A PERFECT send-off for Sheffield United ahead of this Sunday’s trip to Wembley as Rotherham United’s 16-game unbeaten run came to a controversial end.
With just a minute remaining of what had been a hard-fought if dour derby clash, referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot following a bout of wrestling at the back post between Chris Morgan and Harry Maguire.
Once the inevitable protests from the Millers had died down, Ben Davies, who had been waiting to take a corner when Maguire had been bundled to the floor, then kept his cool to send Adam Collin the wrong way and seal all three points.
Steve Evans was incandescent, as was his assistant Paul Raynor. Neither’s mood is likely to have been improved by the PA system booming out Always Look On the Bright Side of Life as the final whistle blew.
Once the dust settles, however, the Millers pair can surely reflect on what good shape they are in as the regular season enters the final strait.
Sure, automatic promotion, always a slim possibility, has gone thanks to Brentford beating Crawley Town to extend their advantage to nine points over the South Yorkshire side.
But considering last night was the first time Rotherham lost since New Year’s Day, a run that has accrued 40 points, Evans’s men are the side to avoid in the play-offs.
As for the Blades, victory over a derby rival who had comprehensively beaten them at the New York Stadium was something to savour.
Especially with Nigel Clough, with Sunday’s Wembley clash against Hull City in mind, having rested seven members of what can be considered to be his first-choice starting XI.
The home side also ended the game with 16-year-old Louis Reed on the field along with another teenager, Otis Khan.
Both acquitted themselves well for a Blades side who, despite a host of changes, put in a disciplined display.
The opening half or so was everything that is expected of a derby – frantic, hard-fought and with the odd rash tackle or two thrown in for good measure.
Rob Milsom paid the price for the first of those when shown a yellow card for scything down Kieron Freeman.
Once the pace finally subsided, it was the Millers who started to ask the more searching questions of their opponents thanks, in the main, to the threat posed by James Tavernier.
First, the Newcastle United loanee cut in from the right flank and unleashed a ferocious shot that George Long did well to parry to safety at full-stretch.
Then, as Matt Hill dithered, Tavernier siezed the initiative to slip a delightful pass inside for Alex Revell whose shot was blocked by the legs of Long.
It was the second time in quick succession that the Blades goalkeeper had rescued the hosts but he almost undid all that work on the stroke of half-time with a loose clearance that cannoned into Tom Hitchcock.
The ball could have gone anywhere but, much to Long’s relief, it bounced wide of the goal.
After the break, the Millers had two appeals for a penalty both waved away by referee Dean. For the first, an optimistic shout for handball against Davies., the Premier League official got his decision spot on.
In the second instance, however, the Millers’ claim that Hitchcock had been clumsily knocked to the ground by a combination of Freeman and Maguire seemed more plausible.
Dean, though, would not be swayed and as the game entered the closing stages a goalless draw seemed certain.
That was, however, until the 89th minute when Dean adjudged Morgan to have bundled Maguire to the floor.
He had warned the pair moments earlier for grappling as Ben Davies waited to send over a corner.
So, when Maguire hit the deck, Dean handed the Blades a golden chance to claim a first win in four. Davies did the rest with the spot-kick to send the home fans in the 21,529 crowd into raptures.
Defeat was harsh on Rotherham, who had restricted the hosts to a handful of long-range efforts and a looping header from Maguire that was easily claimed by Adam Collin.
Sheffield United: Long; Freeman, Maguire, Kennedy, Hill; Davies, Dimaio (Coady 87), McGinn, Harris (khan 65); Baxter (Reed 74), Paynter. Unused substitutes: Brayford, Scougall, Murphy, Willis, Reed.
Rotherham United: Collin; Tavernier, Arnason, Morgan, Skarz; Agard, Smallwood, Milsom (O’Connor 52), Pringle ( Vuckic 83); Revell, Hitchcock (Thomas 74). Unused substitutes: Shearer, Brindley, Davis, Adams.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).