It was the match that marked the third anniversary of Steve Evans’ appointment as Rotherham United manager and presents were on the agenda.
Unfortunately, Kari Arnason gave his to the wrong team.
Evans had arrived from Crawley Town in April 2012 with the Millers on their way into League Two and playing out of town at a near-empty Don Valley Stadium as they waited for their new ground to be built.
Thirty-six months later, here they were, up against a Middlesbrough side close to the top of the Championship and with serious Premier League aspirations in front of nearly 20,000 spectators.
It’s been a fair old ride.
For the first half, Evans’ men had done a job on Boro, competing manfully, as they always do, keeping their discipline and containing the home side. Only a nasty little habit of giving away possession for no good reason was costing them.
Five minutes into the second half, Arnason, the player who normally looked more assured on the ball than any other in a Millers shirt, needlessly gave it away 40 yards from goal.
Lee Tomlin was on it in a flash, weaving into the area and biding his time before picking his spot past a helpless Emi Martinez.
Perhaps, just for a fleeting moment, Evans wished he was back in League Two where quality like that doesn’t happen too often.
It changed little in the bigger picture of second-tier survival for Rotherham, but there would be no way back at the Riverside where the home crowd, frustrated by the Millers’ ability to frustrate, had just been on the edge of turning on their own.
“We said at half-time that we’ve got some of them booing. Another 10 or 15 minutes and it will be the whole stadium,” Evans reflected.
“You can’t give the ball away needlessly like Kari did in the middle of the pitch. These players hurt you. Players like Tomlin and Patrick Bamford, if you give them an opportunity, they’ll punish you.
“I thought the performance was good in large parts. I thought we had a fantastic shape about our team, great energy levels. I can certainly remember just before half-time a few boos around the ground when they’d run out of ideas.
“We came out second half and were totally in command, but our midfielder gives the ball away in a cheap area and Tomlin is suddenly running at our back four. One of our centre-backs slips over and he puts it in the corner.”
With Wigan only drawing on Friday night and Millwall losing at home to Watford, Rotherham maintained the seven-point gap between themselves and the drop zone while, crucially, ticking off another round of fixtures.
Just four remain now - five for Millwall who took Easter Monday off - and the great prize of Championship safety is tantalisingly within sight.
It was one of those rare occasions where the Millers lost but emerged from the match with their position actually strengthened as another chance for the teams below them to make up significant ground ebbed away and the two above them, Fulham and Brighton, remained within catching distance.
“There’s no point me sitting here and saying I didn’t know what was happening at Millwall because of course I knew what was happening there,” Evans said. “You have to be mindful not only what’s happening at Millwall, but also at Fulham, Brighton and Wigan.
The Millers’ only real effort of note in the first half came in the 15th minute when Adam Hammill, brought in at the expense of Ben Pringle, curled a shot over the bar from long range.
They twice had to clear off their own line, through Paul Green when the otherwise impressive Martinez mishandled under pressure and then Daniel Lafferty after a slick link-up between Kike, Bamford and Albert Adomah, but other than that their two banks of four were a match for whatever Boro threw at them.
Tomlin’s strike changed everything, and when his cute inside pass after a period of pinball in the Millers penalty area was calmly dispatched by Bamford in the 66th minute the game was up.
Centre-half Kirk Broadfoot tested Dimi Konstantopoulos with a shot two minutes later but that was the only time the Boro keeper was really made to earn his money, and Evans afterwards lamented his side’s lack of attacking invention.
He had kept faith with Jordan Bowery as the forward partner for hard-working Matt Derbyshire, and will have been pleased to see Danny Ward get another 30-plus minutes under his belt as he approaches full match fitness after foot and knee injuries.
Richard Wood, brought back from his loan spell at Crawley, had been pitched straight into the fray after Derby’s decision to take back loan teenager Farrend Rawson, and he let nobody down, working defiantly in tandem with Kirk Broadfoot at the heart of the defence.
