosts Leicester City 2-1. The third round draw brought a home tie against Bristol Rovers who were duly dispatched 2-0 to set up a last 16 visit to Bolton Wanderers. Another 2-0 win saw Johnston’s men reach the quarter-final.
Next up were Portsmouth at Millmoor and a 3-0 victory set up a two-legged semi-final with Shrewsbury Town. 13,337 saw an exciting home leg with the Millers running out 3-2 winners and they then managed a 1-1 draw in the return match to set up a final against Aston Villa, their Cup conquerors of eight years before.
Due to fixture congestion the final which like the semi was played over two legs, didn’t actually take place until August and September of 1961.
The first leg drew a crowd of 12,226 to Millmoor and goals from Barry Webster and Alan Kirkman in five second half minutes saw the Millers take a 2-0 lead and real hope into the second leg.
The return at Villa Park, in front of 31,202 supporters, was goalless for 67 minutes. Then Alan O’Neill struck for the home team. Rotherham barely had time to draw breath before Harry Burrows levelled things on aggregate at 2-2. The Millers held out for the last 20+ minutes to force extra time.
Action from the League Cup final second-leg
The visitors fought bravely in the extra period but Northern Ireland international Pete McParland grabbed the winner 11 minutes left to give Villa the inaugural League Cup and deny the visitors a first major trophy.
The Rotherham team that took part in the final was made up mostly of home grown players or cheap buys. One exception was inside-forward Don Weston. The Millers splashed out £10,000 to bring Weston from Birmingham City in 1960 and he scored 23 goals in two season before being snapped up by Leeds United boss Don Revie for £18,000.
Missing from the final line-up was one of the club’s best servants throughout the post-war period, and indeed in their history, Danny Williams. Born in South Yorkshire, Rotherham were Williams’ only pro club as a player. He arrived at Millmoor in 1945 and stayed for 21 years, making over 600 appearances in all competitions at either left-half or inside-left.
Towards the end of his playing career Williams took on the dual role as player-manager until, in 1965 he was lured away to take the manager’s role at Swindon Town. He would go on to lead the Wiltshire club to their finest hour, victory over Arsenal in the 1969 Football League Cup Final.
The 1963 line-up
The following season brought another decent League Cup run with wins over Darlington, Luton Town, Preston North End and Leeds United before falling at the quarter-final stage to Blackburn Rovers. Then two years later they again reached the last-eight stage before losing out to eventual finalists Stoke City.
This was just about the sum total of the good news for the Yorkshire club in the 1960s (a battling cup draw with Manchester United followed by a narrow single-goal replay defeat aside), and after Williams left, things went downhill culminating in relegation to the 3rd Division in 1967-68. This was during Tommy Docherty’s one-year reign. When the Scot left he said; “When I joined the club I promised I would take them out of the 2nd Division. I did – to the 3rd Division!”
In truth the ‘marriage’ of the flamboyant Docherty as manager and the financially frugal Purshouse family as owners was an unlikely one. Whilst fans were often agitated with the owners’ refusal to spend big in the hope that it might bring big rewards they were, at least, a stable club. It really did become a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ when United finally did get their ‘big-time’ owner!
In part two of our history of Millmoor and Rotherham United we’ll look at the ‘Anton Johnson years’ and how the Millers almost became a ‘Gone Club’