Standing on the touchline in the shadows of stands named after Bill Shankly and Sir Tom Finney, it seemed like the only sport Steve Evans had any experience of would have been darts. In his tight suit, Rotherham’s manager appeared like a haulage boss who had just taken charge of his local club when compared to the elegant track-suited figure of his Preston counterpart, Simon Grayson.
Evans is seen by some in the game as a controversial figure, but he may soon be standing on the touchline at Wembley.
Rotherham ought to have taken a win rather than a draw back to Yorkshire from the first leg of their semi-final but Evans is still on course for a second successive promotion to add to a remarkable CV. He has taken Boston and Crawley into the Football League and earned the latter £1million from an FA Cup tie with Manchester United. He is a force of nature.
Grayson may have taken three clubs – Leeds, Blackpool and Huddersfield – out of the third tier but his Preston team will have to play considerably better in Thursday’s second leg to reach the final.
Preston had history and, in the year of Finney’s passing, romance on their side but Rotherham had the better football.
As the players came out, the fans in the Alan Kelly Stand unfurled a banner at whose centre was a photograph of Finney, taken in his pomp. Below it was a word which in a world where ordinary footballers have longer Wikipedia entries than Nobel Prize winners has been more misused than any other: legend.
Appropriately for a man who died on Valentine’s Day, the love for him is fierce. The rain that hammered down from the north Pennines before kick-off was heavy enough to evoke the most famous image of Finney ever taken - the “Splash” photograph that showed water cascading all around him at Stamford Bridge.
Rotherham is not a romantic town and their football team was in no mood to go along with the idea that Preston would ‘win it for Sir Tom’.
There was a queasiness about Preston after the final afternoon of the regular season saw them go down 2-1 at Crewe. It denied them the opportunity to finish third.
Then, they would have had Peterborough in the semi-finals, rather than one of the most dangerous sides in League One.
Only the champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers, had scored more goals than Rotherham’s 86. They were quicker, slicker and more inventive than a Preston side that had plenty of ponderous possession and appeared vulnerable to their counter-attacks.
The one that mattered came in the 22nd minute, a punt upfield that either Jack King or Alex Revell might have got to first. It was the striker who took the ball, spun King round and drove in on goal from the left. His shot was perfect.
King, who had spent most of his career in non-league football, stood with his hands on his head. Early in the second half, just after Preston had equalised, Revell was through again. This time, he delayed his shot, Declan Rudd, the Preston goalkeeper, held his ground and palmed the shot away. Even when they were level, Grayson’s side was stretched.
The only surprise was that Rotherham were only one goal in front by the interval. The home side were not booed off, there was just a familiar air of resignation around Deepdale, the sound of a thousand shoulders being shrugged.
Seven times Preston have entered the play-offs and they have never made it through, most famously at the Millennium Stadium in 2001 when David Moyes’s side were denied a place in the Premier League in a Lancashire derby with Bolton. Nobody would have foreseen what was to come, Joe Garner’s 24th goal of the season. Even had you seen the other 23, it would have been hard to imagine there had been any better. A stunning effort. Nottingham Forest once paid Carlisle £1m for his services and it would have been for goals like these; a chest-down, a volley and a shot that dipped over Adam Collin. Just before the end, Paul Gallagher tried something similar and missed the ball completely.
Preston (4-4-2): Rudd; Clarke, Wright, King, Laird; Holmes (Humphrey, 77), Browne (Keane, 62), Welsh, Gallagher; Garner, C Davies (K Davies, 62).
Rotherham (4-3-3): Collin; Brindley (O’Connor, 23), Morgan, Tavernier, Skarz; Arnason, Frecklington (Davis, 62), Milsom; Thomas (Vuckic, 83), Revell, Pringle.
Referee: Iain Williamson.Reuse content