How Rotherham United tripped themselves up on a dire pitch ... Southend 2 Millers 0
Paul Warne stood on the touchline and surveyed the Roots Hall pitch on which his side had just been vanquished.
He didn’t speak, he didn’t have to. His look of disgust said everything.
The surface was awful, poorer than anything in League One this season - and I’ve been to Shrewsbury Town, Blackpool and Bristol Rovers.
As the mowers rattled ineffectively past in the aftermath of a Millers defeat, the disappointed Rotherham United manager referenced the pitch in his outdoor press conference.
Yet, accepting his team had fallen short against Southend United, he was making no excuses. It was bad. But so had been the Millers as they turned in one of their worst displays in their push for promotion.
“It wasn’t a pitch to play football on by any stretch of the imagination,” Warne said. “We’ve got a really young side. They’ve got, I think, the most senior squad in the league.
“I think we got a bit “old-manned”, particularly in the first 25 minutes. They were prepared to win ugly, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Regrettably, the older pros showed the young whipper-snappers the way to go.”
In terms of league standings, no real harm was done. With eight games to go, Rotherham remain fourth, with no chance of catching the top three but six points clear of fifth-placed Scunthorpe United and eight ahead of the side just outside the play-offs, Plymouth Argyle.
However, after marching up the table on the back of a 14-match unbeaten run, Warne’s men have lost three of their last four games.
Easter clashes at home to Steve Evans’ Peterborough United and away to Charlton Athletic - two sides firmly in top-six contention - suddenly take on extra significance. Momentum will be gained or lost.
Was this really the same side that started last week’s sublime 3-0 demolition of Northampton Town?
The Millers were 1-0 down after seven minutes, as Simon Cox found Stephen McLaughin in acres of space on the Shrimpers’ right flank and the winger fired home, and were lucky not to be further behind at the break.
Stand-in goalkeeper Lewis Price kept out a Dru Yearwood 20-yarder and superbly saved at the feet of Marc-Antoine Fortune who looked certain to score.
In the second half, Rotherham huffed and puffed more than portly referee Brett Huxtable in their quest for an equaliser, until the home side ended the contest with 11 minutes to go.
A completely out-of-sorts Semi Ajayi was favourite to clear and could lay no blame on the surface as he was beaten far too easily on the byline by Cox who ran in to finish. X-rated defending in front of an XL official.
“A few of our lads who have been excellent just started the game a bit sluggishly,” Warne said. “For the first 15 minutes, Southend were definitely on top. From the highs of last week when we passed the ball really well away from home, this was a different sport today.
“I don’t think my lads acclimatised quickly enough and, fundamentally, that’s what’s killed us.
“Second half, I thought we were considerably better. They went one up and went with banks of five and four in front of our goal. Unfortunately, one individual error from a massive boot from their keeper has cost us.”
David Ball swivelled and screwed a low shot from inside the six-yard box just wide just before the break, but the Millers had to wait until the 62nd minute for their first effort on target. Richie Towell’s shot was parried by Mark Oxley, with substitute Jerry Yates losing his footing as he shaped to convert the rebound.
An 83rd-minute goalmouth scramble in which Yates was denied and a shot wide in time added on by sub Joe Newell were too little too late.
“We changed it. I ended up going 3-4-3 in the second half to try to get a goal,” Warne said. “I thought in the second half we were the only team going to score.”
Price was the busiest man on the pitch as Southend continually turned Rotherham and he received one bobbling back-pass after another.
The Millers had used similar tactics to winning effect at high-flying Shrewsbury last month, but, despite receiving instructions for a repeat, they rarely forced the Shrimpers defence to face their own goal.
“At half-time, we told the lads not to be embarrassed about playing ugly and to turn them,” Warne said. “Today, we just weren’t ‘football clever’ enough to win the game.”
The boss had a final dig at the mud, bumps, divots and sand.
“It summed it up in the first half when Willo (Ryan Williams) tried to run with the ball and it bounced, hit him in the knee, then hit him nearly in the face,” he said. “I’m thinking: ‘What chance have we got?’
“But it’s the same for both teams, so that’s not me going ‘boo hoo’. They played the conditions better than we did and they deserved their points.”
Uneven, too soft in places, cutting up badly early on.
It could be the pitch or the Millers on a sorry Southend day we’re talking about.