Millers earn New Year's Day victory..
ROTHERHAM United dragged themselves away from the Championship relegation zone with a nail-biting victory over Preston North End thanks to Will Vaulks’ thunderbolt and Michael Smith’s well-placed header.
Despite a lacklustre first-half display, the Millers grabbed an undeserved interval lead thanks to Vaulks before Smith added to Rotherham’s tally with his fifth goal of the season.
Lukas Nmecha halved the deficit almost immediately to pave the way for a late Preston rally, but Rotherham held on for their first victory since early November – to ensure the Millers began 2019 in fine style.
Following their heart breaking late loss at the hands of Bristol City just three days ago, Millers chief Paul Warne was forced to reshuffle his pack for the visit of the Lancastrians.
Nigerian international Semi Ajayi was asked to play in the right-back slot as Billy Jones was missing, owing to his red-card at Ashton Gate while Richard Wood and Sean Raggett formed a new-look Millers centre-back partnership – with Clark Robertson unavailable because of injury.
Matt Palmer was handed a recall in the home engine room with Richie Towell serving the first match of a three game suspension following his dismissal against the Robins while youngster Ben Wiles kept his place following an encouraging league debut at the weekend.
There were substitute berths for fellow academy products Akeem Hinds, Jake Southern-Cooper and Jerry Yates, who was called back from his loan stint at Carlisle United, after being amongst the goals for the League Two outfit, in recent weeks.
The visitors settled into the game the quicker and Graham Burke had the first of goal with a snap shot from the edge of the box which was bravely blocked by Ajayi before Paul Gallagher’s floated ball caught the Millers defence square and Nmecha got the better of his marker to fizz an effort from a tight angle which was parried to safety by Marek Rodak.
Ryan Williams had the Millers’ first shot in anger with a speculative effort which was blocked by Paul Huntington before Raggett’s error, at the other end, presented Tom Barkhuizen to race towards the Rotherham goal but Palmer, in an attempt, to prevent him shooting goalwards, tripped the Preston forward, before he could get his shot away on the edge of the box – with the recalled midfielder earning the first caution of the match.
The Lancastrians failed to punish the Millers, from the resultant free-kick on the edge of the ‘D’ when Paul Gallagher looked to pick his spot by firing towards the bottom right-hand corner of the goal but Rodak correctly guessed his intentions by diverting his curling effort to safety.
The Millers had a let off when Alex Neil’s side turned defence into attack in the blink of an eye and Nmecha got the ball under his spell before getting the better of a one-on-one with Ajayi to put Barkhuizen in the clear, but the former Morecambe striker fluffed his lines with a dragged effort, when he really should have done better.
The Lancastrians must have been scratching their heads over how they were not ahead when Barkhuizen showed Raggett a clean pair of heels to dart into the home box before unselfishly playing a slide-rule pass to Burke, who looked a certain scorer, but Rodak bravely threw his body in the way of his shot, to deny him at point-blank range.
The Millers were struggling to find their rhythm and they had another scare when Barkhuizen and Burke once again combined to great effect to split open the home rearguard to pave the way for the latter, to fire a left-footed effort which had Rodak nervously scurrying across goal, as it shaved the home upright.
Despite the Millers being second-best for the opening quarter, North End were indebted to Declan Rudd for preserving parity when the visitors failed to deal with Vaulks long-throw and Wiles picked up the pieces to fire a left-footed effort which was arrowing towards the roof of the net before the Preston ‘keeper’s late, smart intervention- with a tipped save.
Just before the half-hour mark, Rotherham were caught short of numbers following a lightning counter attack from the visitors and Daniel Johnson ghosted into the box, but, inexplicably, he declined the opportunity to shoot, by fizzing a wasteful cross across the face of the goal.
Both sides traded bookings, near the interval, when Raggett saw yellow after being outfoxed by Nmecha’s clever turn and run before Ryan Ledson soon joined him in the book following a clumsy challenge on Wiles, on halfway.
Despite Preston’s superiority, Rotherham broke the deadlock on the stroke of half-time when Williams was felled by Clarke, in an inviting central position, about 25 yards away from goal.
Vaulks made the Lancastrians pay in spectacular fashion from the resultant free-kick with a fierce strike, which may have swerved in the air, as Rudd was bamboozled with its trajectory, as it smashed into the roof of the net before the Millers midfielder treated the jubilant home faithful to his trademark summersault celebration.
Half-time- Rotherham United 1 Preston North End 0
Despite their slender advantage, Warne made a double substitution at the break, in an attempt, to gain a firmer foothold in the midfield areas – with Anthony Forde and Joe Newell introduced into the fray.
The move appeared to pay dividends with the Millers appearing to be a tougher proposition, early in the second period – with Forde making an instant impact with a whipped centre which forced Rudd to punch clear.
Just before the hour mark, Rotherham worked an opening following fine one-touch football involving Ajayi and Wiles and Ryan Williams advanced with menace before taking aim with a left-footed effort from distance which skimmed off the slick AESSEAL New York Stadium, as it shaved the upright.
Minutes later, Vaulks latched onto a weak Preston clearance to get the ball under his control before trying his luck with a dipping left-footed effort which had Rudd backtracking nervously, as it narrowly cleared the crossbar.
In the next Millers attack, Preston failed to deal with Forde’s inviting free-kick and Newell’s flick-on saw Raggett execute an overhead kick, which saw the ball dribble narrowly wide of the target – although any goal would have chalked off for offside.
Rotherham were largely nullifying Preston’s threat until Raggett was penalised following an aerial clash with Nmecha but Burke released the pressure on the hosts with a weak free-kick which smashed into the home wall.
Minutes later, Vaulks became the next to see yellow, as he mis-controlled before felling Johnson as he looked to atone and the Millers had a stroke of luck from the resultant free-kick when Gallagher whipped in a delicious centre which saw Nmecha emerge at the far post to power a header which Rodak superbly kept out, at point-blank range, before Raggett hacked the ball clear.
The moment proved crucial when Rotherham doubled their lead with 13 minutes to go when Newell darted away from the attentions of Clarke down the left flank before hanging a tantalising centre which was inch-perfect for Smith, who kept his nerve to head home from close range.
However, Millers’ joy proved short-lived when Preston halved the deficit, just a minute later, when the Lancastrians switched the play to great effect with Wiles down injured and Clarke delivered an inviting centre which was controlled superbly by Nmecha, who evaded his marker before shooting goalwards with his next touch and the backtracking Wood could only hook the ball into his own net, despite his best efforts – with the ball already crossing the line.
The visitors were sensing a fightback was on the cards and Ledson volleyed over before Rotherham tension boiled over when Wiles and Smith both saw yellow, with the former carded for an over-enthusiastic challenge on halfway.
The Millers were walking a tightrope, near the end, and Clarke’s drilled cross-cum-shot was deflected into the side netting by Mattock before Smith, on defensive duties, almost in avertedly diverted the ball towards his own goal but Ajayi spared his blushes with a timely clearance, from near his own line.
Full-time- Rotherham United 2 Preston North End 1
Rotherham United 2
Preston North End 1
Teams:- Rotherham- Rodak, Mattock, Vaulks, Ajayi, Wood, Palmer (Forde 46), Taylor (Newell 46), Williams, Smith, Wiles, Raggett. Unused- Price, Yates, Hinds, Southern-Cooper.
Preston- Rudd, Clarke, Johnson, Gallagher, Storey, Hughes (Woods 67), Ledson, Burke, Huntington, Barkhuizen, Nmecha. Unused- Crowe, Fisher, Simpson, Baxter, O’Reilly, Walker.
Referee- L Probert
Attendance- 9077 (1141)