Make no mistake, Norwich City, with their top-flight tradition, parachute payments and massive fan base, are a big, big football club.
The train on the way down to Carrow Road had started filling up with yellow and green from as far out as Ely and, as Canaries fans near me reminisced about past highs and lows, the talk was of Manchester United and Old Trafford, Chelsea and Stamford Bridge or the day Arsenal came to town in last season’s Premier League campaign.
No mention of Accrington Stanley, Rochdale or Barnet, which is who Rotherham United were campaigning against in League Two just two seasons ago.
Yet on this rain-lashed October afternoon the Millers went head to head with the team who are setting the pace at the top of the Championship and came agonisingly close to toppling them.
There were just 13 minutes of the regulation 90 to go when Norwich managed to snuff out the lead Steve Evans’ men had taken during a crazy end to the first half and then battled, heroes to a man, so hard to hold on to.
There was effort, commitment and an unbending refusal to yield that was a privilege to watch. Ben Pringle, who had simply never stopped running, and Richard Brindley, a surprise inclusion at right-back as Frazer Richardson was moved into midfield, could barely raise a jog as they were substituted so much had they given to the cause.
“We’ve done it all season, to be fair,” boss Evans said. “We’ve given a shift every week. We’ve come here and worked extremely hard against a side just packed with quality. They’re bringing lads off the bench who make me blink twice, but that’s what you get when you’re at a club like Norwich City.
“I thought everyone on the pitch and everyone who went on the pitch gave us everything we’ve asked. We’ve always said if they haven’t got the quality, we’ll manage them out. But if they’ve got the quality to go with the desire they have, it always gives us a chance.”
Rotherham matched their illustrious hosts from the start and should have taken the lead in the ninth minute when a training-ground move almost worked to perfection as Pringle delivered his usual quality ball to the back post from a free-kick. Lee Frecklington moved away from the danger area, importantly taking a marker with him, while Craig Morgan came arcing round in the opposite direction into the free space and planted his header back across goal for Matt Derbyshire to tap in.
Only he didn’t. Somehow his feet fluffed their lines and the contact almost on the goalline was tame and mistimed enough for Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy to gratefully save.
Bradley Johnson and Cameron Jerome missed for the home side before Derbyshire’s moment came again. Pringle delivered from the left and the striker’s good control left him with the goal and Ruddy at his mercy. Inexplicably, he chose to play the ball back across the penalty area.
Where are you, Derbyshire? Where are you? Let’s be ’aving you, as a tipsy City owner, Delia Smith, might say.
Derbyshire duly obliged. In the 43rd minute, his movement took him on to Frazer Richardson’s long ball, and the Canaries shot-stopper made a right Ruddy mess of his defending, taking out the Rotherham man at head height.
Penalty, and up stepped Paul Green to send Ruddy the wrong way and the travelling Millers faithful into raptures.
How quickly games can turn at this level. Richardson’s pass to send Derbyshire away had been the result of a breakout by the Millers after Adam Collin produced an unbelievable triple save. He dived to claw away Rotherham old boy Lewis Grabban’s header, looked to get a touch to help Kari Arnason block Jerome’s follow-up effort and then somehow kept out Jerome’s second attempt while he was still on the floor. I still don’t know how the ball didn’t go in.
The Canaries are the only club for 40 miles around in their picturesque part of the world. Their catchment area is huge and, just like at Derby County on opening day, this felt like a major footballng occasion. There was a 26,000-plus crowd, close to a sell-out. It was loud, vociferous. Norwich wanted to cement their position at the top of the table. The Millers wanted more points to confirm their emerging influence in the second tier. This mattered.
Predictably, the home side came at Rotherham in the second half. Grabban twisted, turned and fired a shot across goal but, under increasing pressure, the Millers defence, with Craig Morgan setting a true captain’s example, were in no mood to give way.
Possession and territory were now with the home side, but the Millers refused to lie down. Limbs may have been tiring but there was no let-up in application and desire as a sweet Alex Revell ball played in Derbyshire who whipped his shot just wide then Lee Frecklington was fuming with himself as he fired over after a great passage of play. The rain was still bouncing down and he had a face like thunder.
Home sub Kyle Lafferty’s deflected shot hit a post, Johnson’s shot brought another fine save from Collin who then palmed over Martin Olsson’s effort as the home fans roared on their side.
