How Rotherham United found the character to fight back: Oxford United 3 Millers 3
A soldier sang the National Anthem with gusto before kick-off.
All part of Military Day at the Kassam Stadium.
In a sporting context, Rotherham United were soon being completely outgunned by the home side.
They were 3-1 down and looking like conceding again. Their defending, in their manager’s words, “was all over the place”.
There were still 50 minutes to play. By the end, it was 3-3. Rotherham were still in the League One play-off places after fighting back against a team with top-six aspirations of their own.
Paul Warne’s Millers. No surrender.
It was blustery at the Kassam. Plastic bags and crisp packets scuttled this way and that across the pitch with no-one picking them up.
It was a much like the Millers’ defence trying to cope with the first-half darting runs and quick passing of Payne and co as Oxford blew through the visitors’ rearguard.
Where was General Wrecking Ball when you needed him?
“I think it was evident that we missed Woody (Richard Wood) out there,” Warne said of his rested centre-half. “That’s how it felt to me, because he’s got a bit of leadership.”
The boss had made changes, bringing in goalkeeper Rodak for Richard O’Donnell, right-back Josh Emmanuel for Shaun Cummings and Semi Ajayi for Wood, believing some players were showing signs of fatigue in Tuesday’s loss to the Dons.
“There’s not point me harping on about having a good squad if I don’t use it,” he said. “To be truly honest, those who came in, to begin with, looked a little ring-rusty. They were better second half than first first.”
Warne resisted the temptation to act after a 45-minute horror show. Instead, he questioned what his players were made of.
“At half-time, it was 50 per cent trying to show them how we want them to play and give them a bit of confidence, 50 per cent asking them what character they’ve got,” he said.
“The second-half performance was good. On another day, we might have nicked it. You’ve got to at least let them show you what character they’ve got.”
Oxford striker Wes Thomas went through on goal and it looked like 4-1 until he took the kind of touch we all remember from his Rotherham days.
The Millers went up the other end of the pitch and made it 3-2 just before half-time as Ryan Williams finished off Will Vaulks’ long throw.
Joe Newell, recalled to the side after the midweek defeat at AFC Wimbledon and given a central-midfield role, opened the scoring with a sweet shot in the 20th minute.
The U’s were level a minute later when Jack Payne struck from the edge of the area, Josh Ruffels beat Rodak too easily on the half-hour mark and Curtis Nelson poked home after a 40th-minute scramble during which the ball should have been cleared.
It could have been even worse. Oxford were awarded a penalty for a harsh handball decision against Will Vaulks in the 32nd minute, but Rodak was equal to Ryan Ledson’s 12-yard effort.
Against the run of play, Williams offered 44th-minute hope to the Millers who were a different proposition after Warne’s half-time call to arms.
Joe Mattock and Payne traded shots. Then came the moment which had Rotherham’s travelling faithful belting out an anthem of their own, in honour of leading scorer Kieffer Moore.
Newell split the U’s defence with an exquisite pass in the 78th minute, Williams delivered perfectly from the left and Moore rammed home his 11th goal of the season.
“When he gets the ball he’s bound to score, Kieffer, Kieffer Moore.”
Eleven minutes earlier, Moore had hit the bar with a lob. He had the ball in the net again after his goal but it was ruled out for an infringement Warne couldn’t see.
“I was disappointed with the disallowed goal,” he said. “I’ve watched it back. None of their lads appealed. There is going to be contact in the box, of course there is. That was an ‘away team’ decision really.
Events took their toll on their tired but satisfied manager. “It was an emotional rollercoaster,” he said. “I’m 44 years young but I feel a bit older tonight. I’ll be asleep on the bus by eight o’clock.”
Marek had to save crucially from Joe Rothwell with seven minutes to go, but it was Rotherham who were pushing most for a winner in the closing stages of a mad, crazy contest which saw them draw in the league for the first time this season.
Character test passed.
“I’ll take a point at a top-six contender,” said Warne. “We’ve had criticism that away from home up against the top teams we’ve struggled. I don’t think our performances have been bad.”
He and his players drove away from Military Day feeling not quite victorious, a little bit glorious, definitely happy.