REPORT: Rotherham Utd v Wanderers

Wanderers were unable to mark a new year with a change of fortune but gave plenty of hope for 2022 by pushing promotion-chasing Rotherham all the way.

Two goals from the prolific Michael Smith were enough to take the Millers back to the top of League One as they quickly bounced back from a first defeat in 21 games on Boxing Day.

But Wanderers ended their scoring drought away from home through Eoin Doyle’s first-half equaliser and defied a three-week enforced break through COVID with a performance that could and should have earned them at least a point.

Smith ended those hopes when he headed his second goal of the game in the 74th minute to move to 17 for the season and confirm a seventh successive away defeat for Ian Evatt’s men.

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But Wanderers couldn’t have given any more as they battled to overcome the effects of COVID in the ranks in a collective effort warmly applauded by the travelling fans who were almost rewarded with a last-gasp Dapo Afolayan leveller.

And with new signing Dion Charles watching from the stands there was plenty to suggest with his goal power added to the side there is more to come as Wanderers reached the half-way point of their season.

Wanderers weren’t entirely free of the pandemic, with key midfield men MJ Williams and Kieran Lee both missing to leave a sizeable hole in the squad.

That meant another midfield anchoring job for George Johnston in midfield alongside George Thomason and Nathan Delfouneso as he impressively helped shield a back four featuring the return of Ricardo Almeida Santos and Will Aimson to the centre of the defence.

Wanderers had to do their share of defending with Adam Senior making one superb block to keep out a close-range effort from Michael Ihiekwe.

But the main threat before the rapid exchange of goals just before the break came from Wanderers as they strained every sinew to try and end their losing away run.

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Dapo Afolayan and Doyle were heavily involved and after Doyle had steered an early shot wide, the pair combined for Doyle to flick goalwards and bring a save out of Viktor Johansson.

Doyle then returned the compliment with a lovely ball to Afolayan, who looked as though he had touched it past Rarmani Edmonds-Green before being caught by the Millers’ last defender.

With nothing given Evatt’s protests earned the Wanderers’ boss a yellow card but his men kept asking questions of the meanest defence in the division.

Declan John saw a shot deflected just wide following more lovely wing play from Afolayan before Doyle sniffed another opening which was swiftly closed by Edmonds-Green’s impressive block.

Wanderers had kept it tight at the other end but with five minutes to until half-time they were suddenly undone when Shane Ferguson hung up a cross for top scorer Smith to nod home.

Conceding first had been a major flaw in recent times for the Whites but this time the response was instant as they deservedly levelled within two minutes as Doyle got the goal his efforts deserved.

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Inevitably, Afolayan was involved and when Johnston then joined in to help the ball into the penalty area Doyle pounced, striking a low shot on the turn to beat Johansson and claim his eighth goal of the season.

Wanderers’ best performance on the road since putting four past Charlton at the end of September was certainly going down well with a vocal following of close to 1,000 travelling fans as they continued to urge the visitors on.

John almost had them celebrating again with an hour gone when his right-footed strike from just outside the box had Johansson in difficulties.

But the Millers were also intent on trying to find a potential winner and it took a remarkable double save from Joel Dixon to keep them out with 20 minutes to go.

Freddie Ladapo looked a certain scorer until Dixon somehow blocked his effort from point-blank range before getting down to keep out a skidding shot from Edmonds-Green.

The pressure was beginning to grow, though, as Wanderers inevitably tired and moments later Rotherham did go back in front when dangerman Smith met another fine delivery from Chiedozie Ogbene with a diving header which gave Dixon no chance.

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Evatt sent for another pair of fresh legs in the shape of Harry Brockbank after birthday boy Amadou Bakayoko had replaced Doyle.

And Brockbank could have claimed a dramatic equaliser in a grandstand finish from Wanderers.

Raising themselves for a final push Brockbank fired over the top after Afolayan had seen a fierce drive well saved by Johansson.

And then with the last kick of the game Afolayan volleyed a bouncing ball over the top from inside the six-yard box as he was inches away from delivering a fitting reward.

Wanderers: Dixon; Senior (Brockbank 77), Almeida Santos, Aimson, John (Gordon 85); Johnston, Thomason; Kachunga, Delfouneso, Afolayan; Doyle (Bakayoko 70). Substitutes: Gilks, Baptiste, Tweedley, Pettifer.

Booked: Afolayan, Dixon, Santos

Rotherham: Johansson; Edmonds-Green, Wood, Ihiekew; Ogbene, Rathbone (Linsday 90), Barlaser, Wiles (Sadlier 62), Ferguson; Smith, Ladapo (Kayode 72). Substitutes: Vickers, Harding, Grigg, Bola.

Booked: Ogbene, Edmonds-Green

Referee: Geoff Eltringham

Attendance: 9,736 (Wanderers’ 991).

Read Time: 5 mins