Central defender Dominic Ball has an ally in the Championship’s most experienced manager in Rafa Benitez, who admits their hosts had his Newcastle side rattled at times on Saturday.
This meeting between the division’s most porous defence and the top scorers should have been a formality, but it was far from that.
However, it still left Rotherham heading into the international break with defeats against leaders Huddersfield and third-placed Newcastle and with a trip to another relegated club, second-placed Norwich, up next.
Former Rangers defender Ball, protecting a fractured cheekbone sustained against Barnsley, knows it will not get much easier after that trio of games, but says that the Millers are now in a much better position to cope.
He is also confident that the Championship’s youngest central defensive partnership will be up to the rigours of the fight ahead.
At 21, Ball is being followed into the England ranks by partner Dael Fry, the Middlesbrough loanee who has gone to join the Under-20s for games against Germany, Holland and the USA.
They combined in only their second game together to snuff out effectively the vaunted pairing of Dwight Gayle and Mo Diame as Rotherham gave as good as they got against a side boasting the division’s best away record.
However, there was nothing they could do to prevent the first-half winner from full debutant Christian Atsu, the on-loan winger from Chelsea.
The outstanding Jonjo Shelvey pinged the ball out to him and the Ghana international cut inside Darnell Fisher, who had switched flanks when Joe Mattock withdrew after damaging a calf in the warm-up, and curled the ball beyond Lee Camp before the break.
The goal was tough on the Millers who, after Ball had cleared from inside his six-yard area a shot from Yoan Gouffran, had seen Karl Darlow tip over a volley from Joe Newell and Jon Taylor’s fierce deflected drive from outside the area onto the bar.
They survived a tough spell after the break with Gayle poking a free-kick from Shelvey wide of the far post, Atsu’s low drive being turned for a corner by Camp, Fry doing well to divert a goalbound shot from Diame and Shelvey testing Camp with a shot from outside the area.
Ciaran Clark almost headed the visitors 2-0 ahead from their fifth corner of the half before the Millers threw men forward and almost got their reward when Gouffran got in front of Ball as the ball dropped from a corner and diverted it against a post.
From the subsequent corner, Will Vaulks, on for first-half calf injury victim Tom Adeyemi, headed towards goal, but Clark cleared off the line to deny the Millers a point their spirited display deserved.
Ball, equally at home in central defence or midfield, said: “I think we’ve really shown in our last two games against two of the top teams in this league that we can compete at this level.”
Of Benitez’s assertion that the Millers can rise off the bottom, he concurred: “Definitely we can. I think we all know that.
“Before, we didn’t have that consistency and were conceding too many goals. That didn’t give us a base from which to go on and win, but in the last couple of games we’ve stepped it up.
“I know we’ve lost and it’s disappointing, but I always like to take the positives from things and if we continue to put in those kind of performances we’re going to get results.”
Ball refused to use Mattock’s late withdrawal – Greg Halford was brought in at right-back – as an excuse. “I don’t think the team were disrupted too much, actually. It’s obviously disappointing to lose a player, but every other player is individually focused on their own performance and there wasn’t that much change.
“Darnell went to left-back, a job he’s done previously, and Greg came in and proved a massive threat so I don’t think we were affected that much and it showed.”
Although Rotherham claimed they should have been awarded a free-kick down the other end of the pitch for a foul on Lee Frecklington before Newcastle broke for their goal, Ball continued: “We didn’t give them that many chances at all and it just shows the calibre of player Newcastle have that they have one chance and it’s enough for them.
“The manager said, ‘Go out there and rattle them and they won’t like it’. I don’t think they did. We put a lot of pressure on them and I don’t think they liked it.
“We can definitely push up the table. That’s going to be the aim after the international break, to carry this momentum on.”
Manager Alan Stubbs reflected: “You have to look at the contrast between the teams. You have a team that has a value of up to £80m who have spent over £50m in the summer and we ran them close, but not close enough.
“They have probably had one moment in the game where it has proved to be costly. That’s what that one bit of quality gives you. Unfortunately, the biggest comfort is when you take something from them and, unfortunately, we haven’t done that.”
Rotherham United: Camp, Halford, Fry, Ball, Fisher; Taylor, Adeyemi (Vauks 20), Frecklington, Newell (Blackstock 73); Brown; Ward. Unused substitutes: Price, Forde, Forster-Caskey, Wilson, Wood.
Newcastle United: Darlow, Anita, Lascelles, Clark, Drummett; Atsu (Ritchie 66), Shelvey, Colback, Gouffran; Diame (Hanley 87); Gayle (Mitrovic 79). Unused substitutes: Sels, Hayden, Mbemba, Yedlin.
Referee: R East (Wiltshire).