FRESH from his side’s home victory over one former European Cup winner in Nottingham Forest at the weekend, Paul Warne’s belief that his Rotherham United side faced a step up in class against another was pretty much taken as read by everyone before this game.
That Aston Villa’s polish was showcased after playing just under an hour with 10 men following the 34th-minute dismissal of Tyrone Mings and still contrived to turn around an interval deficit to keep their play-off bid on course, was a rather more surprising development.
It was a dramatic and fluctuating evening which, at the break, tantalisingly carried the portents of being one of the most memorable nights in the Millers relatively short history at this stadium.
A side who pride themselves on being no respecter of reputations, Rotherham’s intensity, which saw those in red and white continually snap at the heels at the visitors, was the compelling and magnificent narrative.
It saw the Millers lead through Will Vaulks’s eighth goal of the season – a 36th-minute penalty awarded after Mings conceded a second spot-kick in successive games in South Yorkshire following his indiscretion in Villa’s weekend win at Hillsborough.
A second booking in the lead-up to the penalty after handling Joe Newell’s cross also ended Mings’s evening prematurely, but instead of getting mad after a fraught first-half, Villa – like all good sides do – got even on the restart to record their seventh successive league win.
After a wretched early penalty miss from Tammy Abraham, interval substitute Jonathan Kodija showed his fellow striker how it was done to level early in the second half and, before the hosts had drawn breath, a classy finish from Villa captain Jack Grealish sealed a remarkbale comeback.
Second-best on the restart despite their man advantage, Rotherham huffed and puffed, but without the same conviction as the first half, with Grealish’s strike effectively knocking the stuffing out of them.
An evening which had looked being a famous one for the hosts ended with wild scenes of celebrations at the final whistle from the away players and bench, who realised the significance of victory on a night when they had to dig deep.
It was ultimately an ‘if only’ occasion for Rotherham.
The first half displayed everything good about Warne’s troops where their work ethic was relentless and the tempo stirring.
By contrast, Villa were complacent and hesitant in a half that grew more oppressive as it progressed for the visitors.
Their casualness was summed up by Abraham’s tame 12th-minute penalty after Clark Robertson was penalised for catching Grealish – Marek Rodak flinging himself to his left with the Villa striker affording himself no run-up.
Vaulks’s penalty, by contrast, was far more unforgiving.
Before that, the Millers had knocked on the door several times, with an early cross-shot which whistled wide from Jon Taylor firing out a warning.
Taylor, a hive of energy in the first period, also tested Jed Steer with a low shot, with Semi Ajayi also seeing an effort saved.
Ajayi also went close with a header after Vaulks’s opener – the Millers first goal in six matches against Villa since October 1971 – before the visitors were afforded the sanctuary of the dressing room to regroup.
Highly likely to have been cajoled by some choice words of from their management team at the interval, Villa got the message on the restart, with their intensity levels upped significantly as they started to make light of their man disadvantage and not be consumed by it.
Interval replacement Kodija struck from 12 yards early in the second half, with a confident and resounding effort flying high past Rodak after Ajayi was penalised for handball.
It lit the claret-and-blue touchpaper with Grealish, whose theatrical antics on the deck drew rebuke from the home supporters in the first half, showing a further glimpse of his obvious class which recently saw his former manager Steve Bruce label him as the ‘best player in the Championship.’
A delightful interchange with Ahmed Elmohamady ended in the Villa captain firing home a crisp low shot for a fraught night to suddenly take on a whole different complexion.
Boyhood Birmingham fan Joe Newell tested the reflexes of Steer and Taylor also went close, but the Millers were never quite the same with their leading lights belatedly coming to the party.
Class told, but perhaps not in the way that most envisaged.
Rotherham United: Rodak, Vyner, Ihiekwe (Vassell 77), Robertson, Mattock, Ajayi, Taylor (Williams 84), Vaulks, Towell (Wiles 68), Newell, Smith. Unused substitutes: Wood, Forde, Price, Crooks.
Aston Villa: Steer, Elmohamady, Tuanzebe, Mings, Taylor, Hourihane, Adomah (Jedinak 37), McGinn, Grealish (Whelan 90), El Ghazi (Kodjia 46), Abraham. Unused substitutes: Lansbury, Davis, Green, Sarkic.
Referee: Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire).