Millers in penalty drama
Rotherham United booked their place in the showpiece Wembley final in the most dramatic of circumstances by securing a penalty shoot-out victory over Hartlepool United, following a captivating cup tie.
Mickel Miller was the penalty hero by scoring the decisive spot kick, after Tom Crawford had missed the target entirely.
The nail-biting penalty drama only told half the story in a wonderful atmosphere at a sold-out Victoria Park. Both sides played out an enthralling cup tie in normal time, and Michael Smith’s 23rd and 24th goals of the season in all competitions cancelled out goals from Joe Grey and Luke Molyneux for the hosts.
The Millers were forced into a raft of changes for their trip to the North East, following a number of injuries in the camp.
There were rare starts for Viktor Johansson, Angus MacDonald, Jordi Osei-Tutu, Jamie Lindsay, Hakeem Odoffin and Tolaji Bola.
Top-scorer Smith was the only fit striker available for boss Paul Warne with Freddie Ladapo, Joshua Kayode and Georgie Kelly all ruled out. Ben Wiles was asked to ply his trade in behind Smith.
On the plus side, Rarmani Edmonds-Green and Mickel Miller returned following hamstring injuries, with the former named in the starting line-up and the latter on the bench.
The home side whipped up a frenzy prior to kick off but Rotherham settled into the Victoria Park affair the better and they had an early chance when Smith left Timi Odusina grounded before clipping an inviting centre which Bola looked to carefully steer towards goal but Ben Killip got his body behind his shot, before the hosts scrambled the ball clear.
Bola was in the thick of the early action, and the noisy home crowd were almost silenced when Dan Barlaser swung up an inviting cross and the former Arsenal player ghosted behind his marker, to meet his centre, but he could only prod an effort wide, from close range.
The decibel level was raised a notch or two when Neill Byrne made light work of MacDonald to dart into the box but club skipper Richard Wood halted his progress with a timely tackle before David Ferguson tried his luck from distance with a low drive which had Johansson scrambling across goal.
Both teams traded chances when Bryne gave MacDonald another torrid time before flashing a shot across the face of goal before Bola put in a dangerous cross at the other end which Wiles attempted to turn goalwards, but the Rawmarsh-born midfielder failed to make a telling connection.
Wood found himself in hot water following a hefty aerial duel with Tom Crawford and the Rotherham captain was the first to see yellow, and he was luck to escape further sanction following an untidy tussle with Molyneux – with the home crowd baying for a red card, and Rotherham’s talisman on a final warning.
However, Hartlepool punished the Millers from the resultant free kick, just before the half hour mark, when a perfectly weighted ball into the box from Ferguson paved the way for Grey, who may have timed his run to perfection despite three home players being advance of the ball, to calmly guide the ball into the Rotherham net, via the inside of the post.
The visitors were visibly rocked by the setback until Byrne was cautioned for a late challenge before Lindsay was forced off, and Miller was introduced into the electrically-charged atmosphere.
The home fans were at fever pitch when Omar Bogle looked to latch onto a through ball before tumbling under the challenge of Edmonds-Green, who looked on anxiously, as last-man, before a yellow-card was finally brandished.
The Millers hopes were hanging by a thread, and they were indebted to Johansson for keeping them in the tie when Nicky Featherstone’s ball into the box was met Molyneux, who guided the ball towards goal, but the Swedish stopper pulled off a superb, reflex save, to divert his effort wide.
The visitors’ first-half misery was summed up when Osei-Tutu was deservedly carded for a needless push on Grey.
Half-time: Hartlepool United 1 Rotherham United 0
Warne made a double change at the break, in an attempt to turn the tide of the encounter, and it paid dividends as Rotherham started in a more positive vein, and Miller jinked his way past two challenges before being upended by Jamie Sterry, just outside the box.
The Millers punished ‘Pools for their indiscretion when Barlaser put in a lovely free-kick into the danger area and Smith showed his aerial prowess to meet his centre and power a point-blank header into the roof of the net and send the travelling Millers contingent into delirium behind the goal.
However, Rotherham’s joy was short-lived as Hartlepool regained the lead, just five minutes later, when Barlaser was over-ran in midfield, and the home side attacked with purpose to find Molyneux, who kept his nerve to work a shooting position in the box, and he threaded a shot past Johansson, and sub Michael Ihiekwe in an effort to clear the ball could hack the ball into his own goal.
The game was being played at a frenetic pace, and Rotherham almost levelled matters for a second time when Hartlepool only half-cleared the danger, and Barlaser struck a sweet effort from 25 yards which shaved the top of the crossbar,
In a topsy-turvy cup tie, Hartlepool failed to heed the warning as Rotherham showed their mettle by equalising, in their next attack, thanks to that man, Smith.
Sub Chiedozie Ogbene, in almost his first action, worked a yard of space on his marker before delivering a tantalising centre into the box, and Smith, once again, ushered away from a Hartlepool defender, to direct a downward header which found the heart of the home goal giving Killip no chance.
It was thrill-a-minute stuff, and it was Hartlepool’s turn to threaten next when Molyneux stung the palms of Johansson with a stinging shot before Bogle bizarrely headed wide when it looked easier to score with the goal at his mercy.
The Millers came within a whisker of taking the lead for the first time when Barlaser caressed a delicious ball over the top of the home rearguard, and Smith got on the wrong side of his marker, to bare down on goal, but with the hat-trick in sight, he dinked the ball wide.
The tie was in the balance, and Ihiekwe was deceived by some clever skill from Bogle, but the Rotherham centre-half redeemed himself by taking the ball from the foot of Crawford, who looked a likely scorer.
With the game heading for penalty kicks, Rotherham looked the most likely to grab the decisive fifth goal, late on, when firstly Ogbene stabbed a low shot which Killip saved, and Smith was inches away from turning home the rebound before Rathbone drilled an effort which brought a smothered save from the home ‘keeper.
In second half stoppage time, Hartlepool were thankful for Killip for taking the cup tie to the lottery of spot kicks when he showed good reflexes to deny Ihiekwe, who stooped low with a fine header, from Osei-Tutu’s cross.
Full-time: Hartlepool United 2 Rotherham United 2
Hartlepool United 2
Rotherham United 2
Rotherham won 5-4 on penalties.
Teams: Hartlepool- Killip, Sterry, Byrne, Odusina, D Ferguson, Featherstone, Crawford, Shelton, Molyneux, Bogle, Grey (Carver 85). Unused- Bilokapic, Francis-Angol, Liddle, Martin Smith, Holohan, Fletcher.
Rotherham- Johansson, Edmonds-Green, Wood (Ihiekwe 46), MacDonald, Osei-Tutu (S Ferguson 90), Barlaser, Lindsay (Miller 34), Odoffin (Rathbone 46), Wiles, Michael Smith, Bola (Ogbene 61). Unused- Vickers, Mattock.
Referee- R Madley
Attendance- 7532 (657)
0-1 Featherstone scored
1-2 Sterry scored
2-2 Ferguson scored
2-3 Shelton scored
3-3 Barlaser scored
3-3 Molyneux saved
3-3 Wiles saved
3-4 Bogle scored
4-4 MacDonald scored
4-4 Crawford missed
5-4 Miller scored