For a club who have conceded 15 times to Manchester United in the three matches they have played against them, and who are chiefly remembered in the FA Cup for the six goals George Best scored in a single afternoon in 1970, Northampton might be expected never to want to play the champions again.
Their joy on securing a fourth-round tie with United was, however, total and moving. At the final whistle, their players embraced, danced in front of their own fans and for the cameras, while back at Sixfields their accountants would be doing quite a jig, too. The encounter a week on Sunday is worth a minimum of £300,000 and it will be savoured.
For the 22 footballers playing in some spiteful, bitter rain and those huddled in the dug-out, the prize of a date with Manchester United, something they would probably never again experience, hung tantalisingly through every moment of this replay. It was, however, one Rotherham never looked like grasping even when they took the lead through Paul Hurst's 19th-minute free-kick, which cannoned in off the underside of the crossbar.
There may have been 48 places between these two sides, but Northampton, 17th in the Third Division, have probably more readily available cash than Rotherham, 17th in the First, and they do not lack for skill. This is especially true of Martin Smith, who in the mid-1990s so captivated Sunderland fans that they nicknamed him "The Cousin of Cruyff". Since leaving Wearside five years ago, he admits that persistent injuries have meant few clubs have felt able to gamble on him.
Last night proved Smith still has the ability. He had scored the equaliser at Sixfields which earned this replay. Yesterday, he struck the foot of the post, created Northampton's equaliser with a free-kick which Richard Walker headed home with muscular certainty, and struck the winner. It was quite an evening's work.
Walker had already put the ball in the net, only for this header to be ruled offside. Throughout the first half, Rotherham, whose defence had been attacked as relegation standard by their manager after a two-goal lead was squandered at Cardiff on Saturday, were never comfortable. Then, in the 54th minute, Paul Warne gave away a free-kick on the edge of the area. Des Lyttle debated with Smith whether to take it short and Smith chose long. It was hard to tell whether it was a cross or a shot, but the ball wriggled through a mass of legs and nestled in the corner of Mike Pollitt's net.
Unusually for Rotherham under Ronnie Moore, the Yorkshire side appeared to have no appetite for a fightback with only Darren Byfield's shot cleared off the line to show for some feeble effort. Moore called this "the worst day of my life and my assistant's life" and threatened wholesale changes. "Spineless" was one of the kinder adjectives he used about his own players. Northampton, in contrast, always looked like they believed they would be playing Manchester United, quite prepared to let the ghost of Best back into their club.
Rotherham United (4-4-2): Pollitt; S Barker, Swailes, Minto, Hurst; Sedgwick (Monkhouse, 76), Talbot, Mullin, Warne (Garner, 63); M Barker (Butler, 63), Byfield. Substitutes not used: Montgomery (gk), Daws.
Northampton Town (4-4-2) Harper; Lyttle, Reid, Sampson, Willmott; Trollope, Hargreaves, Smith, Carruthers; Asamoah (Richards, 83), Walker. Substitutes not used: Thompson (gk), Chambers, Lincoln, Harsley.
Referee: R Olivier (West Midlands).
* The First Division's bottom club, Wimbledon, earned a fourth-round tie away to Birmingaham City thanks to Adam Nowland's 32nd minute winner against Stoke City in front of 6,463 fans at the Brittania Stadium last night.Reuse content