Paul Warne's words, the atmosphere, Mickel Miller, the shoot-out and Wembley here we come ... the story Hartlepool United 2 Rotherham United 2 (Rotherham win 5-4 on penalties)

Paul Warne's words, the atmosphere, Mickel Miller, the shoot-out and Wembley here we come ... the story Hartlepool United 2 Rotherham United 2 (Rotherham win 5-4 on penalties)

By Paul Davis | 10/03/2022

Paul Warne's words, the atmosphere, Mickel Miller, the shoot-out and Wembley here we come ... the story Hartlepool United 2  Rotherham United 2  (Rotherham win 5-4 on penalties)
Chieo Ogbene leads the celebrations. Pictures by Jim Brailsford

"DO it for your families, do it for your mums who drove to training for ten years ..."

This was no ordinary team talk at the pre-match hotel and this was no ordinary game for Rotherham United.

A place at Wembley was at stake and Millers manager Paul Warne was rallying his side for a huge semi-final effort.

It might be only the Papa John's Trophy, but now it mattered; it really mattered.

The empty seats of the earlier rounds had given way to a full house and the Victoria Park home of Hartlepool United was a heaving hot-house of a Wednesday-night sell-out.

It had been 18 years since the ground was this packed. Thousands of Pools-provided blue and white flags were being waved as the atmosphere ramped up and gulls from the nearby North Sea flew overhead seeking the very best view.

Home fans were seething and stirring, loud and proud, bouncing and braying, hostile in exactly the right kind of way.

Rotherham followers had taken every one of their ticket allocation and were making themselves heard amid the din.

Game on.

What followed was a whirlwind of a cup tie as the leaders of League One and their mid-table opponents from a division lower went head to head and toe to toe.

"It was electric inside the stadium," said Warne. "It added so much to the occasion. It is the first time I have ever clapped a whole football ground. I was worried. It felt like their fans were giving their team an extra ten per cent."

It was end to end, no quarter asked, both teams on the front foot and then the back foot, the result in doubt right until the final whistle. It finished 2-2.

And, so, on to the shoot-out ...

THE MATCH

They met somewhere in the middle. Mickel Miller had just converted the crucial penalty while his teammates watched on anxiously from their centre-circle huddle.

Now there was wild delight as the match-winner and the rest of the squad came together around 30 yards from goal.

Ben Wiles had gone fifth and seen his effort stopped but Michael Smith, Shane Ferguson, Dan Barlaser, Angus MacDonald and now Miller got the job done for the visitors after a Viktor Johansson save and a Pools miss.

The clash had started at a fast pace and just got more and more frenzied. Hartlepool, with no chance of promotion or relegation, knew this was their big night as they scented a fourth third-tier scalp in this competition and a first trip to the national stadium.

They led, deservedly, at the break through Joe Grey's header from David Ferguson's free-kick after Tolaji Bola had spurned two early opportunities for the visitors.

Mickel Miller sends Rotherham to Wembley

"I was really pleased with our start," Warne said. "The first 15 minutes were great and I thought it might be a nice evening for us, but that isn't the way we do it. Hartlepool were then the superior side for the next 30 minutes.

"Conditions had a part to play because it was very windy but our better players composed themselves a lot more in the second half and we got through."

The manager and his staff joined the team on the pitch after Miller's nerveless strike, savouring the moment and the date in North London on April 3 to come.

"The lads don't know it yet because they are young men but when they get older they will realise how important it is to play at Wembley," Warne said. "Some great players go all through their careers without getting there.

"I said to them, if we are going to lose at least lose giving it everything - and they did give everything."

Rotherham had made eight changes to their league starting 11 and were forced to send on their cavalry to fight their way back into the contest.

Four minutes after the restart, Smith's head met Dan Barlaser's perfect free-kick. 1-1.

Six minutes later, Michael Ihiekwe's attempted clearance wasn't enough to keep Luke Molyneux's shot from going in. 2-1 Hartlepool.

Eight minutes on, Chiedozie Ogbene's cross arrowed towards a striker seeking his 24th goal of the campaign and Smith's blond bonce did the damage again. 2-2.

Amid all this, Miller was twisting and turning Pools inside out with his pace and trickery, creating gaps that didn't exist and smoothly accelerating through ones that did.

Viktor Johansson saves a penalty

Barlaser hit the bar, Johansson foiled Molyneux, Omar Bogle headed wide a sitter for the home side, Smith lobbed just off target and Pools' Tom Crawford couldn't keep his shot down.

Ogbene's shot was kept out by Ben Killip, Smith's hat-trick attempt blocked by Timi Odusina and Ihiekwe's stoppage-time header was held by Killip right on the goalline.

It was breathless, it was brilliant.

"We have made changes in every game in this tournament but we have always been true to it," Warne said. "We have played hard in every match, we have tried to win every match. Tonight we played against a very good team and nicked it on a flip of a coin."

FERGIE TIME

One touch, one goal.

Ferguson was brought on in the final minute and coolly despatched his spot-kick with his sole contribution of the evening.

