Missing men, character, a Will Vaulks special and out of the drop zone ... the story of Rotherham United 2 Preston North End 1

By Paul Davis | 01/01/2019

Missing men, character, a Will Vaulks special and out of the drop zone ... the story of Rotherham United 2 Preston North End 1
Celebration time as Will Vaulks scores. Picture by David Poucher

YOU throw a New Year's Day bash and more than half of your first team give it a miss.

It doesn't mean you can't still have a great time.

Rotherham United made light of a player shortage to kick off 2019 with a priceless victory over Preston North End that lifted them out of the Championship drop zone.

A stunning Will Vaulks free-kick and header from Michael Smith did the damage for Paul Warne's men who lifted the festive gloom of three straight defeats by winning for the first time since early November.

There were scenes of joy at the end as AESSEAL New York Stadium rose in recognition of an against-the-odds triumph.

Supporters and manager Warne, too ill for press duties afterwards but fist-pumping like crazy at the final whistle, knew the importance of this victory.

Injuries, suspensions and a loan recall had hit so hard that the Millers' bench contained only six players including a couple of Academy kids without a single league appearance between them.

Injured strikers Jamie Proctor and Kyle Vassell had sent their apologies a while ago, both of them laid low by groin injuries, and there were plenty of other absentees, including midfielders Richie Towell and Ryan Manning and defenders Billy Jones, Clark Robertson and Zak Vyner.

Happily, the remaining Millers, following a slow start, really turned up.

“It was a vital three points," said assistant boss Richie Barker. "After looking at other results, it was even more important.

“The togetherness was excellent. The organisation was okay in a patched-up team. We had a few square pegs in round holes so we are obviously delighted to get the win, but we are well aware that we need to improve things.​

“The performance wasn't great but our lads don't know that they're beaten. They dig in when things are not going so well. The character is excellent.​"

Rotherham had been second best in the opening period and could have been trailing by three goals but Vaulks suddenly got the party started by lashing home a 22-yard free-kick of unbelievable ferocity on the stroke of half-time to turn the match on its head.

The Millers, following two substitutions, were much improved after the break and Smith got himself on the end of Joe Newell's pinpoint cross in front of the kop in the 77th minute to lift spirits even further.

Lukas Nmecha struck back for Preston almost immediately but under-strength Rotherham had enough about them to see out the contest.

Towell and Jones had cried off three days previously, red cards at Bristol City prohibiting their presence.

Vyner and Robertson wanted to to be there but injuries meant they were no-shows.

Ben Wiles was excellent

Manning had intended to turn up right up until the day before when he suddenly received a better offer from parent club Queens Park Rangers.

There were almost as many regular first-teamers sitting watching in the West Stand as there were on the pitch.

“Will's goal had no relevance on what we were going to talk about at half-time," Barker added. "It was a fantastic goal.

 

"The fact that we were poor for 44 minutes didn't mean that we could tell them they were all great just because Will put one in the top corner.​

“We had to change things at half-time with the shape and the personnel. We are not afraid to do that, as we've shown in the past.​

“Our game-management towards the end was not entertaining, but we won. A year or so ago we might have lost that game.”

 

There had been a sombre moment before kick-off when the names of Millers fans who had passed away in 2018 were applauded as they were displayed on New York's giant screen.

No matter how poor the Millers' recent run has been, this was a poignant reminder that much more important things are lost than football matches.

There was also a warm pre-match ovation for chairman Tony Stewart after his OBE in the New Year's Honours List.

Marek Rodak was called into action after only five minutes, keeping out Nmecha's shot from a tight angle, and he had to save low to his left seven minutes later from Paul Gallagher's free-kick.

The Millers, struggling to get a foothold in the game, were lucky not to fall behind in the 16th minute when Tom Barkhuizen shot wide after being freed by Nmecha.

They were even more fortunate seconds later when Rodak did superbly to deny Graham Burke - who also shot off target soon after - when the Preston man was clean through on goal.

Rotherham had their first sight of goal on 25 minutes when teenager Ben Wiles, making an impressive first home league start, unleashed a superb 20-yard volley which brought a flying stop from Declan Rudd.

Buoyed by their Vaulks breakthrough, Rotherham wrested control of the game and Ryan Williams, goalless for almost a year, nearly capped a period of domination on the hour mark but shot wide.

Vaulks, unsurprisingly, wasn't scared to try his luck from distance, his 25-yarder four minutes later going over the bar.

The Millers remained on top yet were indebted to Rodak who clawed away Nmecha's 75th-minute header.

Then came 60 seconds of drama as Smith and Nmecha traded goals and 16 minutes of tension as the clock ran down.

Preston pushed but there was Semi Ajayi to clear off the line in the 86th minute as Smith almost deflected a cross into his own net.

Three points, a first win in four holiday matches and out of the relegation places.

Christmas came late. But, finally, a reason to celebrate.

Rotherham (4-1-4-1): Marek Rodak; Semi Ajayi, Sean Raggett, Richard Wood, Joe Mattock; Matt Palmer; Jon Taylor, Will Vaulks, Ben Wiles, Ryan Williams; Michael Smith. Not used: Lewis Price, Jerry Yates, Akeem Hinds, Jake Southern-Cooper.
Subs: Joe Newell (for Palmer, H-T), Anthony Forde (for Taylor, H-T).

Preston (4-3-2-1): Declan Rudd; Tom Clarke, Paul Huntington, Jordan Storey, Andrew Hughes; Ryan Ledson, Daniel Johnson, Paul Gallagher; Tom Barkhuizen, Graham Burke; Lukas Nmecha. Not used: Michael Crowe, Darnell Fisher, Connor Simpson, Jack Baxter, Adam O'Reilly, Ethan Walker.
Subs: Calum Woods (for Hughes, 67).

Goals: Vaulks 45+1, Smith 77 (Rotherham); Nmecha 78 (Preston).

Referee: Lee Probert (Wiltshire).

Attendance: 9,077 (1,141).


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