It was another incredible game in Rotherham United’s crazy unbeaten run, a sold-out Yorkshire derby with a red-card injustice, a heroic fightback, a last-gasp penalty and a centre-half in goal.
Yet perhaps the most unthinkable scene of all occured when the final whistle had blown on the Millers’ 2-1 Championship win over Leeds United and former manager Steve Evans.
Greg Halford, scorer of the late spot-kick which took the Millers’ record to 16 points from a possible 18, stood alone in front of the North Stand applauding the home fans as thousands of pairs of hands on three sides of the ground showered their appreciation on him in unison.
This was the same Greg Halford who had stood alone in a very different way for much of the season, told he had no future at AESSEAL New York Stadium under a previous regime and provoking fury among supporters by making his feelings as an outcast known on social media.
If ever there was a moment to capture the effect manager Neil Warnock has had in his nine matches at the club, this was it. The messiah, the magician, the maestro, call him what you will as long as it begins with ‘m’, has turned Rotherham and their survival prospects upside down.
Six points adrift of safety towards the end of February, now five clear of the drop zone, after surely the most unlikely sequence of results in the club’s history.
The Millers led 1-0 at half-time, Lee Frecklington on hand in the 27th minute to steer home Joe Mattock’s cross from the left, and Richie Smallwood could have added to their lead with a 53rd-minute shot before the game erupted on the hour mark.
Matt Derbyshire challenged Gaetano Berardi in the air and his arm unwittingly caught the right-back. Referee Kevin Friend was giving a foul at worst before three things conspired to change his mind ... blood, Berardi and Bellusci.
The contact had opened up a cut on the head of Berardi, who banged the ground with his fist to overplay the incident, while centre-half Giuseppe was on hand, as always when there’s a hint of trouble, giving all concerned the benefit of his opinion.
Friend - influenced, I’m sure, by the severity of the wound - produced a card to match the colour of the spatter staining the Leeds man’s face.
Derbyshire, a genuine ‘100 per center’ with no history of violence, departed, crestfallen, to watch the rest of the match close to the West Stand hospitality area, trying to kick every ball and celebrating madly at the end.
Evans’ side had always been in the game and now they came knocking on a door Rotherham kept closing with unbelievable resilience.
Lee Camp, as good a shot-stopper as I’ve seen in the division this season, somehow turned Mirco Antenucci’s 70th-minute low effort round the post, and when the Millers keeper won a similar duel seven minutes later Joe Mattock produced a block on Stuart Dallas’ follow-up even more valiant than a first-half stunner from Stephen Kelly on Antenucci.
Eleven minutes from time, the Millers’ rearguard was finally breached as substitute Luke Murphy’s speculative effort from well outside the penalty box took a big deflection off Kirk Broadfoot to leave Camp stranded.
“Blacky (coach Kevin Blackell) said at half-time: ‘The only way I can see them scoring is a deflected goal’,” Warnock revealed. “I said: ‘Shut your mouth.’”
Evans was dead right when he said: “ I don’t think there’s a Rotherham United supporter who for one minute in that last 25 minutes thought they’d get another goal. Not for one minute.”
But fact is far stranger than fiction these days under Warnock, and Rotherham, unlike Murphy’s long-ranger, weren’t to be deflected.
They broke in the dying seconds, with Friend playing a wonderful advantage as Antenucci impeded Grant Ward. Danny Ward’s pace was too much for the visitors’ defence and Frecklington dredged up the desire to get alongside the sub striker, turning inside Marco Silvestri when the pass came - helped by a fluffed clearance from Bellusci - and drawing the foul from the Leeds keeper.
Silvestri was red-carded and Bellusci went in the net, waving his arms around even more than he had done prior to Derbyshire’s dismissal, only to see Halford wait for him to commit and then roll the ball nervelessly into the unguarded goal.
Cue Warnock: “At 1-1 with 10 men, I think most people would have snapped your hand off for a point, but we are not like that. It’s one story after another at the minute, isn’t it?
“We still haven’t achieved anything. We are a good group of lads with our feet on the floor.
“We are going to get hiccups between now and the end of the season, I know we will, but we have got such a good group I don’t think a hiccup will bother us the game after. You have got to scrap for every point and that is what we will be doing.”
Frecklington had ceded spot-kick duties to Halford at the behest of Warnock who was unaware the midfield man was the regular taker. It takes a big man to step aside. It also takes a big man to step up, as Halford must have known the repair job done on him and home supporters could have been compromised by a miss.
This was a huge result. No loss of momentum after the international break and proof that the Millers, after beating a clutch of promotion contenders, can produce against lesser opponents when there is more expectation on them.
The noisy Leeds contingent was silenced. With trips to survival rivals Bristol City and MK Dons coming up this week, it’s Rotherham and Warnock who go, gloriously, Marching on Together.
Evans, immaculately blue-suited and stones lighter than in his Millers days, was given a warm reception before kick-off on his first return.
“As an ex-manager coming back to a ground, you never know what reception you’ll get. I was touched when the whole ground went to their feet.” he said. “The result hurts me. I didn’t want to come back to Rotherham and lose.”
Warnock embraced Halford literally, seconds after New York had done it figuratively in such memorable style. The Gaffer hugged virtually all of his players, because this revival is about everybody, about how the team, the squad, the management, the fans, have become the Millers collective, a fighting force that doesn’t know when it’s beaten and is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Halford has thrived since being brought back into the fold, contributing as much as almost anybody, although maybe there’s one man who stands slightly above all the other heroes of a WWWDWW streak which has transformed the Millers from near-certainties for relegation to the team nobody wants to face.
He’s yet to taste defeat under Warnock, runs further than anyone, scored the crucial first goal here, somehow found the energy to play his part in those pivotal final moments and then selflessly stood down for a teammate to earn the kop’s acclaim.
A supporter on a Facebook fans’ group on Saturday night summed it up best. One picture of Mr Rotherham celebrating his goal, followed by three words and five exclamation marks ...
Legend!!!!! The end.
Rotherham United: (4-1-4-1): Camp 8; Kelly 8, Broadfoot 8, Doyley 8, Mattock 9; Halford 8; G Ward 7 (Richardson 90+3), Smallwood 7 (Newell 80), Frecklington 9, Derbyshire 7; Best 7 (D Ward 64, 8). Subs not used: Kenny, Wood, Thomas, Clarke-Harris.
Leeds United (4-4-2): Silvestri 5; Berardi (Murphy 74) 6, Bamba 9, Bellusci 6, Taylor 7; Diagouraga 7, Bridcutt 7, Mowatt 6 (Carayol 58, 6), Cook 6 (Dallas 58, 6); Antenucci 7, Wood 5. Subs not used: Peacock-Farrell, Coyle, Cooper, Adeyemi.
Goals: Frecklington 27, Halford pen 89 (Rotherham); Murphy 79 (Leeds).
Referee: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).
Attendance: 11,418 (2,311).