Rotherham United match verdict: Derby 1 Millers 0

Kieran Agard shoots
Kieran Agard shoots

Seven years ago, when Steve McClaren was manager of the England national team, Steve Evans was preparing for a non-league campaign after taking over at Crawley Town.

On Saturday at the wonderful iPro Stadium they stood side by side on the touchline.

As equals.

Evans has come a long, long way since August 2007. The Millers have come a long, long way under him since 2012 with their back-to-back promotions.

Saturday, with its red-hot atmosphere, was the reward. Championship football in front of 30,105 fans, the biggest attendance of the day in English football, with the Millers’ sell-out contingent of around 2,700 adding to the tumultuous din.

Anyone remember crowds barely touching 3,000 at Don Valley Stadium?

Welcome to the Championship ... the Millers were under siege in the opening minutes as Derby, the bookies’ favourites for promotion this season, tore into them.

Somehow, Rotherham weathered the storm, and then the Millers did what they do: they hit back. Gradually they worked their way into the match, disciplined, determined, keeping their shape, growing in confidence, scrapping for everything.

Will Hughes - Derby wonderkid and deserving of his reputation - took possession near the touchline. In went Ben Pringle, in snapped Lee Frecklington, Kirk Broadfoot didn’t give an inch. Like wasps round a child’s ice cream, they woudn’t leave him alone. Throw-in Rotherham, and a snap-shot of why no team will fancy playing Rotherham this season.

By the end they had rattled the side who were just one game away from the Premier league last season, had looked just as likely to score as their opponents and had given Derby a real game throughout the second half.

It was so,so cruel they didn’t earn the draw they thoroughly deserved.

They will face few tougher challenges than this all season but were up to the test. They went into the match hoping and believing they were good enough for the Championship. They ended it knowing they are.

Lee Grant had to produce an unbelieveable, full-stretch save in time added as Rotherham produced their trademark grandstand finish and Paul Green’s bullet header looked destined for the bottom left corner.

Even Grant would have been powerless had Agard hit his shot harder seconds later. The iPro held it’s breath as last season’s 26-goal marksmen pulled the trigger, but Grant was able to touch it on to a defender and, not for the first time, Derby cleared off the line.

Derby boss McClaren said: “We knew we would have to fight for the points. Credit to Steve Evans’ Rotherham team. We knew they’d be difficult opponents.

“We didn’t score in the first 20 minutes when we should have done and after that I thought Rotherham were excellent and made it very difficult for us.

“We nearly lost our patience but we kept it, kept our composure. But in the end we have to thank Granty for a magnificent save that got us those three points.

“We are delighted with the result, but Rotherham ... they’ll take points off teams, they will.”

With the noise deafening, the home side gave the Millers a baptism of fire and skipper Craig Morgan has to produce a crunching block in the fourth minute as the dangerous Simon Dawkins drove into the penalty area.

But, crucially, the Millers kept their discipline and their nerve. By the 12th minute Derby were having to produce a great block of their own to deny Frecklington after neat work by Alex Revell.

Kieran Agard was denied as he shot on the turn and Adam Collin had to produce two saves, excellent and top-drawer respectively, to deny Dawkins from distance and then claw away Johnny Russell’s close-range header.

Yet suddenly Derby corner after corner had turned into Kari Arnason long throw after long throw as the Millers shed their early nerves and embraced the occasion, and only a goalline clearance from Hughes kept out Arnason’s flashing header from a Pringle corner.

After the break, anyone’s game ... Derby pressed and threatened and had penalty-area moments but didn’t force Collin to make saves.

At the other end, with Bowery on for Revell, Rotherham likewise probed and got through the home defence.

Matt Derbyshire should have done better with his header on 62 minutes when he had a clear sight of goal and paid with his place minutes later as John Swift entered the fray.

Here’s a young man who loves to be in possession. His close control almost swung the match the Millers way as his inviting ball in from the right was just over Bowery and his dribble to the edge of the area had the Rams panicking, with Agard getting in the way just as Pringle was cocking that wonderful left foot of his.

Then heartache.

Jeff Hendrick swept the ball into the top left corner in the 82nd minute, a sweet finish after Cyrus Christie had read Pringle’s intention to ‘roll’ him on the outside just inside the Derby half. Christie took the ball, the Rams swept forward down the right and when Christie centred there was Hendrick from 15 yards out reminding people of the dangers of giving up possession at this level.

The Millers came again, but were unable to deliver a point on this occasion as the step-up in quality from League One to the Championship was brought to bear. But what they did provide was pride and optimism, not only for themselves but for their fantastic following.

“We won at Wembley,” was the chant of the day at the home of last season’s beaten Championship play-off finalists. And there will surely be more wins along the way for the Millers who’ve have taken just one game to find their feet in Europe’s fifth best division.

Evans summed up his side’s defiance: “Many people around the country thought when they saw we were away at Derby it would be lambs to the slaughter, but we aren’t going to be lambs to the slaughter for anyone.

“We were well organised and, after they scored, we had two great chances to equalise we would normally take. We are disappointed we didn’t take them but we’re learning.”

Afterwards, as I was packing away my gear, the heavens opened and I walked to the car in the rain, reflecting on what a marvellous spectacle I’d just witnessed. Baying, passionate fans in both colours and the Millers really mixing it against a team of true class and threat.

No wallies with brollies here.

Hero: Two of them. Paul Green and Lee Frecklington. Derby are clever in midfield with their quick, little passes but this pair battled for everything and turned the tide the Millers’ way.

Key moment: Matt Derbyshire’s header in the 62nd minute. Had that gone in, what a last 30 minutes we’d have had on our hands. The Millers didn’t deserve to lose this match.

Viewpoint: Derby are a top team and the Millers had a right old go at them. Steve Evans’ men showed they belong at this level and they’ll be all the better for the opening-day experience.

Steve McClaren: “We have got through on character after the first 20 minutes when I thought we were excellent. I thought it was heading for a draw.”

Steve Evans: “I think Derby supporters will go away and know their team was in a tough game. They will have a lot of easier games at the iPro, that’s for sure. I think we deserved a point and I think the whole ground knows we deserved a point, but sometimes you don’t get what you deserve.”