Thirteen Rotherham United players gave their all in one of the strangest 3-0 defeats you’ll ever see.
Eleven of them dominated the first half against a side in the Premier League last season to such a degree the game could have been all over in the Millers’ favour by half-time.
But it was one figure not on the pitch who might have made all the difference.
The former Leeds United hitman has agreed a deal at AESSEAL New York Stadium and is just waiting for international clearance to arrive before he can influence the Millers’ fight for Championship survival.
He may still have a bit of work to do on his match-fitness, but 77 goals in 161 league starts in English football, many of them in the second tier, tell you what the centre-forward is capable of.
Rotherham had 21 efforts on goal to the West Londoners’ eight, nine corners compared to the visitors’ two. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s men, winning for the first time under their new boss, had three shots on target and scored all three. At this level, you have to take your chances.
Manager Neil Redfearn had no qualms about his side’s commitment. But, because of a injuries, he has been able to make only one change to his starting line-up in the last three matches, and the lack of numbers caught up with his team in the second half.
“I just thought some of the defending looked tired for their goals,” he said. “That’s not a criticism of the boys. I have just told them, they gave me everything.
“Even at 2-0 and 3-0 we were still knocking on the door at the other end. We don’t know when to give in and that is a good trait.
“It was probably one of the weirdest 3-0 defeats I have ever been involved in. Had it been 3-0 to us at half-time, that would have been about right with all the pressure and play we had around the box.
“But it just shows you the ruthless nature of this division. If you don’t get your noses in front or make hay while the sun is shining then you are open to that sort of thing.”
Paul Green put in another Herculean stint and has silenced the boo-boys from the Ipswich game back in November since returning to the side. With his red face and tousled hair, he looks like he’s run a marathon before he’s even kicked off, and no-one in a Millers shirt covers more ground than the 32-year-old.
He came closest to breaking the first-half deadlock, bending a 29th-minute shot from the edge of the penalty area, after a neat piece of footwork, on to the post. Matt Derbyshire should have scored from the rebound but reacted just a touch too slowly and Nedum Onuoha was able to get in one of the many telling blocks he and centre-half partner Grant Hall produced throughout the afternoon.
In that first half, the Millers, who remain above the drop zone, played arguably their best football since Redfearn took charge. Early doors, Danny Ward, Derbyshire, twice and Aimen Belaid, twice, were denied, while Derbyshire rolled a perfect ball across goal only to find neither of the Wards, Danny or Grant, had gambled.
QPR full-back James Perch was honest enough to admit afterwards that the visitors simply didn’t know how to cope with the home side’s onslaught.
But Danny Ward power-header from Shay Facey’s right-wing cross with six minutes of the half remaining went just the wrong side of the post and there was a quiet sense of foreboding at the break that Rotherham’s failure to turn their superiority into a lead might come back to bite them.
It wasn’t just about Millers’ fatigue. QPR, despite the departure on the morning of the match of Charlie Austin to Southampton, still have quality befitting a top-flight team.
Despite Redfearn’s talk of hay and sun, there had been warnings of bad weather. It was cold, but not sub-zero, and there were no signs of the snow which would fall later that night. Then, after half-time words from Hasselbaink, it hit. Hurricane Rangers.
Junior Hoilett worked himself clear on the left in the 52nd minute before stabbing a quality finish across goalkeeper Lee Camp into the net, and two minutes later Matt Phillips did what no opponent has managed in the last couple of months, making Kirk Broadfoot look fallible as he got the better of the central defender before smashing an unstoppable shot past Camp.
Neither scorer had done a thing in the first 45 minutes.
With QPR more direct in the second half and finally showing the application to match their talent, there was no way back for the Millers. They never stopped trying but, for all their unstinting effort, lacked the cutting edge their opponents had when it mattered.
Grant Ward had two shots that came to nothing then, in the 81st minute, Joe Mattock, impressive yet again at left-back, whipped in a perfect cross.
Substitute Jonson Clarke-Harris looked set to score until Hall produced an unbelievable clearing header.
Another Rotherham sub, Emmanuel Ledesma, fired just wide on 88 minutes, and QPR’s third goal, Sebastian Polter applying the finish from Leroy Fer’s left-flank feed in time added on, gave the scoreline a lop-sided slant the Millers didn’t deserve.
Scored by a player who cost the Hoops £1.5 million last year, set up by one for whom they paid £8m in 2014. Hardly a case of financial Fer play against a side whose record outlay is around £400,000, and we should all appreciate how Rotherham are punching above their weight just by being in this division.
Man of the match Green said: “We were tremendous in the first half and the only thing missing was a goal.”
On the impending return of Becchio, who had a loan spell at the club last season, he added: “It’s only a small group and it’s always nice to get new bodies in, fresh faces. There is more competition for places and it makes you more hungry. It’s nice to have it as it drives you to play better and it’s all good for the team.”
Redfearn saw reasons to be optimistic. “The standard of play is getting better. The standard of play was controlled and the dominance was measured,” he said.
“I could have gone in there and gone off my trolley and had a go at the players. That wouldn’t have done them any good in this situation. They need to know that they are on the right lines. I feel that this group are together now .
“We got in good crossing positions. QPR defended well, and they had to. The weight of our dominance in the first half warranted at least a two-goal lead. We can’t be happy with our defending. Obviously there’s a reason for that, it’s tiredness.”
That moment nine minutes from the end of the regulation 90 in front of the North Stand had been Rotherham’s big chance to force their way back into the game and set up a grandstand finish.
Brilliant defending by Hall. But maybe a blond-haired Argentine watching on the sidelines would have got himself on the end of it.
Rotherham United (4-4-2): Camp 6; Facey 7, Broadfoot 7, Belaid 7, Mattock 8; G Ward 7(Clarke-Harris 55, 6), Smallwood 8, Green 8, Newell 5; D Ward 6, Derbyshire 6 (Ledesma 80). Cairns, Collins, Wood, Richardson, Thorpe.
QPR (4-2-3-1): Smithies 6; Perch 6, Hall 8, Onuoha 8, Konchesky 6; Henry 6, Luongo 6; Phillips (Chery 87) 6, Hoilett (Mackie 87) 6; Fer 6; Polter 6. Subs not used: Lumley, Angella, Petrasso, Sandro, Tozser.
Goals: Hoilett 52, Phillips 54, Polter 90+1 (QPR).
Referee: James Adcock (Nottinghamshire).
Attendance: 9,594 (1,286).