Rotherham United: Groundhog Day, Frecklington back and has Vaulks found his best position? Millers 0 Aston Villa 2
Paul Warne was the first to agree.
We’d been here before this season. Many times.
Rotherham United offered manful resistance yet lacked the quality to make their spirit count. They gave what they had but it wasn’t enough. They found the standards of the Championship beyond them.
“It is a little bit like Groundhog Day,” said Warne, the caretaker manager who has made the most of limited resources since inheriting an impossible situation from Alan Stubbs and Kenny Jackett at the end of November.
“I am trying absolutely everything with my staff to make sure that it doesn’t happen every week.
“When I went in afterwards, I didn’t rip the players apart. They were desperately trying and scrapping for this club to get a goal. But they possibly havent got that bit of class.”
This was a eighth defeat in nine games, and there have been only three wins (all under Warne) in the last six and a half months.
The gap between the Championship’s bottom club and safety?
With 11 matches to go, now up to 18 points.
He hadn’t played for two months, then reintroduced himself inside three minutes.
Skipper and talisman Lee Frecklington was back and, such was his desire to make his presence felt as a half-time substitute, he was in the referee’s notebook while some of the crowd were still taking their seats for the second period.
A thumping challenge left Alan Hutton on the deck and showed that the Millers midfielder is confident in his recovery after surgery on the ankle trouble that has reduced him to just 16 appearances in the 2016/17 campaign.
“I’m really pleased to be back,” he said. “I woke up like a little schoolkid this morning, extremely excited to be back in the squad. I couldn’t wait to play.
“I hate watching football and it’s been a long eight weeks. But I’ve put the work in and I feel fine. Hopefully, that’s the end of it and I can carry on for the rest of the season.”
His return has come too late to affect Rotherham’s prospects. But New York Stadium was a better place for that non-stop energy, hunger to compete and distinctive scamper gracing its pristine pitch once again.
Two beards collided at the end.
Warne made a beeline for Mile Jedinak and embraced the defensive midfielder who shares the interim boss’s passion for facial hair and did more than any other Villa player to keep the home side goalless
“I set us up as positively as I could and had a go,” said Warne. “Any realms of attacking play were denied by Jedinak. I thought he was outstanding. He stopped everything we tried to do.
“I went over to him and told him he was the best player on the pitch. It is always nice to be nice.”
Rotherham were still in the game at the interval thanks to Lewis Price saves from Conor Hourihane and Albert Adomah, a combined block by Ben Purrington and Semi Ajayi on Birkir Bjarnason and a brilliant hook off the line by Aimen Belaid when Adomah’s lob beat Price.
Tom Adeyemi’s 34th-minute header from Anthony Forde’s corner looked to be going in for the Millers until Jonathan Kodjia’s goalline intervention.
After three Rotherham players, Stephen Kelly, Danny Ward and Jon Taylor, had departed injured, disaster struck for Will Vaulks - pushed from midfield to cover for Kelly at right-back - in the 68th minute when he turned Kodjia’s low cross from the right into his own net.
Three minutes from time, Kodjia rounded off a Villa counter-attack by shooting home with the help of a post.
In between the goals, ironically, Warne’s men had produced their most sustained attacking spell of the match and Anthony Forde tested visiting keeper Sam Johnstone with a stinging shot in the 81st minute.
But Villa had a player in their ranks a Mile more effective than any other.
“He just won everything,” said Warne. “The two centre-halves didn’t have to do anything because he tidied everything up when we went down the middle.”
Forget the own goal, Will Vaulks did an admirable job covering in defence when Kelly limped off with an Achilles problem after 17 minutes.
No-one doubts that, when he has time, the 23-year-old can play. His problem, as a midfielder in the second tier, has been that he doesn’t always have that commodity.
At right-back, with more space available to him and longer to think, his strength in the tackle, power in the air, stamina and ability to see a long ball were all on show.
“He had a couple of Roy of the Rovers moments where he had a blood rush, but generally I thought he did really well,” said Warne.
“The goal is just unfortunate. It is just one of those things in football, I can’t take umbrage with him because he is trying to do the right thing. He is unlucky. On the other hand, it is a good finish! Shame he couldn’t do it at the other end.”
Vaulks cut a disconsolate figure as he lay on the turf as Villa celebrated.
But it was collective shortcomings, not an individual error, which did for the Millers on Saturday, just like they have so often this term.
We’d been here before this season. Many times.