Let’s face it – and I’ve said it often enough – this Rotherham team keep surprising us. A joint 3rd finish in the League (OK it was 4th but that sounds better!), exhilarating football, beating local rivals fair and square, giving Champions Wolves a scare in a 10-goal thriller – there have been many highlights this season after which most onlookers might have said ‘Yeh but they’ll fall away soon’.
Steve Evans has been sure to tell us that there are naysayers amongst League One managers that think we’re not good enough for the Play-offs. I’ve been guilty of a bit of pessimism at times, wondering whether the latest away day triumph will be our last. And I confess to having looked at the play-off finalists and thinking ‘Whatever happens it’s been a good season’. But now I’m beginning to believe we might just have enough in our locker to prevail. I know I don’t speak for all Millers fans but it’s about time we put any doubts to the back of our minds and let the intoxicating and unwavering spirit that our lads have in abundance rub off on us.
It’s ‘half-time’ in the Millers’ semi-final Play-off campaign with Preston North End, and though the teams are evenly matched after a pulsating 1-1 draw, there are plenty of positives we can take from Saturday evening.
The nerves were jangling aplenty when we took our seats at a raucous Deepdale. The Lilywhites, despite losing at Crewe on the last day, had warmed up nicely for this 1st leg with a few goal-laden home games, including a 6-1 and a 5-2 against relegated Carlisle and Shrewsbury respectively. The Twitter feeds were buzzing with the news that League One Player of the Month for April Kieran Agard was not in the match-day 18. Neither side had given an inch in the two league games with both finishing as draws – therefore the first goal in this tie you felt could be crucial. Wes Thomas kept his place after grabbing a brace at Swindon.
The tension in the ground was palpable as the teams kicked off, and this transferred onto the pitch in the early stages. Possession changed hands frequently and any quality on display was taking a while to show itself. It was Rotherham though who gradually got a grip of the game as they started to get hold of the ball in the middle and cause the home side some problems. It was a trademark lightening counter attack that led to the opener though as Ben Pringle collected a ricochet and lobbed the ball towards Alex Revell. The no. 9 flicked it on but inexplicably ran after it (for possibly the first time this season) leaving Jack King for dead and with all the confidence in the world slammed it under the dive of Declan Rudd. 11 goals now then for big Alex who, when he does score, celebrates like he’s won the World Cup – and good on him!
Revell’s goal came at a key moment as the natives were getting restless, and it was a terrific solo effort fitting for the Sky Sports cameras – except that, as has been well-documented – Joe Garner decided to go one better. In the first half, Rotherham had nullified any threat North End possessed up front with Garner and ex-Barnsley forward Craig Davies feeding off scraps. An onslaught was expected in the second 45 minutes with Preston kicking towards their home fans and it duly came. But no clear-cut chances had been carved out until Garner took a high ball on his chest, flicked it over Kari Arnason and curled an outrageous and ferocious volley into the net leaving Adam Collin with no chance. Out of nothing, a goal of the season contender had broken down our stubborn resistance.
Such a goal would lift any team and the worry was that they would add to their tally and put the game out of sight. But this Millers team doesn’t lie down, it rolls its sleeves up. Much of Preston’s threat was coming down from the flanks usually through Gallagher – but even then James Tavernier, moving to right-back after Richard Brindley had his semi-final cut short, had been terrific in closing down Gallagher’s space on the left, forcing him to come inside and cross with his right foot nearly every time. Their wonder goal aside, PNE were restricted to very few chances of note with grey shirts swamping the man in possession and always looking to turn for the counter. Considering we had our top-scorer out and many were playing out of position as injuries piled up, this has to be a cause for optimism – the squad has depth in each position and the togetherness and will-to-win runs right through the camp.
Thomas had played like he had been up top with Revell all season, and was easily my man of the match, always proving a willing runner and linking up well with Lee Frecklington and Pringle. It was Thomas’s through ball that led to our best chance to win it when he set up Frecklington for a one-on-one chance you would expect him to gobble up. His bad touch meant the keeper could parry it away and Lee’s stretch for the ball led to him hobbling off early. Claude Davis replaced him and did a sterling job marking the minimal danger posed by an out-of-sorts Kevin Davies – and by keeping himself on the pitch (!). Rob Milsom had been very steady in midfield helping to stunt any build-up of attacks from deep and almost grabbed himself a goal after a flowing 4-man move. Haris Vuckic also demonstrated his growing reputation by showing some clever flicks and forcing Rudd into a late save.
So it was all smiles in the away end after another spirited gutsy away display from the Millers. If I was a Preston fan though I’d be disappointed by my team’s showing. A near-capacity crowd, at full-strength and no advantage to show for it ahead of a trip to New York Stadium. PNE’s away form has been patchy at best since March and Rotherham have been unbeaten at home since the turn of the year. So plenty to feel chipper about, even if the place will be a bag of nerves.
Evans of course is doing all he can to take the pressure off his team. Ahead of the Deepdale trip the mantra was ‘we are rank underdogs’ and now the word is that half our first team are doubtful to make the squad. Agard is still struggling, Frecklington has a knee injury, Pringle and Adams are unlikely to feature. Is this true or is he trying to wind up Simon Grayson? Who knows. But whichever way, this team works best when the chips are down. Believe.
Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger
Michael tweets at @mikew_83