“We are down, but we are not out,” was the defiant message from Rotherham United manager Steve Evans after a gut-wrenching defeat to neighbours Sheffield Wednesday.
But if the Millers are relegated from the Championship on May 2, they will look back on Saturday, March 21 as a defining moment of their campaign.
Leading 1-0, courtesy of Ben Pringle’s 57th-minute deflected shot, the Millers were on top.
With third-from-bottom Wigan Athletic losing to Bolton, a nine-point gap seemed set to open up in favour of Rotherham, who sat just above the Lancashire club in the table.
But Wednesday head coach Stuart Gray’s decision to throw on three strikers as substitutes, sacrificing his five-man midfield, suddenly transformed the match.
Caolan Lavery, one of those sent on along with Chris Maguire and Stevie May, headed in Lewis McGugan’s cross to level matters on 86 minutes. It was the first of four goals in an amazing 11-minute climax.
Straight from the kick-off, Rotherham attacked and another substitute, Jordan Bowery, tucked the ball beyond goalkeeper Keiren Westwood.
But in seven minutes of stoppage time, Wednesday snatched an unlikely victory.
First, McGugan’s free-kick was headed in by the hard-working Atdhe Nuhiu, then Kieran Lee raced through the middle to slot home a winner and spark delirious celebrations by Wednesday’s players and staff, plus 1,200 away fans in the 11,707 crowd.
With Wigan hitting a late equaliser, too, it means the Millers are now just five points above the relegation zone with seven games remaining.
Evans said: “It’s hard to take. For long spells we have outworked, outplayed and dominated a derby.
“Our defending was poor for each of their goals, we can’t defend like that and win a football match. There’s no one to blame but ourselves.
“I would love to be in a derby, 2-1 down and somebody adds seven minutes from somewhere. But the referee is not to blame, he could add 15 and you have to deal with it.
“Nobody is going to help us – it’s not about what Wigan do, it’s about what we are going to do.
“We will get the usual drivel locally, about how great they were. There was only one team that deserved to win it, and unfortunately that team lost.”
Rotherham edged a scoreless opening 45 minutes when both goalkeepers caught the eye.
Emiliano Martinez – the former Owls loanee making his Millers debut – denied McGugan with a one-handed save, and at the other end Westwood twice thwarted Matt Derbyshire.
Pringle gave the hosts a deserved lead when his long-range effort deflected off Tom Lees to deceive Westwood.
That heralded some nervous moments for the visitors, with the impressive Jack Hunt going close with a left-footed effort which skimmed the crossbar, then Conor Sammon fired into the side-netting.
With the clock ticking down, McGugan beat Derbyshire on the right flank before picking out unmarked Lavery for his first Owls goal of the season.
Parity lasted seconds as Bowery beat the offside trap, and a flagging Claude Dielna, to put the Millers back in front and the game looked up.
But Nuhiu’s fierce header was then followed by Lee’s dramatic late winner. Nihiu flicked the ball to May – who was taunted throughout after rejecting a move to Rotherham to join Wednesday in the summer – and the Scottish international eased the ball into Lee’s path. The midfielder then tucked the ball beyond Martinez to break Rotherham hearts.
Match-winner Lee said: “It was a kick in the teeth, their second goal, but we showed our character, we believed we could keep going and we did.
“You could see what it meant to me, the fans and staff after the goal so I think that ranks as my most important goal.
“Rotherham are battling for their lives in the Championship, but we wanted the win just as much. We know how important these games are.
“We left it late, but that makes for a better game.”
Owls’ head coach Gray added: “The subs made a big impact for us.
“The substitutes probably put Rotherham on the back foot, they went a little bit deeper, and allowed my full-backs to get forward.
“We just controlled the possession in that last 10 minutes, where we looked like the only ones who were going to score.
“When we did finally score, what did we do? From the kick-off we allow them to go up front and score, which was disappointing. But credit to our boys for keeping going.”
Evans disagreed Wednesday’s substitutions had changed the game, and revealed Millers chairman Tony Stewart had made a rare post-match trip to the dressing room to console the losing team.
“I don’t think their changes changed the game, I think bad defending changed the game,” insisted Evans. “Our chairman has just come down (to the dressing room), he has never been down in two and a half years.
“He’s hugged me, hugged nearly every one of the players, because he feels for us. We bleed here, we bleed together.
“We are as down as we can be, but, thankfully, we have got a little while to pick people up before we go again. We are getting absolutely smashed, every decision is going against us – or maybe it feels like that.”