Neil Redfearn had spent weeks banging on to his players, for 93 minutes they did exactly what they’d been told and then they threw it all away with barely a second left on the clock.
“If you can’t win, don’t lose,” has been the manager’s mantra as Rotherham United look to survive a second season in the Championship.
The Millers are out of the bottom three but have succumbed in too many games when a point was there to be earned. They have more wins than at this stage last season, but only three draws in 25 matches tell their own story.
Most of his men gave everything against Preston North End and it was gut-wrenchingly cruel when, deep, deep into time added on, substitute striker Jonson Clarke-Harris rose to clear a long throw into the box only for the ball to skim off his head, over goalkeeper Lee Camp, and drop into the net.
It was timed by the officials at two minutes and 57 seconds of three extra minutes, a visibly downcast Camp revealed afterwards he had been told by the referee.
Press-box stopwatches had it at around 3:15, but Rotherham weren’t complaining. The time held up on the fourth official’s clock after the regulation 90 is a minimum amount.
“I was surprised that three minutes came up on the board, to be honest,” the keeper, who had been an outstanding last line of defence, said. “Regardless of the time, you still have to defend it. You play to the whistle, don’t you. It’s so disappointing.”
The Millers were under the cosh for much of the second half as the Lilywhites launched attack after attack almost in time with the incessant, infernal beat coming from England’s most annoying musician, the drummer in Deepdale’s home end.
Like Redfearn with his message, he banged on.
Preston, who hadn’t managed more than one goal in a home league game all season, didn’t look like the division’s second lowest scorers after the break as they fought back from a 1-0 deficit, and some of Rotherham’s resistance was nothing short of heroic.
“They put us under pressure. We knew that they would come out after half-time and have a go, being the home side. They couldn’t really play any worse than they had in the first half,” Camp said.
“We knew we’d be under the cosh. I thought we weathered it to an extent. We were unfortunate to concede a goal from a set-play and then I thought we’d have hung in for a point.
“But it’s one of those things. These things happen when the ball gets thrown into the box. The law of averages says sometimes you’re going to concede.
“The mood is down. There’s disappointment, frustration, anger - all the words you can use to describe a sucker-punch like that at the end.”
Ten minutes into the second half, left-back Mattock won the battle of the Joes as he cleared Garner’s header off the line, then Camp kept out a Paul Huntington header and an Alan Browne shot with stunning stops.
In the 68th minute, it was the Camp-Mattock combo saving the Millers again as the keeper clawed away Eoin Doyle’s header and the defender somehow blocked Garner’s follow-up.
But the visitors’ rearguard had finally been breached four minutes earlier when former Chesterfield man Doyle was on hand close in to hook home after Paul Gallagher’s flighted free-kick for the equaliser.
Drummer Boy had been silenced in the 36th minute when Rotherham swept into the lead with the best move of the match, midfielder Tony Andreu feeding Danny Ward out on the left and then racing half the length of the pitch to head home the attacker’s pinpoint centre.
Danny Ward should have scored much earlier when he was played clean through by a peach of a pass from Kirk Broadfoot but his shot, after he had rounded the keeper, was stopped on the line by Bailey Wright.
“I thought we were well worth the 1-0 lead at half-time,” Camp said. “We’d played well. We defended well and limited their chances. They didn’t play particularly well but I think that’s credit to us. We pressed the ball and stopped them at source.
“Going into the second half, we needed to show a bit more resilience, to not be so naive at times as to give them the ball back. It’s frustrating to lose in the manner we did.”
The Millers, full of resolve and effort in defence and midfield, didn’t just lose a game. They also lost midfielder Lee Frecklington after 11 minutes and centre-half Farrend Rawson after 82 to hamstring strains. Skipper Freck’s appears to be the more serious, and his expected absence of around three weeks is a savage blow, while the club are hoping for better news from their medical department on Rawson this week.
Paul Green came on for the captain and his block to foil a Garner shot just after Rotherham had gone in front was up there in the Mattock class of thou-shalt-not pass defiance.
New boy Shay Facey, aged 20, making his senior debut in English football after signing on loan from Manchester City on the day of the match until the end of the season, showed pace and an appetite to defend and is a welcome addition after Rotherham’s problems at right-back.
The Millers, who had second-half chances chances with Mattock, Grant Ward and Danny Ward shots before Preston’s leveller, looked to have weathered North End’s purple patch.
As time ticked away, there was little chance of them snatching victory as the ball wasn’t sticking with Clarke-Harris up front but, in brave response to Redfearn’s call, they had shut up shop again at the back.
If you can’t win, don’t lose ...
Then came the board, blinking away in the Lancashire gloom, followed around three minutes later by the most painful defeat of the campaign.
Clarke-Harris has had some magical moments this season but his inadvertent contribution to the decisive goal capped a day he will want to forget.
“I was a little bit disappointed with our attack in the last 20 minutes or so,” Redfearn said.
“We got into good positions and if we’d had a little bit about us, a little bit more care and had picked a better pass, then we could have opened them up.
“For me, Clarke-Harris has got everything, but he has got to apply himself. If he can learn to apply himself then we have got a player. You’re asking young people to do men’s jobs and it’s tough.
“The players are doing everything we ask of them. They are putting their bodies in the way .
“But we need to show we are resilient right to the last minute to make sure we pick these points up. We are not that far away. There’s a lot of togetherness in the group and they are getting better. We have got to pick ourselves up and go again.”
While Redfearn’s team lowered their heads in last-gasp despair, that never-ending racket from the Deepdale kop sounded louder than ever, thudding heavily in the winter air as the rain returned with a vengeance.
The spoils to the drummer right at the death as his team finally broke Rotherham’s still-beating heart.
Preston (4-4-2): Johnstone 7; Vermijl 6, Clarke 7, Wright 6 (Huntington H-T, 7), Cunningham 6; Johnson 5, Gallagher 6, Welsh 5 (Browne 54, 6), Reach 6; Doyle 6 (Hugill 81), Garner 6. Subs not used: Kirkland, Kilkenny, Woods, Brownhill.
Rotherham (4-2-3-1): Camp 9; Facey 7, Rawson 6 (Collins 82), Broadfoot 8, Mattock 8; Frecklington (Green 11, 6), Smallwood 6; G Ward 6, Andreu 7 (Clarke-Harris 59, 4), Newell 5; D Ward 6. Subs not used: Collin, Wood, Derbyshire, Ledesma.
Goals: Doyle 64, Clarke-Harris og 90+3 (Preston); Andreu 36 (Rotherham).
Referee: Charles Breakspear (Surrey).
Attendance: 12,027 (1,038).