The away contingent at the New York Stadium would surely have been in disbelief come the full-time whistle in Rotherham’s showdown with Middlesbrough, and even the most ardent Millers fans may still be racking their brains as to how their side came up trumps.
The bulk of the gilt-edged opportunities unsurprisingly fell Boro’s way, but Michael Carrick’s men smacked the woodwork on two occasions and succumbed to a freak goal from Cohen Bramall, whose attempted cross flew over Tom Glover’s reach and into the far side of the net.
Ex-Arsenal product Bramall conceded that he was helped by a “bobble”, but head coach Leam Richardson could hardly care less about the nature of the strike as he picked up his first win as Rotherham boss at the fourth attempt, having overseen three defeats in his first three games in charge.
As Rotherham ended an 11-game winless sequence stretching back to October 25, direct relegation rivals Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers both slumped to defeat, but Richardson’s men remain at the foot of the division, nine points below Huddersfield Town in the safety of 21st place.
Now sitting on 16 points for the season – amassing 14 of those at the New York Stadium – Rotherham are setting out to win back-to-back Championship matches for the first time since October 2022, but they have not prevailed in their final game of the calendar year since 2019.
The less said about Michael Beale’s first game in the Sunderland hotseat the better, as the former Rangers and Queens Park Rangers head coach – sworn in to succeed Tony Mowbray – oversaw a crushing 3-0 home loss to Coventry City in his Stadium of Light inauguration.
However, the 43-year-old led the Black Cats to a maximum at his second bite of the cherry, benefitting from Hull City’s wastefulness at the MKM Stadium and getting over the line thanks to an 82nd-minute winner from Jack Clarke, his 11th strike of the Championship campaign.
Rotherham’s Richardson can share a quip with Beale over picking up their maiden victories on Boxing Day, but the pleasantries will cease there as Sunderland aim to keep their heads above water in the playoff battle; they are clinging onto sixth place by the skin of their teeth approaching matchday 25.
Recent victims Hull are only behind Sunderland on goal difference, while Bristol City and Preston North End have just a one-point disadvantage to make up to the Black Cats, whose narrow beating of the Tigers also brought an end to their dismal six-game winless run on the road.
Coincidentally, Sunderland’s previous eight-match unbeaten streak away from home was snapped in a 2-1 loss to Rotherham in February, but they avenged that defeat with victory by the same scoreline in August thanks to a double from Jobe Bellingham, who has been closely watched by Real Madrid hotshot brother Jude Bellingham during the La Liga winter break.