The Don Valley Stadium, on the Rotherham side of Sheffield, couldn’t be much much less like Millmoor, Rotherham United’s home from 1907 until 2008. Millmoor may have been a little untidy but it was home for The Millers, with a scrap metal yard behind one of the stands beind the goal, the crane from which stood in full view of the pitch, as if Ted Hughes’ “Iron Man” was sneaking a peek every Saturday afternoon. Don Valley, by contrast, feels like an ultra-modern, twenty-first century, multi-sport venue, yet it feels almost inappropriate for a League Two club to be playing here. The yellow steel piping and tent-like multi-span roofs over the stands give it an almost continental feel, but the running track makes creating an atmosphere difficult. Even this evening, only one stand is full – such are the pitfalls of playing in a 25,000 capacity stadium when your average crowd hovers at around one-sixth of that number. There are a shade over 7,000 here this evening and they’re making quite a racket, but Don Valley is lodgings rather than a home for Rotherham United. They plan to move into a new home of their own in two years’ time.
That Rotherham United should be here this evening at all is, in its own small way, a miracle. They have had two spells in administration, the second of which cost them a seventeen point deduction at the start of last season. They pulled clear of the relegation zone, and this season looked likely for a while to get automatic promotion. Meanwhile, it is almost as surprising that Aldershot Town should be here this evening. When Aldershot FC folded in March 1992, a new club was formed in the Hampshire town and it took more than a decade and a half for the Shots to work their way back from the Ryman League Division Three to the Football League. Their first season back in the Football League was one of consolidation. This season has seen them push into a play-off position. Steady progress remains the name of the game at The Recreation Ground.
Forty-six matches each in the league this season only left the two teams with a point between them, and the difference was just as paper-thin in the first leg at The Recreation Ground, when only a wayward backpass let Adam Le Fondre in with two minutes to play to sneak a 1-0 win for Rotherham. On the basis of such isolated incidents, however, whole seasons may be decided but there is little enough between the two teams to encourage a large travelling support to venture north on this cloudy May evening. A one goal deficit is far from insurmountable, but it will require one of Aldershot’s performances of the season to turn the tie around.
For the opening ten minutes, Aldershot seem content enough to sit back and get used to their surroundings while Rotherham push forward in search of a goal that would make their visitors’ lives immeasurably more difficult. When they break, however, they look impressive, although the only signiificant incident of the opening fifteen minutes sees Aldershot’s Marvin Morgan booked after he goes to ground following a challenge from the Rotherham goalkeeper, Andy Warrington. It is, on the whole, a scrappy affair being played on a pitch that looks as if it has seen better days this season, and it starts to feel as if it may be a frustrating evening for Aldershot, who move the ball quickly and efficiently into attacking positions, but their final pass is too frequently wayward and Rotherham’s well-organised defence repeatedly tidies up with ease.
By the time that we are half an hour in, however, the roles assumed for the opening ten minutes have almost completely reversed, with Rotherham pegged back and Aldershot labouring to create the position to bring themselves level again. The visitors, however, have to be careful not to commit too many players into attack and the next near-miss falls to Rotherham’s Adam Le Fondre, who finds himself in a little space on the right hand side and mis-hits his cross only to see the ball bounce away off the top of the Aldershot crossbar. Play continues to swing relatively liberally from end to end, however, but it’s tetchy, slightly irritable football, until Rotherham break a few thousand Aldershot hearts with a couple of minutes of the first half left to play. In truth, it’s a careless goal for Aldershot to concede. Nicky Law’s corner isn’t cleared, Gavin Gunning crosses back into penalty area and Adam Le Fondre heads in from close range after Ian Sharps heads against the crossbar. There is some pushing and shoving as the players leave the pitch at half-time, but it is Rotherham that have got one foot on the coach to Wembley.
The second half finishes much as the first half ends. Aldershot push forward from the kick-off, but less than two and a half minutes in Nicky Law finds some space on the left hand side of the Aldershot penalty area and his shot is well blocked by Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz, the exotically-named Venezualan Aldershot goalkeeper. Minutes later, with the visiting defence now starting to look stretched, a crossed ball across the six yard area narrowly evades two onrushing lunges. Within the space of a minute or so, and twenty minutes into the second half, though a chance at either end of the pitch effectively kills the game off as a contest. At one end, a sweeping diagonal ball across the pitch finds Morgan unmarked and at an angle, but he is stretching for it and can’t keep his shot on target, sending it high and wide of the post. At the other, Rotherham show them exactly how it is done. Ryan Hall breaks on the left hand side and crosses to the far post, where Kevin Ellison meets the ball with a downward header which skids up off the wet surface and into the roof of the net.
Aldershot push forward in search of a way back into the match, but it’s too late. They have barely managed a clear goalscoring chance in the previous match and three-quarters, and for them to be able to now find three goals in twenty minutes against a defence as well organised as Rotherham’s is a stretch too far. They get into a couple of decent positions – Morgan finds himself unmarked and seven yards out from a corner with a little over twenty minutes to play but gives a reasonable impression of someone trying to shoot with both feet at the same time and the ball rolls safely back to Warrington. With just over ten minutes to go, a deflected free-kick forces Warrington into a decent save, but by this time Rotherham are merely running down the clock, and they are doing it with relative comfort.
The full-time whistle brings to completion one of the more remarkable turn-arounds of the last couple of years ago. In administration for a second time, deducted seventeen points by the Football League and then evicted from their home, there were plenty of people that wouldn’t have given Rotherham United much of a chance of even existing by the summer of 2010. That they are heading to Wembley a week on Saturday (to, considering that they lead 6-0 ahead of tomorrow night’s match, almost certainly play Dagenham & Redbridge) is a tribute to those that have managed to keep the club alive against all odds. For Aldershot Town, the disappointment of losing over two legs this evening only masks the fact that their club remains on an upward trajectory – seven years ago they were celebrating winning the Ryman League Premier Division championship. There will be four promotion places on offer again next season, and there has been little in their performance over the course of this season to suggest that, with a little fine tuning, they shouldn’t be in with a decent chance of getting promoted next season. Tonight, though, belongs to the Millers.