Paul Warne already had a good idea what Rotherham United were up against.
The Millers manager had been on a midweek spying mission to check out opponents Wigan Athletic in person as they beat Doncaster Rovers 3-0 at the DW Stadium.
Rovers, he said, had been “annihilated”.
Knowing what’s coming and stopping it are two different things.
Rotherham were seen off by the best side to visit AESSEAL New York Stadium this season, who went to the top of League One on the back of their deserved victory.
The Millers, who began November in a play-off spot slipped to 12th place after a sixth successive league match without a win.
“I knew it would be difficult,” Warne said. “I’d watched them against Donny and they annihilated them. I knew we would have a problem stopping their crosses. Their full-backs are super-athletic.”
It seems a long time since Rotherham went head to head with Scunthorpe United on October 14 and won a battle of two good sides.
In the half a dozen league encounters since, they have shipped three goals four times. It’s easy to see where the main problem lies.
“I can’t expect the team to score four goals,” Warne said. “We have to be better defensively.”
He regained his place because of a blunder and went on to produce the gaffe of the game.
Centre-half Michael Ihiekwe came back into the side following a ban as Semi Ajayi paid the price for the part he played in last week’s late winner for Shrewsbury.
On the hour, with Rotherham still in the match at 2-1 down, failed to clear the danger, allowing Will Grigg a clear run on goal.
Millers goalkeeper Marek Rodak did brilliantly to push the ball away from Grigg’s feet as the striker tried to go round him but Michael Jacobs was on hand to end the contest with a low shot.
“To throw the third goal away early in the second half was the biggest disappointment,” said Warne. “It was an alehouse ball down the middle. Michael can just tidy it up. He doesn’t. Marek pulls him out of the cr*p. But then the lad’s cracked it through three pairs of legs and we’ve been punished.”
Two set-pieces, two opposition goals. Rotherham were hit by a familiar failing.
Wigan led on 14 minutes when Max Power’s wicked, whipped-in free-kick was glanced home by Grigg’s head, the Millers were level two minutes later through David Ball’s stunning curler and the visitors were back in front in the 28th minute as Alex Bruce hooked the ball in following a corner.
Ihiekwe looked to have made a fair, crunching tackle but was booked for the challenge that ended in the Latics’ opener.
“I thought he won the ball cleanly. I asked the fourth official and he agreed,” Warne said. “I think the referee has given it for ‘recklessness’. It’s the way the game is going. Would I have complained had it been given to us at the other end? No. We haven’t lost because of a refereeing decision.”
Wigan, showing workrate to match their quality, had rained in dangerous crosses from both flanks in the opening period, but it was the simple ‘alehouse’ route which left Ihiekwe unsteady on his legs in the game’s key moment.
Rotherham pressed in the last 30 minutes and Lee Frecklington went close late on with a rasping shot, but by then the visitors, getting men behind the ball and content to sit on their lead, had seen out the match.
“We told the lads at half-time to stop the crosses and we could get back into it,” Warne said. “The error for the third goal was pretty hard to take.”
ON THE BALL
Ball was making only his fourth league start since his summer arrival at AESSEAL New York Stadium. The fifth surely won’t be long in coming.
The ‘No 10’ has found himself on the sidelines as the Millers have favoured a 4-1-4-1 formation, but a switch to 4-4-1-1 gave him his chance as Warne made five changes.
His goal and some of his link-up play showed why he had been one of the division’s most feared attackers during his time with Fleetwood Town.
When Kieffer Moore nodded down Rodak’s long kick, Ball took possession, cut inside and hit the top corner with thrilling pinpoint accuracy from the edge of the area.
Twenty-one minutes after the clincher by Jacobs, he came off cream-crackered, having done enough to suggest he’ll be in the side at Bristol Rovers next Saturday.
“I thought he was excellent,” Warne said. “I think he can have it in tight areas when there are people around him.”
Rotherham could do with Ball at his best. They began November in a play-off spot but will end it in midtable, having fallen below the standards they set earlier in the season.
They’ve faced League One’s top two teams in successive weeks. December, on paper at least, looks less daunting.
After the match, in the cold and dark, Christmas-tree lights glinted in the grounds of New York for the first time this campaign.
The Millers need to rediscover their own sparkle by the time the festive season is here for real.