ROTHERHAM UNITED booked a Wembley date with Leyton Orient on May 25 for the chance to earn League One promotion following a superb 3-1 victory over Preston North End in the play-off semi-final.
Following the hard-fought draw at Deepdale, Paul Gallagher stunned the home faithful with the breakthrough but Wes Thomas soon levelled matters with a clever header.
Goals from Lee Frecklington and Kieran Agard either side of the interval put the Millers in charge of the tie and despite a few late scares, the home side held on to record a 4-2 aggregate victory.
Millers’ chief Steve Evans welcomed hot-shot Agard back into the starting line-up after injury ruled him out of the first leg.
Midfield maestro Frecklington shrugged off a knock sustained in Lancashire to take his place in the Millers engine room partnering Richard Smallwood, who returned to the home reckoning following his three-match suspension.
In a red-hot atmosphere, the home side had the first sight of goal when Bailey Wright was harshly adjudged to have hauled down Thomas paving the way for James Tavernier to fire a wicked free-kick which was smartly diverted from goal by a retreating defender.
In the next phase of play, Agard was almost put in the clear but a well-stationed defender snuffed out the danger before John Welsh blazed a shot over from distance after Rotherham failed to clear decisively at the other end.
Minutes later, Wright became the first to see yellow for a late lunge on Agard and from the resultant free-kick, Ben Pringle’s delivery found Frecklington at the far post but his downward header was straight down the throat of Declan Rudd.
However, Preston made the all-important breakthrough on 16 minutes just past the quarter hour when Joe Garner was bundled over by Kari Arnason.
From the resultant free-kick, Gallagher curled an inswinging centre which was aimed towards Jack King at the far post, who was being marshalled by Alex Revell, but the ball seemingly missed the duo before arrowing into the far corner of the goal.
The Millers responded superbly and they came within a whisker of levelling matters when Arnason rose highest to meet Pringle’s free-kick but Rudd stood up tall to block his goalbound header from point-blank range.
The home side hauled themselves back into the tie on 24 minutes when Scott Wiseman was adjudged to have towered over Revell illegally.
From the following free-kick, Pringle delivered a tantalising centre which saw Thomas ghost infront of his marker infront of a ruck of bodies to glance a superb header which fizzed past Rudd before finding the heart of the visitors’ goal.
The home side were buoyed by the equaliser and Thomas fired over from an acute angle before the Bournemouth loanee almost got on the end of a swirling Pringle centre but he couldn’t control his snap volley as it flew harmlessly wide of the target.
Just past the half-hour, skipper Craig Morgan put his body on the line to block a Gallagher effort from just outside the box before Rotherham took control of the semi-final minutes later by taking the lead.
Pringle was again the architect behind the goal when the ex-Derby midfielder curled a superb cross into the heart of the visitors’ box and Frecklington ghosted into the box to sneak in unnoticed before steering a header across goal which hit the inside of the far post before nestling into the visitors’ goal.
In an enthralling encounter, Preston almost hit back immediately when Garner towered highest to meet Wiseman’s centre but his bullet header narrowly cleared the crossbar before Gallagher fired over when the ball fell invitingly into his path on the edge of the box.
The home side had faint appeals for a spot-kick when Agard tumbled under a challenge in the box but the referee waved away home protests before the home side had a lucky escape when Neil Kilkenny tried his luck from distance with a speculative effort which Adam Collin failed to grasp and the ball squirmed out of his hands and fell narrowly wide of the upright to the relief of the red half of the NYS.
Half-time:- Rotherham United 2 Preston North End 1
Following the restart, Kevin Davies became the next to see yellow following his clumsy tackle on Joe Skarz before Rotherham came agonisingly close to extending their advantage when the Lancastrians failed to clear decisively and Pringle struck a fantastic volley with the outside of his foot which had Rudd nervously scurrying across goal and the ball struck the crossbar before bouncing to safety.
Minutes later, David Buchanan drilled a low effort harmlessly wide of the target before Gallagher’s pinpoint centre paved the way for Garner, to strike a crisp volley which whistled past the upright.
In a see-saw battle, Tavernier’s fleet of foot left Buchanan in his wake before the Newcastle loanee delivered a fantastic centre which was straight on the head of Thomas, but his downward header stuck a retreating defender as it was arching towards goal.
At the other end, Garner missed a gilt-edged chance to level matters when he met sub Chris Humphrey’s inviting centre but his downward header failed to trouble Collin before Rotherham gave themselves some breathing space with 25 minutes remaining.
There looked little danger when Frecklington clipped a delightful ball into the channel and Tavernier showed quick feet to cut inside a visitors defender before pulling the ball into the path of Agard, whose scuffed effort dribbled into the far corner of the net.
Minutes later, Collin became the latest to incur the wrath of the referee as he was judged to be wasting time before Gallagher joined him in the notebook for hauling down Tavernier soon after.
The home side were sniffing blood and the lively Pringle curled a delightful effort narrowly wide of the upright before the home side had their hearts in their mouths when King tried an opportunistic effort from distance which took a wicked deflection to slightly wrongfoot Collin and the ball smacked against the upright before being diverted to safety.
At the other end, Arnason towered above his marker from Pringle’s corner to plant a header narrowly over the bar before Preston again came within inches of halving the deficit when Garner fired a snap shot which was deflected onto the post before the ball rolled tantalisingly along the home line before being cleared.
With time running out for the visitors, Revell struck a fierce effort which had Rudd at full stretch before Garner had PNE’s last effort of note when his rising shot cleared the home crossbar.
Full-time:- Rotherham United 3 Preston North End 1
Teams:- Rotherham- Collin, Skarz, Arnason, Frecklington (Milsom 90), Revell, Pringle, Morgan, Agard (O’Connor 90), Thomas (Vuckic 87), Tavernier, Smallwood. Unused:- Shearer, Davis, Rowe, Hitchcock.
Preston- Rudd, Clarke, Wright, Buchanan, K Davies, Gallagher (Beavon 77), Garner, Kilkenny, King, Welsh (Brownhill 68), Wiseman (Humphrey 53). Unused:- Stuckmann, Keane, Laird, Holmes.
Referee:- Keith Stroud
Attendance:- 11576 (1230)
Man of the Match:-Ben Pringle