Moments before kick-off, both teams posed for a photograph in the centre circle to commemorate the 1914 World War One Christmas Truce when English and German soldiers suspended hostilities to play football in No Man’s Land.
Under the banner of “Football Remembers”, the players were mixed up so members of the Rotherham side stood shoulder to shoulder with their Cardiff opponents.
It was the first and last friendly gesture the Millers made all afternoon.
Cardiff may have won their last five home matches before this encounter, but only one team deserved to win. And it wasn’t the Bluebirds that owner Vincent Tan now bizarrely sends out in Millers red.
Steve Evans’ men were the better side and created the better opportunities to the extent that before the hour mark the home crowd were imploring home boss Slade: “Russell, Russell, sort it out.”
Evans was so pleased he even created new verbs for the occasion. “We’ve outpassed them, outmoved them, outcreated against them and resorted them to launching it forward to Kenwyne (Jones),” he said.
“Every time we won possession we got it down and hit 10 or 15 passes at times going through them with end product. The performance delights me. There’s a lot more to come from this young group as we’re in this evolutionary stage where we’re changing how we play and how we’re going to do things.”
The Millers attacked Cardiff with conviction and purpose and, when they had to, defended with assurance and bodies-on-the-line commitment.
There were good performances everywhere on a hugely encouraging afternoon for the visitors as they mixed up a bit of direct stuff to Alex Revell, fully justifying his return in place of the injured Matt Derbyshire, with slick passing and clever inter-play.
New boys Emmanuel Ledesma, Reece James and Tom Lawrence can all spot, play and receive an incisive pass, and Cardiff never got to grips with Lawrence in particular. His control is instant, his awareness means he is on the move almost before he takes possession and the ball barely leaves his feet as he glides past defenders.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it, that one or two were questioning us signing him?” Evans said. “In the first half, he was absolutely Premiership class. He was fantastic. He was popping up in all the different angles, he was switching the play, he was playing one-twos, he was running in behind Alex (Revell).
“He was a star man today. He was quite exceptional with some of his play, especially in the first half. He was unplayable. I think they man-marked him three times and the guy who’s marked him would have been as well going for a Bovril because he couldn’t get near him.”
Sean Morrison glanced a header just wide in the seventh minute, but that was the home’s side sole moment of first-half threat.
Ledesma and Pen Pringle had already tried their luck by then, Lawrence tricked his way deep into the Cardiff penalty area but fluffed his pass to the open Richie Smallwood and in the 19th and 20th minutes two clear chances went begging.
Kari Arnason’s searching diagonal ball was knocked by Lawrence into the path of Scott Wootton who rounded goalkeeper David Marshall but in the process had kicked the ball too far in front of himself.
Then Marshall missed a corner, Pringle played the ball back across the area and Paul Green continued his unwanted recent record of missing one golden opportunity per game as his close-in volley was blocked when a better connection would surely have resulted in a goal.
The flair players caught the eye but this performance was underpinned by the midfield pair of Smallwood and Green. Like two best friends at junior school, they did everything together, hunting down opponents, breaking up attacks. Whenever there was the hint of danger from the home side, those two were there, snuffing it out. They won the midfield battle to the point that Cardiff’s Peter Whittingham, one of the best midfielders in the Championship, was never in the game.
And what Rotherham suddenly have is more options. Yes, they can still go long to Revell, but now they’re posing more complex questions on the deck too.
Millers fans feared the ‘Alfie’ effect: That’s Adam Le Fondre, the little hitman who achieved Millers legend status in his two seaons with the club between 2009 and 2011. 54 goals in 90 league starts for Rotherham. 84 minutes of frustration here and hauled off with barely a kick for Cardiff.
Arnason, back to his best, read Alfie’s every move.
Cardiff could hardly play any worse than they had in the first half, although they gave it a good try as the Millers remained on the front foot, probing at times with precision and purpose.
To be fair to the home side, it wasn’t simply a case of them performing badly. The Millers stopped them playing.
Evans’ old Wembley adversary, Slade, is a cautious manager by nature. Cardiff should have been chasing the win, yet he took off both strikers. Evans, when most bosses would have been happy holding on for a draw, brought on three attackers. The difference in ambition told.
