Sheffield Wednesday’s extraordinary comeback against Rotherham United reduced grown men to sobbing wrecks and left their 1,210 followers jumping for joy at the final whistle.
aturday’s South Yorkshire derby had a bit of everything.
There were two strikes in the seven minutes of additional time added on, three debutants, four bookings, inspired substitutions and plenty of sloppy defending from both sides. It was just a mad ending which underlined exactly how baffling and utterly compelling the beautiful game can be.
When Kieran Lee slotted a shot underneath Damian Martinez with virtually the last kick of the contest to cap the Owls’ thrilling and remarkable fightback, that surely must have sparked some of the wildest celebrations ever seen at the AESSEAL New York Stadium.
Wednesday head physio Paul Smith could not contain his delight, dashing up the touchline to join in with the partying in the corner where the away fans were housed. He kissed the badge with pride after a sprint that Usain Bolt would have been proud of.
That is what derbies do to people. They matter. Many football fans will be talking about the battle at New York throughout the two-week international break.
Match-winner Lee told The Star: “I’ve never known or been involved in a finish like that before in my career. It was crazy but that’s football for you.
“The scenes at the end were special and you could see how much it meant to the players and the fans.”
Football can be a cruel business at times. Post-match, the body language could not have been more contrasting in the two camps.
Wednesday’s players and backroom staff congratulated each other after a job well done, posing for pictures and selfies in the away dressing room while some members of Rotherham’s squad were inconsolable, struggling to hold back the tears.
The Owls’ late late show left Millers boss Steve Evans visibly crestfallen and bewildered. He complained at the amount of time added on but, as Wednesday recently found to their cost versus Fulham, you have to keep going and play to the whistle.
Defensive lapses in concentration for the visitors’ second and third goals culminated in them suffering a third successive home defeat.
What will deeply hurt Evans and Rotherham is that this defeat came against a side who can’t go up or down.
Wednesday are an inconsistent, midtable outfit and the Millers, despite taking the lead on two occasions, missed an opportunity to put some much-needed daylight between themselves and the relegation zone.
The scenes at the end were special and you could see how much it meant to the players and the fans.Kieran Lee
Evans, who has steered the Millers to back-to-back promotions, said: “There are people in tears in the dressing room... the chairman’s almost in tears himself.”
Rotherham played their part, and then some, in an unforgettable tussle. They arguably had the best player on the pitch in right-back Jack Hunt, although Wednesday loanee Lewis McGugan kept passing and orchestrating things in the middle of the park.
But it says a lot about the belief and character Stuart Gray has instilled in his Owls squad that they were able to cope with having to rejig their backline just prior to kick-off.
Kamil Zayatte suffered a recurrence of the hamstring problem which has troubled him in recent weeks during the warm-up, meaning Joe Mattock was drafted in at left-back and Claude Dielna switched to centre-back.
That was the second occasion in the space of a month Gray has been forced to change his starting line-up at the 11th hour following an injury in the warm-up.
Without Zayatte, Liam Palmer and skipper Glenn Loovens, Wednesday’s makeshift defence looked more vulnerable than usual and Rotherham thought the bragging rights were heading their way when substitute Jordan Bowery side-stepped Claude Dielna and coolly fired a shot past Keiren Westwood, who produced two superb first-half stops, in the 87th minute.
Evans charged on to the pitch in celebration after Bowery’s strike. It was like the 2014 League One Play-o Final all over again. His ecstasy quickly turned into despair as there proved to be a sting in the tale.
“When you see a manager running on the pitch after a team have scored, it gives you a little bit of motivation to push on,” admitted Lee. “It was a shock after Rotherham scored the second goal.
“It was a kick in the teeth but we showed a lot of character to fight back and keep on pushing.
“All the team and manager are together. Everyone is close and working hard for each other and that came out in the end.
“It turned out to be a very good game in the second half. We are delighted with the win and I think we deserved it. We were the better side.
“All the lads are buzzing and so are the fans. It’s one of those results that you could see from the celebrations meant a lot to everybody.”
Wednesday went for the jugular in the final half an hour, throwing on Caolan Lavery, Chris Maguire and Stevie May. Their fresh legs and energy exploited Rotherham’s tired-looking backline.
The Owls’ extra day of preparation made all the difference as they wore the Millers down.
May, booed by the Millers faithful after spurning the opportunity to join Evans’ revolution last August, could have scored twice either side of Lee’s winner.
Gray said: “If you’re going to put subs on they have to have an impact. Credit to the three lads who went on, they have had a big impact (and) it probably just put Rotherham on the back foot. They went a little bit deeper and allowed my full-backs to get forward.”
Box-to-box midfielder Lee emerged as Wednesday’s unlikely derby day hero. It was just the 11th goal of his pro career.
“I think that ranks as my most important goal,” he said. “Rotherham are battling for their lives in the Championship but we wanted the win just as much. We know how important these games are.
“We left it late but that makes for a better game!”
For Rotherham, the defeat severely damages their hopes of staying up, with third-from-bottom Wigan Athletic cutting the gap to five points.
It could turn out to be a pivotal result in their battle for survival.
Gray acknowledged: “People will be talking about that last five minutes for years and years.”
It is a finale Wednesdayites are unlikely to forget in a hurry.