“Gimme a draw now,” I heard a Rotherham United fan say to his pal as they made their way to their seats just before kick-off.
He got his wish, but little did he know what he was in for on a night of thrills, spills and high drama at AESSEAL New York Stadium.
The Millers, forced into changes by illness and injury against Championship promotion favourites Derby County, played a full and thrilling part in a six-goal epic and, having led 3-1, could have snatched a memorable victory right at the death when Matt Derbyshire headed just over.
The second half was footballing theatre of the most compelling order as the Millers added to the first-half close-range goal of Paul Green, playing against his former club, through Richie Smallwood and Derbyshire.
But the Rams threw on the cavalry in the 60th minute, bringing on all three subs and all had an impact as Tom Ince added to his stunning first-half strike in the 64th minute and ex-England international Darren Bent poked in the equaliser with seven minutes left of normal time.
Cruel on the Millers, but what a match - the best New York has seen this season.
Smallwood curled in a 49th-minute free-kick for 2-1 and Derbyshire slipped the ball under Lee Grant five minutes later for a lead hardly anyone would have predicted beforehand.
New York was bouncing as Derbyshire came so close to making it 4-1 in the 63rd minute, his thumping 22-yarder bringing a superb save from Grant. That would have been game over, but 60 seconds later Steve McClaren’s men were back in it.
And so the game turned. Rotherham, who had been dominant after the break, had to hang on, and hang on manfully they did, before coming back late on to almost force a winner.
The point keeps the Millers moving away from the drop zone and the performance against a side Evans desribed afterwards as the best in the division will have done their confidence untold good.
Green had poked the home side into a 35th-minute lead after a beautiful, deep Ben Pringle delivery from the right had been headed back across goal by Kirk Broadfoot.
But the advantage lasted less than a minute as Derby responded in a style worthy of a team on the trail of Premier League football next season.
Ince, playing on the right, cut in on to his favoured left foot and fired an unstoppable riposte past Adam Collin. Dad Paul, once of Manchester United and England, couldn’t have done it better.
Evans’ men matched their high-flying visitors and the pace and mobility of Darren Ward and Derbyshire caused Rams centre-halves Jake Buxton and Richard Keogh major headaches.
In the first half particularly there were more pushes from Buxton on Ward than a mum-to-be in a maternity ward, but referee Nigel Miller and his assistant kept missing what was plain to see to the home fans in the West Stand who made their displeasure known.
Right-back Jack Hunt lasted only 31 minutes of his first start, being carried off with a twisted knee after Derby’s Jamie Ward had fired wide from an inviting position when Bent had instigated the move with a foul on Broadfoot.
The home side were without skipper Craig Morgan through illness, Frazer Richardson and Conor Newton were deemed fit enough only for the bench, and loan striker Conor Sammon was unable to play against his parent club.
Many supporters, not just the one in the intro, might have feared for them against such high-quality opposition, but they produced a performance after which McLaren said they would have no problem staying in this league.
He reckoned it could turn out to be one of Derby’s most valuable points of the season, talking about the Millers’ “fierceness” and “tempo”.
High praise indeed from a former England boss. And well deserved.
Rotherham United (4-4-2): Collin, Hunt (Richardson 31), Broadfoot, Arnason, Fryers, Green, Smallwood, Milsom (Hammill 77), Pringle (Newton 71), Ward, Derbyshire. Subs: Loach, Wood, Bowery, Clarke-Harris.
Derby County (4-1-2-3): Grant, Christie, Buxton, Keogh, Forsyth, Mascarell (Lingard 60), Hughes, Hendrick (Bryson 60), Ince, Ward (Dawkins 60), Bent. Subs: Roos, Thomas, Shotton, Thorne.
Referee: Nigel Miller, Co Durham.
Attendance: 11,035 (2,601).
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