Paul Warne reached out to Dexter Blackstock, literally, seconds before kick-off.
Blackstock, the former Premier League centre-forward who has done nothing to justify his hefty wages since joining Rotherham United in early September, had been granted a rare start when Peter Odemwingie pulled up lame in the warm-up.
The Millers, looking to end a 14-year run of never progressing to the fourth round of the FA Cup, were brought together in a team huddle by Warne.
As it broke up, the caretaker manager touched his striker on the shoulder, offered an encouraging word, tried to fire up the man with just one goal in 11 appearances and no starts since November 5.
Fifty-three ineffective minutes later, Blackstock was off. And the record became 15 years.
The 30-year-old, the final piece of recruitment before fomer boss Alan Stubbs was sacked, had offered virtually nothing. He’d won two headers and failed to get a shot away when he had time.
Even worse, he’d lain himself open, again, to accusations of not putting in a shift.
As he left the field, and headed straight down the tunnel, to be replaced by youngster Jerry Yates, the cheer from the home fans was the loudest all afternoon other than when Rotherham scored.
Warne, describing himself as “embarrassed” after his Championship’s side loss to League One opposition, picked his words carefully.
“We didn’t have the energy or the fight in the first half, which is disappointing,” he said. “Dexter is a little bit rusty. He hasn’t played a lot of first-team games lately.
“He is at the front of a team that is playing horrendously. You could put Eric Cantona up front in the first half and he wasn’t going to play well.
“Dexter didn’t miss chances or anything like that, but was Dexter the best player on the pitch? No, he wasn’t.”
Warne, remember, is a Millers legend because of how hard he tried during his playing days.
Blackstock brokered a decent deal for himself at New York Stadium. No wonder, according to reports, he’s advising former Nottingham Forest teammate Henri Lansbury on a proposed move away from the City Ground.
A tight hamstring was the official reason behind his early departure. How Rotherham must rue loosening the purse strings to give him a three-year contract.
Warne was right about the opening period. Oxford deservedly led 1-0 at the break through Rotherham old boy Ryan Taylor and could have been further ahead.
Taylor didn’t celebrate after his clean, low 41st-minute finish from a byline pull-back.
Another ex-Miller, Chris Maguire, didn’t celebrate either after his penalty six minutes earlier when Kirk Broadfoot upended Taylor in the area. Lewis Price saved it, diving to his left to turn the ball away.
“They looked sharper than us. I hate to say it, they looked fitter than us,” said Warne, fitness coach as well as interim boss. “They had more energy and desire than us. They built on some early confidence and I was standing there thinking that we were in trouble.
“Some of my players didn’t want to take responsibility, they didn’t want the ball, didn’t want the crowd on their back.
“Well, boo hoo, sometimes you’re going to get the crowd on your back.”
Taylor was a handful, his soft feet, physical presence and eye for an opening everything the Millers had hoped to acquire when they signed Blackstock.
Warne questioned his players’ heart at the interval and they were a different proposition after the break, with Yates having the kind of impact Blackstock should be capable of producing.
Striker Danny Ward, attracting interest from a host of Championship clubs, had a 20-minute spell when he was almost unplayable and thumped in a stunning equaliser on 51 minutes.
Will Vaulks hit the post from 20 yards, Ward ran brilliantly and shot over, Anthony Forde ran well and Ward’s shot was saved. A second goal was coming.
It went, however, against the run of play, to the U’s as Phil Edwards was left completely unmarked at an 80th-minute corner to nod home.
Substitute Kane Hemmings wrapped up a happy day for the visitors in the 88th-minute with a close-range finish. Tom Adeyemi’s header from Yates’ cross a minute later altered the scoreline but not the crushing sense of home disappointment.
Warne had one word to sum up the defending as Oxford took the lead again.
TASTE OF THINGS TO COME
The Millers are 12 points adrift of safety in the second tier and heading towards League One next season, when the midtable U’s are likely to be among their opponents.
Michael Appleton’s side were nowhere near as good as many teams in the Championship, but they possessed pace, running power, one or two skilful individuals and a degree of ruggedness.
They troubled Rotherham. Rotherham troubled them.
Now the Millers have an idea of what could be in store.
Warne, eight games into his reign, felt the defeat keenly, as he always does.
He is the glue holding together the club at a difficult time.
Bright in mind as well as outlook, he is a hugely-popular, respected man of many gifts who struggles to keep at the bay the feeling that a loss means he has let everyone down.
“We needed a bit of a boost. We needed to get back to winning a game,” he said.
“I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but, after all the hard work the lads have put in over the last six weeks, and the improved performances, any confidence they had from that has been
“I’ve got to try to pick them up again. There are big games ahead. I feel part of this club and I feel the fans’ pain.
“I’m doing everything I possibly can. But, obviously, that isn’t enough.”
He had the class after the final whistle to seek out Taylor, who he once played alongside, and Maguire, who he once coached, to shake their hands.
Warne, just like he did as a player, is giving his all for Rotherham United.
Pity the same can’t be said about Blackstock.