IF there have been three better Saturday afternoon ‘occasions’ in League Two than the top trio experienced at New York Stadium this season, then I’d be very interested to know where they were!
The season’s opener against Burton and then the Bradford City game next up were both special, full-house affairs, and this one was right up there too - and, for many followers, perhaps topped the lot.
This local derby - with a nice ‘edge’ to the rivalry - got the big build-up and a near-enough full house with its packed away end to ensure a great atmosphere and a proper derby-day buzz.
Millers chairman Tony Stewart factored in the acoustics element when the ground was built. On days like this, it works!
It needed the game to match the occasion. It did, or certainly Rotherham’s performance did.
The players who have performed well and not so well in almost alternate measure were really on their game. If we expected Chesterfield to rise to the occasion then what we got was Rotherham most certainly doing so.
The Millers, particularly in the first hour or so, produced a quality of play befitting a full house and an eagerly-awaited game in which everything would be under close scrutiny.
They deserved to have put the game beyond Chesterfield’s reach well before half-time. The old myth about not playing well when there’s a big crowd certainly got booted into touch.
It was all Paul Cook’s side could do to hang on in there, often by their own doing but also by dint of Rotherham not matching their midfield work with a finishing flourish or by a rogue bounce in goalmouth scrambles.
Then, in the later stages as they chased the equaliser, the introduction of big Armand Gnanduillet added something to their attacking effort which hadn’t been apparent before. While they had no argument whatsoever at the defeat, Spireites followers will be going over again and again the two agonising near-misses in stoppage time including Gnanduillet’s last-gasp header which he somehow managed not to convert from point-blank range.
All that should not have mattered.
Rotherham began on the front foot and had Chesterfield on the back foot - and teetering on their heels as well.
With David Noble and Kari Arnason string-pulling with some real quality in midfield, Lee Frecklington joining in and Alex Revell having a ‘birthday’ in the air, the home fans knew pretty sharpish this was well up from some recent home performances.
Inside the first five minutes the lively Daniel Nardiello had struck a post from 20 yards and been close to finishing off a Revell cross. The pair combined with considerable effect and the number of times Rotherham got people in behind Chesterfield’s back four was a real concern for the Spireites.
They survived somehow, partly because Rotherham couldn’t finish but with things like some very important penalty-area interventions, particularly three crucial ones from Liam Cooper.
Tommy Lee also made a full-length save from Nardiello (who had ignored the unmarked Kearns) as the home crowd bayed for the goal the Millers’ play and pressure deserved.
The Spireites were having to live off scraps but Rotherham had a scare when a tremendous centre from Drew Talbot saw Claude Davis and Marc Richards go for it and the ball squirted away, being held on the line by Andy Warrington.
Richards should also have done better with a clear sight of goal after Johnny Mullins misjudged a long free-kick. He fired into the side netting. Diligent defending from Mullins deflected wide a typically sharp Lester effort.
But a goal was always more likely at the other end and Lester became Chesterfield’s saviour when, from a third successive corner, Arnason pounced on a loose ball but the veteran striker moved forward off goalpost duty to divert the effort wide.
When, in the first minute of the second half, Revell was sent rampaging clean away by Frecklington only to fire wide, the thought flickered across thousands of Millers brains that they might end up missing out here.
But on 57 minutes skipper Mullins stormed into the mixer to head home a Noble corner. His first goal for Rotherham this season but not of the season ... he also scored against Chesterfield whilst on loan at Oxford.
Had Sam Togwell finished his 16-yard chance two minutes later then Rotherham would have had it to do all over again.
The introduction of big Gnanduillet provided a physical challenge to the Millers defence they had not had before and, and as Lester trooped off, one wondered if Millers fans would never again have to worry about the ageing striker who first sank them with a hat-trick for Grimsby reserves at Millmoor many years ago.
Richards, even less effective than Lester had been, blazed an angled chance over as the visitors finally exerted some sort of pressure but danger was always apparent going the other way.
Rotherham may reflect, perhaps, that too often one or two dwelt in possession, taking too many touches as if they wanted to confirm their superiority that way. It cost them time and space and, as Chesterfield got eager to get the ball back to attack, possession. Even so, Lee had to pull out another top-drawer save from Nardiello.
Togwell thought he’d levelled with five to go but the offside flag had been up early. It came from a Gnanduillet knockdown.
In stoppage time Rotherham handed out two lifelines. Firstly, Noble went for skill over pragmatism near his own area and instead of a spot of welly ended up conceding a free-kick. From Conor Townsend’s wicked inswinger, Talbot’s header shaved the far post.
Then in the fifth minute (four had gone up), Jordan Slew had the ball out by the touchline deep in opposition territory but somehow shed possession. Within seconds, Rotherham were conceding a corner and Gnanduillet ended up flat out in the net wondering how his header hadn’t finished in there as well.
He’ll never get closer to being a match-saving hero than that until he is one! And Spireites will not get another 1-0 hiding like this!
*Hero: Johnny Mullins. Match-winners in local derbies usually are the heroes. He reckoned it went in off his nose and his shoulder but, whatever, his determination to get on the end of David Noble’s corner was clear. Lots of good Millers performances but when you win a local derby in front of a full house they’re all heroes.
*Key moment: It may well haunt big Armand Gnanduillet forever. A corner in the fifth minute of stoppage time and the last action of all - he charges in, makes headed contact about three yards out but not enough and the ball flashes wide and he ends up flat out in the net himself. He was still laid there when the final whistle went. Agonising.
*Remember this: You’d have to say the only goal but ponder the incident two minutes after the winner. It was Chesterfield’s first really clear-cut opportunity. It fell to Sam Togwell around 16 yards out and he shot wide of the near post when he should have hit the target - and his dismayed reaction said he knew he should have done better. An equaliser then ...
*Viewpoint: Rotherham needed this win to keep right in the thick of things for the top three. They demonstrated what quality they can bring to their game. Perhaps the first hour was their best yet at home. For Chesterfield, defeat may well have signalled the end of their play-off hopes. Outclassed at times, their rally in the final stages showed they have the spirit to battle on.