When the followers of newly-promoted Rotherham United eagerly scanned this season’s fixture list when it came out last June, they would have reckoned that the first home game might well give them some idea on their immediate future and how they might fare in their new division.
Their opponents were Preston North End, much improved in the second half of last season as new manager Simon Grayson kept them away from trouble and one of the teams strongly fancied to be challenging this time.
No one expected Rotherham United to be challenging. Most fans would be happy if the Millers held their own - a top half finish was the height of most ambitions.
On the face of it, a 0-0 draw may have seemed neither here nor there. But it hid some encouraging signs.
The Millers were coming off the back of their big Capital One Cup win over Sheffield Wednesday. The fear was that the big physical and emotionally-draining mental effort that night, might have some impact on the side four days later.
It did have some effect, for sure. Added to that was Preston looking pretty slick in that first half. Welcome indeed to the next level, Millers!
But the way they came through and the way they went on to impose themselves in the second half, finishing strongly, was encouraging indeed. On that 90 minutes’ evidence, and considering the good side they played, there was a feeling the newcomers “would be alright”.
Nobody could have been bold enough to reckon anything more. Except Millers boss Steve Evans!
He said: “For 45 minutes, they were well on top but we turned that around and finished on top and I came out of that game thinking Preston are going to be up there... and why can’t we be?”
His side have now gone on to prove that hunch right. Against the odds and contrary to the thoughts of many in the game, the Millers are now in the remarkable position of having a chance to play Championship football next season.
When the two clubs met again at Deepdale in February, both had moved on. There was enough in that game to encourage and concern both camps ahead of tomorrow’s first leg (5.15) over in Lancashire.
The Millers blew Preston away in the first 15 minutes and led 2-0. Preston steadily and ominously worked their way back into it and it was no surprise when they went 3-2 up early in the second half.
Instead of fading away Rotherham, typically, fought back and Preston had been hanging on for some time when they finally conceded a late equaliser.
Evans says he’s under no illusions about the task... “We know it’s going to be tough and the bookies, and most other people, have Preston as favourites and they have top players for League One.
“Perhaps they are actually disappointed they’re only in the play-offs. There is certainly huge expectation on them and that will test their nerve.
“It’s been a great season for us but only becomes a special one if we can finish it all off.
“You have to turn up for big games and we have done that. We have some big players who know what’s required. And when we work as hard as we can, then we are capable of beating anyone.”
The Millers have won 14 league games away from home this season and Evans insists they won’t be changing their style.
“We won’t be parking the bus, shutting up shop or whatever phrase you want to use,” said Evans.
“Yes, we’re going to have to defend at times and do it strongly and with desire but it’s not my way to think about sitting back from the first minute. I’d love to win.”