Firework flop as Millers are burned in FA Cup: Crewe Alexandra 2 Rotherham United 1
In his darkest mood of the season, Paul Warne stood talking to the media in the gloom at Gresty Road when a firework went off overhead.
It fizzed and crackled then kind of gave up, producing nothing like the show it had initially threatened - much like Rotherham United as they exited the FA Cup at the first time of asking for the fourth year in a row.
The Millers manager, generally, doesn’t get too up over victory or too down after a defeat, but this was different.
Tight-lipped, eyes fixed forward, acknowledging nobody, he emerged from the tunnel and strode into the middle of the pitch with his mobile phone clamped to his ear.
None of his trademark ebullience had returned by the time the call was over and he was addressing League One Rotherham’s first-round exit against a club from a division below them.
He didn’t quite say it, but he was entitled to feel let down by his team who ruined his 50th match in charge by laying down in the second half after being in complete control at the break.
“I think as a manager this has been the hardest defeat to take,” said Warne as he shivered against the touchline cold.
“I don’t know yet what I’ll say to the players to try to get them back up. I’m still trying to swallow the defeat at the moment.
“I haven’t said too much in there after the game because I don’t want to say things I’m going to hugely regret. I’ll let them stew in my silence over the weekend.”
Just seconds of the opening period remained when Kieffer Moore headed home his 13th goal of the campaign, from Joe Newell’s corner. 2-0. Job virtually done.
But suddenly referee Scott Oldham was consulting with his assistant. Moore’s effort was ruled out and Newell was ordered to deliver his kick again.
There had been an infringement before the first corner was swung in, apparently. Because the ball was ‘dead’ at the time, a retake rather than a foul was the ruling.
Some said striker David Ball had tangled with home goalkeeper Dave Richards. Others said Millers old boy Michael Raynes had been pulled down. No-one seemed entirely sure.
“We looked comfortable, and then there was a big turning point just before half-time,” said Warne. “We scored but, after the crowd and everyone else made a bit of a hoohah, the ref pulled it back. I think that changed the game.”
It was easy, almost too easy.
Rotherham had a total grip on a low-key first half played at the pace of a training match.
There were few clear-cut chances, but the ball was played dangerously into the Crewe box enough times for the visitors to be well ahead.
They led through Will Vaulks’ stunning strike and had a sparkler in their ranks in Newell whose mazy running bamboozled all the vowels out of Crewe right-back Perry Ng’s surname.
Vaulks lit his gunpowder in the 21st minute and sent a superb, bending effort from more than 22 yards out into the far top corner.
Taking advantage of the Moore let-off, Crewe were level two minutes after the interval. Vaulks needlessly fouled Chris Dagnall and goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell, timing his run all wrong, was in no man’s land as Brad Walker headed in George Cooper’s free-kick.
“When we came in at half-time, I said to the lads: ‘That will have given them a boost.’,” Warne said. “I don’t know how to word how Crewe’s equaliser came about. They had a free header in the middle of our penalty area. That’s unacceptable.”
When the Millers needed to show character, they were found wanting, allowing Crewe to wrest the initiative off them.
Vaulks’ pile-driver of a free-kick glanced off the woodwork and Moore’s header from Jon Taylor’s supply brought a smart stop.
But Crewe had asked most of the questions after the break and won the match in the 89th minute. The defending should have been better as Callum Ainley beat O’Donnell to the ball, lifted it over the keeper, then finished at the second attempt while lying on the ground as his slide took him past the Rotherham man.
An otherwise encouraging season has been marred by defensive lapses. “For them to score their second goal in the manner they did is difficult for me to take,” Warne said.
Crewe are managed by ex-Rotherham centre-half David Artell, born and bred in the town and from a Millers-mad family.
His parents were at the game. Dad Greg wanted a draw so he could see his son at AESSEAL New York Stadium for a replay. Mum Jenny, for maybe the first time time in her life, was going against the club she loves.
Said David: “As off as we were in the first half, I thought there was only one team going to win it in the second.”
He held up his interview after the match while he polished off what looked like a large chicken nugget. If only Rotherham had shown such appetite.
Warne couldn’t help returning to the goal that didn’t count.
“There’s always hocus pocus in the box before a corner, to be fair,” he said, with a nod back to Hallowe’en rather than a look forward to Bonfire Night.
Apt really considering that horror of a second half.