Sunderland 1 Rotherham United 1: Last-gasp heartache takes Millers fates to final day

WISE MEN say, only fools rush in are the opening lines to Sunderland's club anthem, Elvis Presley's classic Can't Help Falling in Love.

Throughout a tense and dramatic 2021-22 run-in, it has been wise not to predict with confidence what the final make-up of either the top two or the play-off spots will be in League One come season's end.

There was no definitive moment on Tuesday amid a division that is infuriating Wearsiders chief Alex Neil. 'The table is doing my head in', he said before this game and several of his fellow managers might just be nodding their heads in agreement.

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There should have been glorious clarity for Rotherham United and Paul Warne. A few minutes away from effectively securing a hat-trick of promotions back to the Championship under his watch, Michael Ihiekwe proved the fall guy.

BITTERSWEET: Michael Ihiekwe celebrates putting Rotherham United ahead at Sunderland. But the pendulum swing somewhat for the Millers defender, whose late own goal effectively denied his side automatic promotion with a game to spare. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

For the second successive game, a Rotherham player scored at both ends of the pitch. Unfortunately this was the wrong way around with Ihiekwe - who put the Millers ahead on 17 minutes when he headed home - repeating the trick at the same end two minutes from time.

His thumping header from Jack Clarke's left-wing cross flew past Viktor Johansson and went in off the underside of the bar. It was Sunderland's first effort on target, with 'sick', 'sore' and 'devastated' being three words understandably used to describe developments by Warne.

Given those bitter late events at the end of last season at Cardiff - when the hosts scored in the 88th minute to send United down - it was hard not to feel for him and his side on a night when victory would have maintained their hopes of not just a top two finish but even the title, with Wigan losing at Portsmouth.

Fortunately, the Millers, this time around, have a game left to realise their top-two mission. Win at Gillingham on Saturday or better or equal MK Dons result at Plymouth and these events on Wearside will be soon forgotten about. They could even lose and go up as long as MK Dons don't win.

It was a night when Rotherham produced a near-perfect away-day, aside from their failure to put the game to bed.

Boyhood Newcastle United fan Michael Smith had a chance late on, but unfortunately there was no Alan Shearer salute like there was in the reverse fixture, which the Millers won 5-1.

Here there was a bitter sting at Sunderland, where the Millers are still winless since 1959

Warne kept faith, unsurprisingly, with the side who showed such character against Oxford - with Freddie Ladapo again not involved.

By contrast, his counterpart Neil made three changes, two unenforced, despite his side sauntering to a 5-1 victory on Saturday.

Given the first-half evidence, the Sunderland chief clearly got his side wrong.

Rotherham bossed the opening 45 minutes and were first to virtually everything in midfield and hogged possession and posed significant problems on a big pitch with the pace and directness of Chiedozie Ogbene and Jordi Osei-Tutu in particular.

Being critical, the only downer was that the visitors’ lead was not more emphatic against an abject Sunderland side who looked nothing like a team who had picked up 50 points on fertile Wearside soil so far in 2021-22.

Both Ogbene and Osei-Tutu got behind the slack Sunderland backline on several occasions. The final ball let them down at times and when they did get through, one or two moments of composure let them down.

Ben Wiles - another to pose problems in an advanced role - dragged one good opportunity wide. Osei-Tutu was off target with another chance when he could have done better and when the goal came, it arrived from an unlikely source.

There was an abrogation of responsibility at the back and Ihiekwe cashed in, heading home in comfort following a corner on the right from Dan Barlaser, who hails from just up the road from Sunderland in Gateshead.

The comfort of the half was something that Warne could not have been expecting, while being mindful that the hosts - whose policy of going direct bore no fruit in the opening half - had some serious options to call upon from the bench.

Neil resisted the urge to make changes at the interval and kept his power dry initially, with Warne probably also envisaging that the hosts could not be as bad as they were in the first half if they tried.

Former Huddersfield Town midfielder Alex Pritchard did soon enter the fray and he had the hosts' best chance with a sweet free-kick which flew into the side-netting.

The hosts made more changes and a couple of excellent crosses from Luke O'Nien went unrewarded. They got a tad better, but the Millers were on the cusp of one of the most spectacular nights of the Warne era, Sadly, there was a spectacular finish.

Sunderland: Patterson; Wright, Batth, Doyle; Hume (Clarke 60), Evans, Matete (Embleton 70), O’Nien, Gooch; Broadhead (Pritchard 54), Stewart. Substitutes unused: Hoffman, Xhemajli, Neil, Roberts.

Rotherham United: Johansson, Edmonds-Green, Wood, Ihiekwe; Harding, Rathbone (Lindsay 80), Wiles, Barlaser, Osei-Tutu (Mattock 77); Ogbene, Smith. Substitutes unused: Chapman, Kelly, Bola, Kayode, Odoffin.

Referee: Robert Madley (West Yorkshire).

Attendance: 33,119