The fans, the fightback, the fire that burns ... the story of Stoke City 2 Rotherham United 2

By Paul Davis | 14/04/2019

The fans, the fightback, the fire that burns ... the story of Stoke City 2 Rotherham United 2
Matt Crooks scores at Stoke. Pictures by Dave Poucher

THE body language spoke of men who thought that they might already be beaten.

Rotherham United's players looked in a sorry state as they trooped off the pitch at half-time at Stoke City.

It mattered nothing that they had started well against opposition that had been in the Premier League last season. Two mad minutes had cost them dearly.

Now, with games running out, with their Championship survival on the line, they were 2-0 down. The men famed for their fight were losing the battle.

The tunnel at the Bet365 Stadium is right next to the away end and, as the Millers passed by, the travelling supporters had plenty to say.

But they didn't turn on their team. In an uplifting show of unity, they simply turned up the noise. They cajoled, they hollered, they encouraged, they pleaded for more.

Then came the second half.

Not the start the Millers wanted

By the end it was 2-2 and could have been, should have been, at least 4-2 to Rotherham.

Millers manager Paul Warne summed up what hit the home side after the break.

"No defender wants to play against a centre-forward who's going to run and scrap for everything," he said. "No full-backs want to play against wingers who're never going to stop.

"No midfielders want to play against someone who is going to tackle and head the ball and just keep on doing it."

With four matches left, Rotherham are third from bottom, two points from safety, still in the hunt, still giving their all.

Fans had pleaded for more. They got more.

THE MATCH

The game was only 29 minutes old and Warne was standing in anguish in his technical area with his head in his hands.

Stoke's song, Delilah, had been played before kick-off and why, why, why was Sam Vokes allowed so much room to nod home Ashley Williams' cross in the 27th minute, two minutes before Sam Clucas lifted the ball into the roof of the net when James McClean's low centre was deflected into his path?

"They scored from their first real attack," Warne said. "When we conceded from another cross so soon afterwards, I could see that the lads didn't believe they were going to get anything out of the game."

No-one could have predicted what happened next. As the match sponsored by Total Motion Vehicle Management entered its second period now came the Total Motion Millers.

Rotherham are back in it

England goalkeeper Jack Butland pulled off international-quality stops to keep out a Clark Robertson header, a deflected Joe Newell shot and a late Matt Crooks effort that was heading towards the top corner and would have won Rotherham the game.

"Their keeper ... you can see why he earns the money he earns," Warne said. "He made three unbelievable saves in the second half. I was right behind them all and I thought all three were goals.

"We deserved to win it. Marek (Rodak) has made one maybe two saves. We must have had ten attempts on target. Butland has kept them in it.

"Stoke went nearly six hours without conceding a goal recently so for us to to come here and get two shows how good our performance was. The goalkeeper got Stoke's Man-of-the-Match award. That sums it up better than I can."

Against a backdrop of constant support from 821 away fans, Rotherham swept aside opponents whose £7-million-plus spend on agents' fees in the last two transfer windows is more than the Millers' entire playing budget for this season.

Michael Smith headed in Anthony Forde's 58th-minute cross and substitute Crooks applied a close-range finish to Semi Ajayi's header in the 75th minute when Will Vaulks hurled in one of his long-throw specials.

Hands up if Michael Smith is hard to play against

Crooks was everywhere. Two minutes after his leveller, his shot was deflected for a corner and, a minute later, his low, bobbling effort was cleared off the line by Ryan Shawcross.

Soon after, he headed over and then came Butland's stunning 83rd-minute intervention as the midfielder's thumping drive was tipped away before the Millers man danced his way into the area only to be swamped by Stoke shirts as he was about to pull the trigger.

"We beat Nottingham Forest at home last weekend and we let a chance go on Wednesday against Aston Villa really," Warne said. "Then to come here and get a point ... the lads are performing excellently.

"We'll be judged at the end of the season. If we aren't fortunate enough in our fight we've still done everything we can to fight. I really love them guys. I'm proud of the way they stick together."

THE GAME-CHANGER

By hook or by Crooks, Matt was going to make sure the Millers took something from this game.

His entrance coincided with the Millers' first goal, he opened his account for the club he joined three months ago from League Two Northampton Town and he terrorised the Potters as Rotherham pushed for a winner.

Warne said: "It's difficult when you join a club in January, particularly when you're jumping up two leagues.

"I just had a good feeling about him today. He's trained really well. He's got an arrogance about him with the ball at his feet. He thinks he can take people on.

"If he'd scored when he weaved his way through it would have been like Diego Maradona stuff.

So close to a winner

"We played on Wednesday, 24 hours after Stoke. 24 hours' less rest in three days is a big difference. But we finished physically a lot stronger

"I think today you can see the character and friendships within the team. They were egging each other on. They were really going for it at the end."

The scenes of unrestrained joy behind Butland's net after the final whistle contrasted wildly with the ones of fevered desperation at the interval.

The away following rose in acclaim and the players in black and blue, having battered the Potters black and blue in the second half, returned the applause.

Supporters had sung louder than 23,000-plus home followers throughout the afternoon and they hit another raucous, bellowing peak as they vocalised their survival hope.

"Rotherham til I die," they chanted while a demented group at the back of the celebrating throng raised their arms and bent forward before their team in 'not worthy' gestures.

They were worthy all right. Just as the Millers had been worthy in that fan-inspired, ferocious, fantastic fightback.

Stoke (4-4-1-1): Jack Butland; Ashley Williams, Ryan Shawcross, Danny Baath, Bruno Martins Indi; James McLean, Peter Etebo, Joe Allen, Sam Clucas; Bojan; Sam Vokes. Unused: Adam Federici, Moritz Bauer, Mame Diouf, Ryan Woods.

Subs: Benik Afobe (for Bojan, 62), Charlie Adam (for Vokes, 87), Thibaud Verlinden (for Martins Indi, 87).

Rotherham (4-1-4-1): Marek Rodak; Zak Vyner, Michael Ihiekwe, Clark Robertson, Joe Mattock; Semi Ajayi; Jon Taylor, Will Vaulks, Richie Towell, Anthony Forde; Michael Smith. Unused: Lewis Price, Richard Wood, Ben Wiles, Kyle Vassell.

Subs: Matt Crooks (for Towell, 58), Ryan Williams (for Taylor, 68), Joe Newell (for Forde, 68).

Goals: Vokes 27, Clucas 29 (Stoke); Smith 58, Crooks 75 (Rotherham).

Referee: Andy Woolmer (Northamptonshire).

Attendance: 24,250 (821).


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