What an occasion it promises to be. It could be the best night yet in the short life of New York Stadium. Then again, it could be the most disappointing.
Yep, there’s no in-between on Thursday. That’s the play-offs for you!
We can all dream, but anybody looking further ahead than kick-off time for the second leg will surely wake up and realise there really isn’t very much at all between the two protagonists. And, as this is the play-offs, anything really can happen - wonder goals and all!
What the Millers did in Saturday tea-time’s first leg, amidst the noisy confines of a fired-up Deepdale, was silence the doubters who noted the nature of Preston’s comeback from two down in the league game here and feared what might happen.
The Millers emerged full of belief and confidence that they really can handle matters - and a bit more.
They clearly ‘won’ the first half, then held off a home side revitalised at the start of the second half by a goal in a thousand.
But, above all else, one thing which should not be overlooked is that to do all this, to deal with a very good side and all that a play-off semi-final throws at you, the Millers had to come through the sort of adversity which would have sunk a squad of players less resilient, less spirited, less adaptable and less able.
Those watching on telly, the uncommitted probably seeing them for the first time, naturally assume this was the Millers in their normal guise. Full strength. Not so.
If there has been more disruption this season, and particularly during a game, I can’t recall it.
Who wants to go into a game like this suddenly stripped of their top scorer? 25-goal Kieran Agard had played in every game this season but picked up a niggle and wasn’t risked.
What to do? Move your right-back into Agard’s role and bring in not the next choice right-back ( he’s injured) but the next one. Richard Brindley had started twice since early December.
But, after 20 minutes, he’s off injured. So you return your usual right-back to right-back and replace him on the right flank with a central midfielder (Michael O’Connor) who, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t played ‘right wing’ in his life!
Where’s the winger (Nicky Adams) you signed recently, I hear. He’s injured.
Incidentally, you’ve already started with a central midfield duo (Lee Frecklington and Rob Milsom) who, while not an unknown pairing, have started together there only two or three times since around October.
Then, with half an hour left, off limps the influential Frecklington. So, yet more change, with Claude Davis going on alongside Craig Morgan in centre defence. I can just imagine Morgan’s greeting ... “Evening, Claude, not played alongside you since, er, Christmas.”
Which means moving Kari Arnason into midfield where he hasn’t played since, er, Christmas.
Okay, a bit of tongue in cheek within all that, but you get the drift. Players missing, players thrust in, different roles, different partnerships and all within the hothouse of a play-off semi-final when you want continuity, familiarity, pals doing things they’ve done together most of the season, their understanding honed by time together.
For me, all the disruption makes this an even better result and performance than it seemed at first sight.
Of course, I’ve often thought footballers seem to thrive in, and on, adversity. It brings out something extra, sharpens the mentality, although I’m not advocating any more absences or mid-game injuries come Thursday!
Preston, having scored six, five and three in their last three home matches, could hardly have come into the game better prepared.
Interestingly, they soon started getting individually frustrated as things didn’t go quite right and the Millers took charge.
In fact, it was this Millers ‘control’ of the game, playing at their pace, slowing things when they had the chance, which stopped Preston getting up a head of steam. Rotherham were ‘managing the game’. It was smart.
What they were doing, crucially, was working their socks off all over the pitch, not letting Preston settle anywhere or to get into any rhythm.
And they mixed their own game up nicely, trusting themselves and colleagues in possession.
Preston never had a sniff of an opening until the 20th minute when Joe Garner couldn’t take control as he sneaked inside Joe Skarz on to one of those nasty, inswinging centres Paul Gallagher kept aiming to produce from the left and which Rotherham must have been primed about.
A minute later the Millers were ahead. Not often a tall striker heads one on for himself but that’s what happened out wide here. Alex Revell did so then bore in from the left and finished with aplomb.
Preston trooped off dejected and a bit puzzled at half-time. Rotherham had impressed.
But the whole place was lifted by Joe Garner’s wonder goal four minutes into the second half. Strangely, as the ball was on its way into him and I saw his movement, I said to a colleague “trouble, trouble”. But I never envisaged such a world-class goal.
The fear was it would spark a real Preston surge. The immediate aftermath would probably be crucial to the outcome. But Rotherham handled it superbly, bravely. Getting through it with no more damage got them the draw, I feel. It was a pivotal period.
A key moment was when Frecklington was sent away by Wes Thomas. He looked to be straight-line clear but elected to cut across in front of a chasing defender for whom any challenge would have been an obvious penalty (yes, even for the Millers) and a red card. The keeper made the save and Frecklington suffered a leg injury in the process which was to force him off.
Milsom drilled an 18-yarder just off target and, right at the end of stoppage time, Haris Vuckic had a header turned over.
Preston never came as close but, understandably, had lots of pressure, no-one repelling them more determinedly or more often than their former player, Craig Morgan.
So, to dig out everyone’s favourite cliche, one someone, somewhere, always uses after a first leg ... it’s only half-time.
It promises to be quite a second half!
Hero: Craig Morgan. A big-money signing at Preston, he had a fairly difficult time. The home fans don’t rate him. Contrast that with Millers fans’ affections for their skipper. Determined, leading by example in a big game, he was Mr Defiance to add to his Mr Dependable tag.