Rotherham United’s season was hanging in the balance and grown men in the dressing room were struggling to cope.
For nearly nine months the club had battled manfully to stay out of the relegation places in their first season in the Championship for nearly a decade.
But boss Steve Evans had just delivered the Football League verdict to his players. The three points they had earned in a 1-0 Easter-Monday win over Brighton were gone.
Survival had been almost assured. Now, penalised for an administrative error which led them to field an ineligible player against the Seagulls, they were scrapping for their lives.
The Millers manager described telling his squad as the hardest speech he’d ever had to give.
“I know when I was telling them that some were breaking in front of me,” he recalled.
But two hours later Evans was giving the best speech of his career, and the campaign was saved by three little words.
“After I’d told them, we trained and we came back in,” he revealed. “Some of the lads will tell you, we spoke about resolve and desire and passion.
“We said: ‘Let’s go on a run of games and let’s show they can take our on-the-field-of play points, as we call them, but they can’t take anything else. Let’s go and prove a point.’”
From that meeting onwards, the Millers didn’t lose another game.
Even with the points deduction, they finished five points clear of the drop zone. Considering the points they threw away - and more of that later - they could have ended comfortablly in midtable.
After successive promotions, Rotherham started out in August pretty well, some of the stalwarts of the League Two and League One campaigns running on adrenalin as they rose to the challenge of playing in front of 30,000-plus crowds and against many teams with Premier-League pedigrees.
But by late autumn momentum had stalled and Evans knew he had to act.
A grim 1-0 home defeat to Birmingham City was the tipping point.
The Millers manager, by his own admission, had signed too many players who couldn’t make the required impact at Championship level and, despite stirring home wins of Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United, some of the heroes of the lower-league campaigns had gone as far as they could.
Evans - experiencing this level for the first time himself, remember - was quick to acknowledge, and learn from, his mistakes, and Rotherham would never look as bad again as they did on that November 22 day.
In came loan quartet Tom Lawrence, Emmanuel Ledesma, Scott Wootton and Reece James, the style of play was transformed and Evans’ side, although drawing more games than he would have liked, went through December unbeaten.
Despite huge contributions from one or two others, Evans would describe freakishly-gifted Leicester City youngster Lawrence at the end of the season as the most talented of all the players he brought in on a temporary basis.
The Rotherham boss’s recruitment became sharper as the season progressed. All four loanees departed, but Danny Ward, Adam Hammill, Conor Sammon and Jack Hunt arrived in January and all made positive impacts while goalkeeper Emi Martinez joined towards the business end of the season and immediately showed why he could be Arsenal’s No 1 in the not too distant future.
And Matt Derbyshire finally remembered what a good striker he really is. After 14 Championship blanks, he scored at the rate of almost a goal every other game once he broke his duck against Bolton in January. One wonders what might have been had he started the season as he finished and had loan signing Luciano Becchio not broken down just as he acquired full match fitness in early October.
Beautiful man-management from Evans. Just when people were finally giving up on Derbyshire, his manager told him he was the best goalscorer at the club and he was going to play him no matter what. Thank you, said the former Premier League hitman. Nine times.
The fancy pass-and-move stuff of December gave way to a more pragmatic approach and the Millers’ high-tempo, pressing game, when it was on, could give any team trouble.
“Are Rotherham staying up? 100 per cent,” said Ipswich Town after seeing his team downed 2-0 at AESSEAL New York Stadium in February. “They’ll be up near midtable. They ‘re too strong.”
“I got a lot wrong in the early part of the season,” said Evans, who stresses that the difference in standards between the second tier and League One is vast. “We have to look at the season as a whole.
“I think since Christmas we’ve been a real force. We’ve never been outworked. In a lot of games we should have got the points and we didn’t.
“We should have been sitting around midtable and it should never have come to whether the Football League wanted to take three points off us.”
McCarthy was wrong about the final position, with the Millers finally finishing one place above the bottom three, but he and Evans were right to suggest midtable was where they might have been when the season drew to a close nine days ago.
There were four points dropped against Blackpool - individual mistakes costing them dear when they were deservedly in front with just minutes to go in both matches against the bottom club - and they lost 3-2 at Bolton Wanderers when the game had been in the bag.
They conceded a last-minute equaliser in a 3-3 draw with Fulham and, most hurtful of all, gave up the lead in time added on and lost to derby rivals Sheffield Wednesday.
Any team has a story of ‘what ifs’ at the end of a season, but Rotherham were the club in the pack above the relegation places that more than any other deserved to be higher in the table.
They got better as time went on. The team that finished the season with a four-match unbeaten run would have beaten the one that started out in August.
Was he ever worried, I asked Evans last week. “Never,” he shot back, not quite aggressively but more ... let’s see ... what’s the right word here ... okay, aggressively.
There were wobbles. Defeat at home to survival rivals Wigan was a particular blow and the first of four successive losses just as the Latics and fellow bottom-three side Millwall were starting to revive.
The victory over Brighton changed everything. The Millers could now smell safety, So savage irony then that this was the game where they wrongly played centre-half Farrend Rawson and a week later came a Football league charge which could have, well, changed everything.
This was when Evans really stepped up. He disagreed with the charge, but accepted it. He said there was no anger, that, no, he wasn’t seeking an apology from anyone and, crucially, he kept his and his squad’s entire focus on playing matters and imbued them with an ‘us against them’ mentality
At the time when the manager famed for his after-match outbursts over authority and officialdom might have blown his lid, he did what he would later famously tell Millwall striker Lee Gregory to do: he kept his trap shut.
Between the Millers guaranteeing their survival against Reading on a wild, never-to-be-forgotten night of New York celebration and an amazing season coming to a close, he even managed to find time to wear a sombrero.
In a campaign of ups and down, highs and lows, many things changed. But one thing never did - the Millers’ famed fighting spirit. In 46 league matches the team were sometimes found wanting, but only once did their attitude fail to turn up, in a horrible 3-0 October defeat at Reading which left Evans as low as I saw him all season.
There will be nothing like the same number of signings this pre-season as there was last summer. It’s all about adding quality now as the Millers look to build on a core of players who have proved their Championship worth in the hope of realising Evans’ “midtable looking upwards” aim.
Quality, and the three little words which achieved so much in this campaign ... resolve, desire, passion.