"It's one of the best substitutions of my career," Warne grinned. "Shane came on with ten seconds left, didn't put a foot wrong and scored a penalty. If he'd have missed it, mind, it would have looked like the worst substitution ever.

"My nerves weren't too bad in the shoot-out. I was a lot more stressed in the first half when Hartlepool were on top. When it goes to penalties, you are helpless. You are just watching like a fan."

The boss was soon thinking of families again.

"It is a nice way to give something back to the people who loved you when you were growing up," he said.

His after-match media conference was held on the opposite side of the pitch to the press box and I made my way through the snug, atmospheric surroundings to take my place among the cameras, microphones and voice recorders that had swelled tenfold in number since the opening group-stage fixture back in September.

The fans had gone but the seagulls were still there, noisily voicing their appreciation.

Earlier, the Hartlepool flags had been raised rousingly in hope and defiance but now hundreds upon hundreds of them were lying, like the remnants of a lost battle, discarded on the floor.

I picked my way through the carpet of vanquished blue and white knowing it's red and white going to Wembley this year.

****************************

THE SHOOT-OUT

Pools: Featherstone scores

Millers: Smith scores

Pools: Sterry scores

Millers: Ferguson scores

Pools: Shelton scores

Millers: Barlaser scores

Pools: Molyneux saved

Millers: Wiles saved

Pools: Bogle scores

Millers: MacDonald scores

Pools: Crawford misses

Millers: Miller scores

****************************

Goals: Grey 29, Molyneux 55 (Hartlepool); Smith 49, 63 (Rotherham).

Attendance: 7,532 (657).

The Millers

Formation: 3-5-2

Viktor Johansson: 7

There's always a save up the Viking's sleeve in a shoot-out. Pulled off a couple of smart stops in normal time too.

Rarmani Edmonds-Green: 7

First game in more than a month after a hamstring pull. Grew into the game.

Richard Wood: 7

Was playing well but got himself on the wrong side of the referee and the home crowd and was taken off before he was sent off.

Angus MacDonald: 7

Improving with each outing. Just needs more game-time after his long lay-off.

Jordi Osei-Tutu: 6

He has the legs to be a Rotherham player, but I'm not sure he yet has quite the right attitude. Can certainly beat a man and get a cross in. Just needs to show a bit more steel and application.

Jamie Lindsay: 5

Felt for him. He was desperate to play but wasn't ready and he looked gutted when he had to come off because of his damaged shoulder.

Dan Barlaser: 7

Not at his best in the first half but had the ball on a string in the second.

Hakeem Odoffin: 5

Taken off at the break and that was the right decision. Needed too long on the ball and made poor decisions.

Tolaji Bola: 6

A mix of good and not so good. He has something. The challenge now is to demonstrate it more consistently.

Ben Wiles: 6

Started as a 'number 10' but Jamie Lindsay's injury saw him go back into midfield. Mobile and industrious but not at his most dangerous.

Michael Smith: 8

Two more goals. A committed Hartlepool backline did everything they could to stop him but he came out on top.

The subs

Michael Ihiekwe (for Wood H-T): 7

Slotted in without a problem and was decent at both ends of the pitch.

Ollie Rathbone (for Odoffin H-T): 7

Made his usual busy, bright, effective contribution.

Mickel Miller (for Lindsay 35): 9

Started off down the middle with Smith and then went out wide for the last half an hour. Wherever he was, he punched hole after hole in the opposition.

Chiedozie Ogbene (for Bola 60): 7

Not sure it's allowed in the rules to bring on him and Miller in the same game. It was Miller's night but Ogbene was also someone Hartlepool couldn't hold. Played centrally and was a continual threat.

Shane Ferguson (for Osei-Tutu 90+5): NA

Was brought on to score a penalty and that's what he did.

Not used: Josh Vickers, Joe Mattock.

Hartlepool (4-2-3-1): Ben Killip 7; Jamie Sterry 7, Neil Byrne 7, Timi Odusina 7, David Ferguson 7; Nicky Featherstone 7, Mark Shelton 7; Luke Molyneux 8, Tom Crawford 7, Joe Grey 7 (Marcus Carver 85); Omar Bogle 7. Subs not used: Nicholas Bilokapic, Zaine Francis-Angol, Garry Liddle, Martin Smith, Gavan Holohan, Isaac Fletcher.

Referee: Robert Madley (West Yorkshire): 7

Opposition view

"You couldn't not enjoy the game. You're nervous and focused on what the lads are doing but the effort against a top team in League One is immense. The lads stuck to everything we thought we had to do to stop them playing but Rotherham keep going and are effective.

"We created chances, scored goals. Performance-wise, we have to take so much from that. We matched them at times. We had to dig in.

"The lads took responsibility and stepped up to take the penalties, which is something I never did as a player, so I had no problems or worries with the missed ones We can't dwell on it, we have to look at the positives."

- Pools boss Graeme Lee

The stats

Possession: Pools 42 per cent, Millers 58 pc

Goal attempts: Pools 12, Millers 13

On target: Pools 4, Millers 7

Corners: Pools 3, Millers 3

Fouls: Pools 4, Millers 13

Final word

A thrilling match with a thrilling conclusion.