Manager Alan Stubbs had called for a reaction after Rotherham United’s derby defeat at Barnsley in their last match.
He got one he was looking for from his players and one he wasn’t from fans.
The Millers showed the fight that had been lacking at Oakwell. They might have been lucky to be leading 2-0 in the 57th minute but they had demonstrated real defensive grit and had been capable of causing problems in attack.
Yet the boos rang out at New York Stadium at the end as two goals in the last 16 minutes saw the visitors cap a comeback during which they dismantled Stubbs’ men who defended too deep and couldn’t keep hold of the ball for long enough to relieve the pressure.
“As the game went on, we showed a nervousness when we did win the ball back and tried to rush things,” the manager conceded. “That was partly to do with the atmosphere. There was a bit of tension there, which does creep on to the pitch. But the players have got to rise above that.”
Rotherham had got off to an ideal start, Izzy Brown taking advantage in the sixth minute as City goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell and centre-half Aden Flint left the ball to each other to nip in and score his first goal for the club.
The giant Flint was a real danger at set-pieces as Bristol had plenty of possession and lots of moments of danger. Happily for the Millers, he was an even bigger menace in his own box, compounding his early mishap by needlessly putting his foot on Greg Halford’s scuffed shot 12 minutes after the break and diverting it up and over the helpless McDonnell.
Ten minutes later, Danny Ward missed a golden chance to make it 3-0, initially doing well to get the better of Bobby Reid but then firing over the bar as he raced clear. Seven minutes after that, Tammy Abraham struck from close range for a goal the Robins’ play had deserved.
Instead of game over, game on.
Reid was lurking at the back post to steer in Joe Bryan’s 83rd-minute cross and there was only team looking like winning it late on. City substitute Jamie Paterson cut in from the right in the 90th minute to leave the post shuddering even more than the home followers who vented their frustration at the end.
The visitors threw on all their subs in one go in the 62nd minute and they helped to change the game.
Rotherham were unfortunate to lose Jon Taylor at half-time to a knee injury after the pacy winger had been a threat and Izzy Brown to cramp in the second half when the Chelsea teenager, playing as a ‘No 10’, was the player City could least cope with.
“Our substitutions, which we had to make because of injuries, did not help us,” Stubbs said.
Will Vaulks came on for Joe Newell in the 69th minute and five minutes later, in a moment of rashness he will surely learn from, made an impact of the wrong kind. He chopped down Paterson out on the right flank when there was no need to and Abraham scored from the resultant free-kick.
Stubbs was quick to defend the 22-year-old.
“It happens. It’s not his fault,” he said. “You won’t have me standing here pointing the finger and blaming someone. We win as a team and we lose as a team. We speak about it individually and privately and that stays behind closed doors.”
But he did call it a “silly foul”.
Despite the late disappointment, this was better than events at Oakwell a fortnight earlier.
Stubbs stiffened his midfield with Dominic Ball and Greg Halford and there was more physicality, presence and solidity about the Millers for two-thirds of the match.
Playing Brown in a more central attacking role was a good move. He is utterly assured on the ball and can make things happen for himself and teammates. Plus, he did more tracking back and tackling than you’d see from many youngsters out on loan from a top Premier League side.
Another 19-year-old, Dael Fry, on loan from Middlesbrough, had a decent debut at centre-half as Rotherham moved out of the drop zone into 20th place.
“The players gave me the response I was looking for after the last result,” Stubbs said. “They showed a good attitude and knew they had to give the fans a performance after letting them down.
“When you look at the bigger picture, it could be a valuable point.
“I appreciate there is always going to be a frustration when you lose a 2-0 lead. But we came up against a team who have aspirations to be up and around the play-offs and have spent a considerable amount of money.”
Stubbs arrived at the club in June mentioning the Millers and play-offs in the same sentence.
There has been a reality check since.