ROTHERHAM UNITED’s faint automatic promotion hopes were dealt a blow as they slipped to a last-gasp defeat at the hands of local rivals Sheffield United.
The Millers’ long unbeaten run came to an abrupt end as Ben Davies struck from the spot in the dying minutes of the clash as the game looked to be heading to a goalless draw.
Following their last-gasp victory over Gillingham at the weekend, the Millers made two changes to their starting line-up with Rob Milsom returning to the Millers’ engine room as Lee Frecklington was ruled out because of a back injury.
Hat-trick hero Tom Hitchcock was rewarded for his heroics in Kent by being recalled to the visitors’ frontline partnering Alex Revell as hot-shot Kieran Agard reverted to his role on the right-hand of midfield.
The Millers had the first sight of goal when Adam Collin’s long punt forward was flicked on by Revell into the path of Hitchcock but Terry Kennedy was well-stationed to snuff out the danger.
Moments later, former Rotherham loanee Bob Harris tripped Agard in full flow but Ben Pringle wasted the resultant free-kick when he smashed it against the Blades wall.
Milsom became the first to see yellow for hauling down Kieron Freeman on the right flank before Stephen McGinn had the first home effort of note when he struck a fierce effort from the edge of the box which was blocked by a retreating defender.
Minutes later, James Tavernier hammered a cross-cum-shot which bounced wickedly infront of home ‘keeper George Long before McGinn failed to trouble Collin with a drilled effort from distance following a fine flowing home move at the other end.
The Millers came within a whisker of opening the scoring when Tavernier was released on the right flank and the Newcastle loanee advanced with menace before unleashing a fierce effort which was arrowing into the top corner until Long’s superb acrobatic intervention.
From the resultant corner, Pringle floated an inviting outswinger which was met by the head of Craig Morgan , who headed goalwards but the referee adjudged the visitors’ skipper had jumped illegally before the ball was cleared from the home line.
The visitors were looking the most likely and Tavernier attacked Matt Hill before playing a threaded ball into the path of Hitchcock, who drilled a snap shot which was bravely blocked by Long at point-blank range.
Tavernier was causing problems for the home side and he ghosted past Harris with a minimum of fuss before floating a centre which paved the way for Revell, to power a goalbound header but Long was well-positioned to collect smartly on his own line.
Minutes later, Revell screwed a speculative effort well wide of the target before Harris became the latest to see yellow for a late lunge on Hitchcock.
With half-time approaching, Long had a huge stroke of luck when he smashed his clearance against Hitchcock and the ball flashed narrowly wide of the target.
Half-time:- Sheffield United 0 Rotherham United 0
Following the restart, Rotherham had faint appeals for a spot-kick when Revell’s punt saw Hitchcock get on the wrong side of Freeman before appearing to be nudged just inside the box but referee Mike Dean waved away visiting protests.
The Millers then launched a lightning counter attack when sub Michael O’Connor’s sweeping pass paved the way for Tavernier to run hard at the Blades defence before taking advantage of a two-on-one situation to release Agard, but the ex-Yeovil striker failed to put the ball in the danger area as he was crowded out near the touchline.
Just past the hour mark, Davies swung a tantalising corner which was met by the towering head of Harry Maguire but his looping header was straight down the throat of Collin.
Minutes later, Jose Baxter showed fleet of foot to give McGinn a shooting opportunity and he blazed an effort which cleared the visitors’ crossbar.
The home side then came within a whisker of the breakthrough when the Millers failed to deal with a Davies free-kick paving the way for Baxter to fire a rasping effort from distance which whistled past the visitors’ upright with Collin a helpless bystander.
With the game looking to be heading for a goalless draw, the Blades were presented with the opportunity to snatch the points in the closing minutes when following a period of jostling in the box, Morgan was penalised for hauling back Maguire and referee Dean after a period of thinking time, pointed to the spot and booked the Millers skipper in the process.
From the resultant penalty, Davies kept his nerve to calmly wrongfoot Collin and slide the ball into the bottom corner of the net to consign the Millers to the first defeat in 17 games.
Full-time:- Sheffield United 1 Rotherham United 0
Sheffield United- Long, Harris (Khan 66), Maguire, Hill, Baxter (Reed 73), McGinn, Paynter, Davies, Freeman, Kennedy, Dimaio (Coady 87). Unused:- Brayford, Scougall, Murphy, Willis.
Rotherham- Collin, Skarz, Arnason, Revell, Milsom (O’Connor 52), Pringle (Vuckic 83), Morgan, Agard, Tavernier, Hitchcock (Thomas 73), Smallwood. Unused:- Shearer, Brindley, Davis, Adams.
Attendance:- 21,529 (4,950)