Ironically, the goal came after two of the Millers’ best efforts of the half, Morgan’s header from Paul Green’s corner being cleared off the line and sub Jonson Clarke-Harris shooting wide.
Kari Arnason has barely put a foot wrong this season, but the referee harshly decided his hand had erred, awarding Norwich a 77th-minute free-kick from which Lafferty, a lively customer coming off the bench, hit a post, with Jerome on hand to poke in the rebound as it shot across goal.
“It’s not a free-kick. We’ve had a look briefly at what the analyst has knocked up afterwards. It’s not a free-kick,” Evans complained. “He’s tried to flick it by Kari Arnason. Kari’s arms are straight by his side from two yards away.
“But, by the same token, I thought at first sight that John Ruddy should go for pulling down Matt Derbyshire. I’ve had another look at that. He shouldn’t go. There’s a covering defender and perhaps Derbs isn’t going to tap it in as simply as we think.”
It was all Norwich attacking after that, countered by all Millers heart. There were scrambles, a couple of shots and two shouts for spot-kicks rightly turned down but Rotherham stood firm.
That’s four points from three matches, two of them away, against Ipswich, Blackburn and the Canaries, all former Premiership teams. Yet that driven achiever, Evans, wasn’t content afterwards, an attitude which might just explain why his side have managed to garner that number in the first place.
“I don’t think we’ve had the points we deserved,” he said. “If you take away the first six minutes from Ipswich last week (2-0 defeat), we’re absolutely dominant and the best side. I think we deserved to beat Blackburn in midweek and it could have been more. Today, I think a draw is probably a fair result.”
The green and yellow was muted on the way back, and well before Ely a few members of the red and white army, who had needed no call-out from Delia during the game to back their team to the hilt, were in fine voice as they cracked open the cans.
They were at it for a good while, but eventually peace was restored as their efforts just about dribbled out as we approached Peterborough.
Unlike the Millers players, who stuck at it so memorably from start to finish.
Hero: Tempted to say everyone, but Craig Morgan towered just above other worthy contenders. Seemed to win everything in the air and on the ground. Nothing got past him, and he so nearly scored as well.
Key moment: Adam Collin’s amazing saves, with the help of Kari Arnason, in a mad goalmouth scramble seconds before the Millers took the lead towards the end of the first half. Kept his side in the game at a crucial time.
Manager’s view: Steve Evans: “We always felt from three o’clock that on the counter-attack if we kept our quality we could get in behind them and we could hurt them. I think we did that on a number of occasions. In the second half, as much as the stats will show they had a lot of the ball, when you’re playing a counter-attacking system and you see the likes of Jonson-Clark Harris, Jordan Bowery, Matt Derbyshire and Morgs all have good chances for us, it tells you that you’ve worried them a little bit.”
Neil Adams: “At the minute there is very little, if anything, wrong with the performances we are producing. We have totally dominated the game. I am frustrated and disappointed.”
There was disappointment in the Rotherham camp they hadn’t hung on for the win. But this was a fabulous draw against a team Steve Evans thinks will be champions. Hands up who’d have taken a point beforehand? That’s everyone then.
Ref watch: Phil Gibbs (West Midlands). Had a good game, calling the Rotherham penalty correctly and righly refusing to be swayed by a baying home crowd who twice wanted spot-kicks late on. Blotted his copybook with the free-kick award against Kari Arnason which led to the equaliser.
Goals: Green pen 44, Jerome 77.
Norwich City: Ruddy 6, Johnson 8, Martin 7, Turner 7, Grabban 6, Howson 7, Jerome 7, Hooiveld 7 (Murphy 75), Hoolahan 7 (Lafferty 64, 7), Redmond 7, Olsson 7. Subs not used: Rudd, Whittaker, Tettey, O’Neil, Odjidja-Ofoe.
Rotherham United: Collin 9, Brindley 7 (Bowery 71), Morgan 9, Arnason 8, Skarz 7, Richardson 7, Green 7, Frecklington, 7 Pringle 8 (Clarke-Harris 66), Revell 7, Derbyshire 6 (Wordsworth 78). Subs not used: Loach, Hall, Taylor, Rowe.