Ninety-five minutes of thrilling effort was undone in a matter of seconds as brave, battling Rotherham United departed the Capital One Cup in the second round at home to Premier League Norwich City.
The Millers, turning in their best home performance of the season, gave their top-flight visitors a huge scare before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat they simply didn’t deserve
The Canaries had hardly merited their crucial second goal, which came in the 68th minute after they’d whethered sustained pressure from the home side.
Substitute Paul Green pulled a goal back with 10 minutes remaining to set up a grandstand yet ultimately fruitless finish at AESSEAL New York Stadium
But minds kept doing back to the 22nd minute when the Millers should have gone into the lead only to see Alex Neil’s side sweep straight down the pitch to open the scoring.
It was the crucial moment in the game.
There were second-half chances galore for the Millers. Count them - Greg Halford’s header on to to the bar, Joe Newell’s follow-up piledriver brilliantly saved by Declan Rudd and Emmanuel Ledessma’s shot on the turn just wide.
Matt Derbyshire’s 20-yard shot over a completely open goal, Derbyshire’s bending effort which brought another stunning Rudd stop and Green’s header over late on when he so needed to hit the target.
But the damage had been done in that first-half snap-shot of cup cruelty rounded off so well by Norwich’s Johnny Howson.
Great skill from Chris Maguire released Grant Ward whose pinpoint cross from the right was met by Jonson Clarke-Harris right in front of goal.
Rudd produced an instinctive save, but the in-form Millers striker’s should have scored with his free header.
The Canaries went straight down the pitch and Howson controlled the ball on the edge of the area before firing a trademark low shot across Adam Collin and into the Millers keeper’s bottom right-hand corner.
The last time these two sides met at AESSEAL New York Stadium, in another pulsating game in April, former Millers man Lewis Grabban was sent off early on for aiming a sly punch into the stomach of Rotherham skipper Craig Morgan.
Grabban was absent on this occasion, the subject of interest from AFC Bournemouth, but the Canaries had found another way to take the wind out of Rotherham.
To their credit, the home side, who saw midfielder Lee Frecklington substituted in the 16th minute after over-stretching in a tackle, held their nerve, regrouped and fought back to give the Premier League as much trouble as they could handle.
Clarke-Harris, continuing where he left off against QPR last Saturday, was a real threat throughout the game and his first-time opportunist strike from 16 yards in the 32nd minute brought another good stop from Rudd.
Ledesma had earlier broken through the Norwich defence, Rudd parrying his 20-yard effort with Lewis Buxton unable to turn in the rebound.
The Canaries, showing eight changes to the side that drew 0-0 with Stoke last Saturday, added their second against the run of play in the 68th minute, £8.5 million striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel touching home only his second goal in English football after a cross by Andre Wisdom.
Rotherham boss Steve Evans had made only two changes to the side which had lost 4-2 at QPR last Saturday.
Collin was given his first chance of the season to impress in goal, while Frazer Richardson, usually a right-back, came in on the left to cover for the injury absence of Joe Mattock, allowing danger man Newell to move further forward.
Collin was solid and pulled off a couple of good saves.
Opposing bosses Evans and Neil have become good pals as they work towards their UEFA Pro Licence coaching qualification together, and there was a warm embrace between the pair at the end.
The managers will have agreed it was Rotherham’s misfortune that they should run into a keeper at the other end on a night when he was in such inspired form.
Norwich had chances of their own, although not on the scale of those created by Rotherham’s all-out second-half assault
The fact that Evans described Rudd’s display as the best goalkeeping performance he’s ever seen at New York tells you all you need to know about proceedings last night.
Rotherham (4-4-2): Collin, Buxton, Halford, Collins, Richardson; Frecklington (Maguire 16), G Ward (Green 76), Newell, Ledesma (White 76); Clarke-Harris, Derbyshire. Subs not used: Roos, D Ward, Rawson, Thorpe.
Norwich (4-4-1-1): Rudd; Wisdom, R Bennett, Bassong, Toffolo; Odjidja, O’Neil, Dorrans (E Bennett 80), Johnson; Howson (Andreu 74); van Wolfswinkel. Subs not used: Ruddy, Whittaker, Martin, Redmond, Thompson.
Goals: Howson 22, van Wolfswinkel 68 (Norwich); Green 80 (Rotherham).
Referee: Kevin Wright (Merseyside).
Attendance: 5,648 (1,029).