Lawrence danced his way across the penalty box in the 50th minute only to shoot straight at Marshall when his twinkling feet and Premier League glide really deserved a goal. Ledesma was inches wide with a curling free-kick and then brought a fine save from Marshall. Later, Revell’s header from James’ dinked cross from the left was acrobatically turned on to the bar by Marshall.
By now Cardiff had finally woken up and two players who had come under fire from Evans for their part in last week’s Blackpool equaliser came to the fore.
Skipper Craig Morgan, who lost his footing in the build-up to the goal last week, produced a vital clearing header from right under the nose of the hulking Jones and his later clearance from nearly on his own line, as he stretched back his right leg to hook the ball away from an open net, was nothing short of superb.
Just thought I’d slip that one in for you, Craig.
Adam Collin, meanwhile, atoned for that horribe air-kick of his against the Seasiders, with a stunning stop to push Federico Macheda’s shot wide of goal. It was the save of the game, and it was heartwarming to see the salutes he and the away fans exchanged at the end. No grudges being held there by supporters who appreciate what the keeper has done for the club.
So the Millers had to reluctantly settle for the draw most of their followers would have accepted with relish before kick-off.
“We go away deeply disappointed that we’ve not won today. That’s the overriding feeling in the dressing room,” Evans said.
“The dressing room didn’t have the boys coming in slapping each other on the back at getting a point at Cardiff. This was the boys coming in disappointed that we’ve not won the game.
“Young Tom says he should score, Alex is saying he should score, Manu’s saying he should score, Greeny’s saying he should score, and we all know that Cardiff had one chance. You get nothing for chances and possession, but we had a purpose about our possession today.”
The loan signings, on the evidence of this game, have done what Evans wanted them to do, needed them to do, and moved his side on to a new level.
No-one should read too much into one match. But Cardiff, with their Premier League pedigree, play-off ambitions and billionaire backing, were a huge test for the Millers manager’s new-look, fledgling side who weren’t found wanting.
Rotherham are still too close to the drop zone for comfort, but this display, more even than the result, restored optimism, paved the way forward and showed that their all-important team spirit has survived the recent changes.
A hundred years on from the Christmas Truce, no white flags here. Just a big battle won.
Heroes: Paul Green and Richard Smallwood stood out on a day of excellent performances, while there’s an honourable mention for Tom Lawrence. A young lad who might disappear away from home? Not a bit of it. Was a threat every time he was on the ball.
Key moment: Adam Collin’s 72nd-minute save from Federico Macheda. It would have been an utter injustice if Cardiff had taken the lead as the Millers produced their best away display of the season.
Viewpoint: Steve Evans has ‘found one’ in Tom Lawrence. if Rotherham are to climb away from the drop zone before January he will have a major part to play. In a different way, as exciting as Nouha Dicko was when he joined on loan a year ago.
Ref watch: Andy D’Urso: Got a few minor things wrong, but nothing to affect the game, so a decent afternoon for the Essex man in the middle.
Manager’s view: Steve Evans: “I think if we had gone in front today we’d have won three here. The gulf in the teams was massive. We just need a little bit of patience. Our supporters today have made a long trip here. We’ve certainly brought a number. And I’m sure they’ll be going back up the road absolutely looking forward to the next time they see these kids play. This is a team of kids we’ve brought in. No old pros that we’re trying to hang our hats on. This is a young, evolutiuonary style that we’re going to work on.”
Manager’s view: Russell Slade: “We got a terrific result last week, trained really well but were below par today. We created very little, didn’t get the ball wide quick enough. We deviated from our game-plan.”
Cardiff City: Marshall 7, Connolly 6 (Da Silva 80), Brayford 7, Turner 7, Sean Morrison 7, Bo-Kyung 5, Gunnarsson 5, Whittingham 5, Noone 6, Le Fondre 5 (Ravel Morrison 84), Jones 5 (Macheda 66, 6). Subs not used: Moore, Adeyemi, Daehli, Ralls.
Rotherham United: Collin 8, Wootton 7, Morgan 8, Arnason 8, James 7, Ledesma 8 (Bowery 74), Green 8, Smallwood 8, Pringle 7 (Taylor 84), Lawrence 8 (Clarke-Harris 89), Revell 8. Subs not used: Thompson, Richardson, Brandy, Newton.