He had spent the early part of the week preparing for a League One scrap at Scunthorpe, and it was a weary leg he stretched out after spending 92 minutes in altogether more elevated company to bring down Kike for a spot-kick.
Martinez’s athletic dive to his right brought a rare miss for Bamford and the even rarer sight of Evans agreeing with a penalty decision which had gone against his team!
“There’s no disputing it. He’s tired and he’s dived in,” the Millers manager acknowledged.
“I thought Richard was very good. I thought he had one or two little misplaced volleys in the first half, but other than that he’s won his headers. It’s a hell of a difference from League One to who he’s playing against today, Bamford, Kike, Tomlin, Adomah.
“He did really well, and Kirk next to him was outstanding. We’re pleased with that. But in the final third we feel we didn’t keep the ball well enough through midfield and we didn’t pass well enough.
“We got in some good areas, but what we’ve done in the final third hasn’t been good enough.”
Evans skipped over the anniversary issue, preferring to focus on his mission of keeping Rotherham in the division - the fifth biggest league in the world, he calls it - that he so loves being a part of.
Tomorrow Millwall are at home to Wigan. On Wednesday Fulham entertain his Millers. 23rd v 22nd. 20th v 21st. Who writes these scripts?
“It’s great. This is the level we want to be at,” he said. “The chairman gives us every opportunity, and the supporters do as well. They need to turn up at Fulham again on Wednesday in big numbers.”
If both results go Rotherham’s way, Arni’s hand-out will be forgotten and Evans will be a huge step closer to giving those fans the greatest gift of all.
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Konstantopoulos 6; Kalas 7, Ayala 7 (Woodgate 69, 6), Gibson 7, Friend 7; Forshaw 6, Clayton 6 (Whitehead 79); Adomah 7, Tomlin 7 (Nsue 85), Bamford 6; Kike 6. Subs not used: Ripley, Vossen, Amorebieta, Wildschut.
Rotherham United (4-4-2): Martinez 7; Hunt 6, Broadfoot 8, Wood 7, Lafferty 6; Green 5(Sammon 76), Smallwood 6, Arnason 6 (Frecklington,69, 7), Hammill 6; Bowery 5, Derbyshire 5 (Ward 59, 6). Subs not used: Collin, Pringle, Newton, Milsom.
Manager’s view - Steve Evans: “When - and hopefully it’s when - we retain our Championship status it would be nothing short of the best achievement I’ve had. I’ve had eight or nine promotions. We trying to stay in this league. Coming to this stadium, the Riverside, and seeing what Aitor has got on the bench, seeing who he has got in the tunnel with tracksuits on not involved, shows you the size of the challenge. Probably our end product was a little bit poor in the final third. Other than that, our team’s had a right go.”
Manager’s view - Aitor Karanka: “It’s another important three points because the other teams at the top have won. We have to keep going winning the games and we have to keep going in these final four games. We have to concentrate on ourselves. If we win four games we’ll get promotion but it’s very difficult to do that. At this time every single point is important. We’re still up there fighting for a top-two place.”
Hero: Kirk Broadfoot. Plenty doubted him when he was forced to play as a makeshift full-back in the early part of the season, but few query him now after a run in his favoured centre-half berth. A terrific competitor and a big physical presence.
Key moment: Lee Tomlin’s 50th-minute opener. Until then it had been going pretty much to plan for the Millers. They needed to keep Boro goalless for longer after half-time, but Tomlin’s sweet strike lifted the tension at the Riverside.
Viewpoint: Easter Monday’s match with Brighton was a match Rotherham simply had to win, and they did. Here, with other results over the weekend not going against them, they could afford the defeat. Victory at Fulham on Wednesday would surely see them safe.
Ref watch: Iain Williamson. The Berkshire official had an excellent match. I can’t recall a single major mistake he made.
Attendance: 19,537 (963).