Rotherham United manager Steve Evans spoke beforehand of August 8 being like Christmas Day and then watched aghast, like every home fan inside AESSEAL New York Stadium, as his side handed out presents.
There’s something special about opening day, the sun out, supporters in short sleeves and optimism abounding, particularly when pre-season has been as encouraging as the one the Millers have just enjoyed.
It took 35 minutes for such hope to be extinguished.
In that time the defensive frailty of Steve Evans’ men had offered up three gifts to MK Dons, and there was to be no way back against newly-promoted opposition who couldn’t believe their luck.
It was the worst home defeat on the first day of the season for the Millers - who had eight players making debuts, including the entire backline - since Shrewsbury Town came to Millmoor and triumphed 4-0 in 1994 in the old days of Football League Division Two.
Evans and Karl Robinson, the two longest-serving managers of clubs in the Championship, had been watching for only five minutes when a ball in from the left by Dean Bowditch wasn’t collected by Rotherham goalkeeper Kelle Roos and a fortuitous deflection left a tap-in for Rob Hall.
The Millers hit back eight minutes later as Matt Derbyshire headed home a quality Chris Maguire corner and for the next 15 minutes they dominated proceedings, squandering several chances to take the lead.
But suddenly they were behind again. Aidy White gave Jordan Spence too much room in which to cross from the right in the 28th minute and the ball was deflected off Danny Collins towards Roos who allowed it to squirm under him.
Seven minutes later, the incredulity in the stadium was palpable as skipper Greg Halford’s attempted back-pass caught Tom Thorpe flush in the face and the ensuing cross from the left was touched in by Bowditch, with Roos unable to keep it out at his near post.
You had to feel for Roos. The 23-year-old Dutchman made the cover of the programme on his competitive debut but it was downhill from there. It wasn’t the first impression he wanted to make, and his kicking became so unsure for a time that he was mocked by away fans.
A packed stadium must feel like the loneliest place in the world when you’re a new, young keeper and things aren’t going your way.
The Dons were full of the vim and vigour which can make promoted sides difficult first-day opponents. They broke neatly but were defensively dodgy, and the home side’s first-half purple patch should have turned the match in the Millers’ favour.
Diving Dons keeper David Martin pushed Derbyshire’s drive on to the post but found himself stranded as the ball made its way across a totally unguarded net to White.
The left midfielder could have headed the ball in, he had so much time he could have controlled it and stroked it home. Instead, he leapt up, went for an unconvincing half-volleyed touch on a bouncing ball and put it wide.
He paid with his place at half-time, along with midfielder youngster Grant Ward who had been unable to impose himself on the game.
Everyone was still coming to terms with that glaring miss when, seconds later, Derbyshire broke clear on the left only to see Martin deny him again, and the striker headed over a minute later from White’s cross.
Dons substitute Carl Baker wrapped up the points in the 75th minute, too easily rolling his way round Joe Newell to fire a fierce near-post shot past Roos, after the Millers had threatened a second goal with headers from sub Paul Green, Derbyshire and, particularly, Thorpe who directed a soft effort straight at Martin from a few feet out.
None of this was in the script while Evans was making 12 summer signings which were drawing the approval of virtually everyone and his side were showing up so well in friendlies against Premier League Leicester City and Bundesliga outfit FSV Mainz.
He adopted exactly the right tone afterwards, staying calm and reasoned while still delivering an honest assessment of what he’d just seen.
“If you don’t defend right and you don’t take chances at key stages of the match, it’s always going to be tough,” he said. “Our defending wasn’t good enough, allowing crosses into our box.
“There will be no excuses from us. We’ll have to take it bang in the face.”
Maybe Thorpe, after that third-goal mix-up, could help his teammates with that one.
If you’re looking for signs, Rotherham comfortably stayed up in the 1994/1995 season and finished above the team who had lowered their colours on that August 13 afternoon.
On Saturday, many fans had departed well before the final whistle, while there were boos from some of those who stayed to the bitter end.
It’s too soon for minds to be made up about anything. Had the Millers won 4-1, it wouldn’t have made them promotion contenders, just as this defeat, no matter how bad, doesn’t make them instant relegation candidates.
Had White scored when it seemed impossible to miss, who’s to say Evans’ men wouldn’t have gone on to a comfortable victory and it would be them sitting in top spot in the second tier today rather than last Saturday’s opponents?
But there’s no denying the fact that this was a shock to the system on a grand scale.
Unlike Christmas, I never saw it coming. I don’t think anybody did.
Rotherham United (4-4-2): Roos 5; Halford 5, Collins 5, Thorpe 5, Newell 6; Maguire 6 (Bowery 73), G Ward 5 (Frecklington H-T, 6), Smallwood 6, White 5 (Green H-T, 6); D Ward 6, Derbyshire 7. Subs not used: Collin, Buxton, Ledesma, Richardson.
MK Dons (4-2-3-1): Martin 7; Spence 7, McFadzean 5, Kay 7, Lewington 6; Potter 7, Carruthers 6; Hall 6 (Powell 68, 6), Reeves 7, Bowditch 7 (Baker 68, 7); Gallagher 7 (Church 75). Subs not used: Cropper, Hodson, Walsh, Aguza.
Goals: Derbyshire 13 (Rotherham); Hall 5, Collins og 28, Bowditch 35, Baker 75 (MK Dons).
Referee: Nigel Miller (County Durham).
Attendance: 9,869 (849).