The talk beforehand had been of tin hats. The derby was won by men of steel.
Doncaster Rovers made the short journey to AESSEAL New York Stadium to face League One’s most in-form teams. Expect a bombardment, manager Darren Ferguson had warned.
It never really came ... until 13 crazy, unforgettable minutes of stoppage time that will go down in Rotherham United folklore.
The Millers had been foiled and frustrated by dogged visitors who seized on a first-half gift to take the lead. Doncaster were still ahead as the clock ticked down, but the touchline board was raised showing hostilities were far from over.
Rotherham striker Michael Smith rose to power home Joe Newell’s 93rd-minute free-kick and three sides of the sold-out ground erupted.
Then, in the 13th minute of 12 originally added, Smith was felled by goalkeeper Marko Marosi. Penalty. Joe Newell held his nerve and bedlam ensued.
Travelling supporters, who had been loud and proud throughout the contest, were loud no longer. Rovers, like so many other teams, had learned that Paul Warne’s band of brothers never, ever give up.
“I don’t think I have ever seen 90+13 before,” said the Rotherham manager, so taken with talk of headwear during the week that he’d forgotten his own trademark beanie. “That is a pretty unique time to score.”
“We have left it late in a lot of games, but we keep harping on to the lads about how we have got to keep plugging away.”
Ferguson said: “It’s a really hard one to take. My players didn’t deserve that after the amount of effort and commitment they put in.”
Victory saw the fourth-placed Millers, who have now scored in 27 consecutive outings, win for the seventh game on the trot and stretch their unbeaten run to 14 matches. Rovers, shell-shocked and entitled to feel hard done by, remain 14th.
Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now. Newell joyfully ran and slid into pitch-invading fans who didn’t have time to return to their seats in the North Stand before referee Geoff Eltringham blew the final whistle.
There was no restart. The South Yorkshire showdown had been won, breathlessly, insanely, literally, with the last kick of the game.
Rovers took the battle to Rotherham, hassling, harrying and turning them with balls into the home side’s left corner, trying to pen them in their own half.
Semi Ajayi has been magnificent in the Millers’ surge up the table but in the 39th minute the centre-half dallied in possession, John Marquis and Alex Kiwomya were on him in a flash and Marquis buried a fine 18-yard shot.
Just after the break, impressive Doncaster central defender Ben Anderson was down for eight minutes and carried off after a clash with his own keeper. The stretcher was required a second time, again after a protracted delay, when Richard Wood put every inch of his 6ft 3in frame through Alfie Beestin in a crunching 79th-minute challenge.
Richie Towell, doing more than any other player to haul Rotherham back into the game, hurled himself at Tommy Rowe’s 60th-minute goalbound shot. When Towell was denied in the 72nd minute by an even better block by Joe Wright at the other end, it looked like it was Rovers’ day.
Twelve minutes, indicated the fourth official, however. Now it really was tin-hat time.
In the Siberian cold, Newell swung in the ball and Newcastle-born Smith climbed, like the Beast from the North-east, to give Marosi no chance.
There was a Millers infringement in the build-up, complained Ferguson. “It is such a blatant foul on my centre-half and it’s not been seen by the referee,” he said.
Warne countered: “I haven’t seen it back. He might be right. Fouls do I happen and if I was in his position I might be feeling aggrieved. He has got good eyes from where he was standing. I didn’t see it.”
Ten minutes later, Rovers substitute Wright got it all wrong, allowing Caolan Lavery to muscle past him and bear down on goal. Marosi intervened and was reaching for the loose ball when the tireless Smith came racing in from behind.
Marosi felled the Rotherham man, who had been pushed and pulled all game without the officials intervening, and for once the ref ruled in Smith’s favour. Newell did the rest.
“A pressure situation?” grinned the spot-kick hero. “Yeah, you could say that. I was scared! No, I was all right really.”
“The scenes at the end were amazing. In typical Rotherham style, we kept going right to the end. Kicking towards the North Stand, we always fancy ourselves. There was no panic when we were 1-0 down and I think we deserved the win.”
Rovers were hit hard by enforced second-half changes. Not for the first time this season, Warne changed a game with his. Lavery came on to make his mark while defender Wood being replaced by attacking midfielder Matt Palmer sparked Rotherham’s late charge.
Remember the Keepmoat Stadium in November when Rovers captain Jamie Coppinger took forever to leave the field after being subbed and the Millers grabbed a draw in time added on?
At New York, the skipper, with his side in front, dawdled again and seconds later Rotherham were back in it.
The Millers have failed to score in normal time against Doncaster this season but have still taken four points from them
“I asked my lad at half-time, if this was going to be their last game and they would be remembered for their performance, would they be happy with it?” Warne said.
“As bad as we were first half, we were good in the second half. I am a romantic. I just think this win epitomises the team, the way they just keep going until the end. They will keep running for each other, keep fighting as a group.”
After the final whistle, Will Vaulks fist-pumped the West Stand which had risen in acclaim of his and his teammates’ refusal to yield. The midfielder hadn’t had his best game but had prevailed through sheer force of spirit.
Tin hats? Iron Will.
Him and the Millers.