Match analysis: Rotherham 1, Port Vale 2
MICKY Adams played the numbers game to find a winning Boxing Day formula.
The Vale manager switched his formation and was rewarded with an impressive victory against their in-form promotion rivals.
Goals from Louis Dodds and Tom Pope – his 22nd of the season – did the trick in the end and, though Rotherham pulled one back towards the end, a sterling rearguard effort saw the Valiants heading home with what could be a crucial victory.
Only at the end of the season will the true value of victory in South Yorkshire be revealed. But it felt pretty important last night.
And with leaders Gillingham having lost at home to Barnet, it means Vale are now just two points off top spot ahead of Saturday's trip to Dagenham and Redbridge.
With winger Ashley Vincent ruled out by a stomach bug, Adams ditched his tried and trusted 4-4-2 in favour of a 4-3-3 line-up.
With Dodds and Jennison Myrie-Williams supporting Pope in attack, it was a positive, rather than negative, move.
And it worked as Vale, dogged in defence, kept high-flying Rotherham at arm's length throughout and safely banked the three points.
Adam Yates came in at left-back, enabling skipper Doug Loft to join Sam Morsy and Ryan Burge in midfield.
Heavy rain which swept in at kick-off made the ball skip off the surface and there was little to separate the sides during a lively opening.
It was Vale who threatened first, after eight minutes, when Pope's header put Myrie-Williams in on goal.
But the winger was flagged offside, having been squeezed out of possession anyway by a retreating defence.
Rotherham, backed by a vociferous home crowd, burst straight down the other end and striker Alex Revell wasn't far wide with an ambitious 20-yarder which fizzed past goalkeeper Chris Neal's left upright.
Another Revell effort from distance was quickly charged down by Liam Chilvers and it was a good job Yates was in the right place at the right time to clear a dangerous low cross from the left as the Millers pressed again soon after.
Lee Frecklington was way too high with a snap-shot from 20 yards, while United's Michael O'Connor was first into the book after 23 minutes following an ugly barge which left Sam Morsy winded.
Animated Rotherham boss Steve Evans was performing the figure of a pantomime villain as he paced up and down the touchline.
For while his team had taken the initiative, they weren't truly threatening to make a breakthrough.
The Valiants were making little headway either as the game became interrupted by a series of niggly fouls.
Loft was cautioned for a late challenge on left-back Jack O'Connell before Chilvers' long free-kick from halfway took a huge bounce and was threatening to drop under the Rotherham bar before being tipped over by keeper Andy Warrington.
Pope got up to head the resulting 36th-minute corner towards goal, but the ball was blocked at close range by a sea of red shirts.
Richard Duffy pulled off a fantastically brave diving header to stop a rampaging Revell in his tracks but, though Dodds picked up a soft booking for dissent, there was little else to trouble the visitors before the break.
Myrie-Williams had Vale fans off their seats when he found rare space down the right after 55 minutes only to be robbed by a defender when there were team-mates waiting for a cross.
But it seemed to matter little just a minute later.
Pope's lay-off on the edge of the area gave Dodds the chance to measure up a shot and his effort from 14 yards beat Warrington and nestled in the far corner of the net.
The goal sent supporters at that end of the ground into raptures, though one member of a group of fans who had come dressed as the Pope, in reverence to the Port Vale Pontiff himself, must have celebrated a little too enthusiastically as he was carted off by police.
He will no doubt have been gutted to miss what happened just seven minutes later.
Pope burst forward on to a lovely threaded pass from Yates and was suddenly racing beyond the retreating Rotherham defence.
The front man made a barnstorming run into the area before lifting the ball over the advancing Warrington and into the net.
"We want six" sang the fans ironically, with September's Vale Park 6-2 thrashing of the Millers in mind.
Rotherham pushed forward in numbers and, with John McCombe outstanding in the heart of the back four, the visitors were happy to soak up pressure and retain their threat on the break.
But Evans's side finally found a way back into the game after 83 minutes.
Kayode Odejayi showed a dazzling turn of pace to skip past McCombe on the left and his low cross into the middle was slid home by fellow substitute Kieran Agard.
The home side were now bossing it, again without looking particularly threatening, although some pinball on the edge of the area had Vale hearts in their mouths.
The mysterious addition of five extra minutes gave United fans hope, but the Valiants' rearguard remained unmoved to secure what could turn out to be a precious victory come the end of the campaign.