Paul Warne spent part of yesterday ‘borrowing’ the festive ‘smellies’ of his players at the end of Christmas Day training.
Not much more than 24 hours later, there was more than a whiff of relief around New York Stadium as the caretaker manager watched his side hold on to win a game that looked all but over at half-time
Rotherham led 3-0, deserved to lead 3-0, at the break.
But, as the New York faithful planned a Yuletide second-half party, the Millers misfired like a cheap Christmas cracker and two Latics goals led to a nail-biting final 11 minutes as the home side just hung on.
Warne - who didn’t open his own presents, which he says always include a shower set, until he was back home with his family after working out with his squad on December 25 - admitted after this Boxing Day clash: “I was a nervous wreck.”
“When the first Wigan goal went in, I started to worry because momentum is a massive thing in sport. I thought: ‘Here we go.’ I felt a bit helpless.
“They kept coming at us, but I am proud of the lads. They give everything. They put their bodies on the line. I never expected it to be easy. No game involving us is!”
When the dust had settled on the perfect example of a game of two halves, the Championship’s bottom club had beaten the team next to bottom to reduce the gap between them and safety from 12 points to nine.
Warne had prepared video clips from players’ family and children to inspire his squad before kick-off and how that paid off as the visitors could barely get a kick in the opening period.
Rotherham’s early dominance was rewarded in the eighth minute with a goal from an unlikely source, skipper Lee Frecklington mishitting his shot and the ball then being rifled into the net by centre-half Aimen Belaid.
It was the Tunisia international’s first ever goal for the club, although his volley was so assured and emphatic it looked like it was something he does every week.
It set the tone for more to come as the Millers bossed proceedings and forged a commanding lead.
10 minutes after the opener, Anthony Forde was just wide at the back post after a Danny Ward cross, Richard Wood’s header was cleared off the line moments later and then Tom Adeyemi curled a 20-yarder just wide.
Warne’s men were full of threat and endeavour, with Izzy Brown and Adeyemi really standing out, and they were 2-0 ahead just after the half-hour mark.
Ward shot from just outside the penalty area after Joe Mattock’s blocked shot had fallen for him and it took a deflection from Wood on the way in.
“My goal,” said Ward. “My goal,” said Wood. The pair are big pals and drive to and from training together, so their next journey could be interesting.
Adeyemi smashed a stunning 20-yarder on to the bar after a driving run and as the half edged into time added on Ward shot again and it hit the net, as Adeyemi lurked, with the help of Latics defender Dan Burn.
No need for deodorant for Warne and co in the home dugout as there was little to sweat about against visitors who were being hassled out of possession by relentless Millers pressing.
“I tried to send them out as positive as I could and we started the game really well,” Warne said. “They looked confident and bright. I don’t think 3-0 flattered us at all. We were worthy of our lead. I thought we were a constant threat.”
Whatever the interim boss said at half-time, he probably won’t be using those words again, because the Latics took control and cut the deficit with shots from dangerman Yanic Wildschut in the 51st minute and Jordi Gomez after 79.
For one agonising second, it looked as if the Millers had conceded a third in the dying seconds until a correct handball decision saw them safely home.
“Did I enjoy the second half?” said Warne. “No. Am I happy with the win? Yes.”
The Millers are a more compact and competitive animal since their fitness coach stepped into his new role and he already has two wins from his five games at the helm. Five matches. Otherwise known around these parts as “a Jackett”.
Next up 21st-placed Burton Albion, at home, on Thursday when Rotherham, regardless of their leader’s Christmas cosmetics, will be on the scent of another morale-boosting victory.
Rotherham United (4-4-1-1): Price 6; Fisher 8, Wood 7, Belaid 7, Mattock 6; Forde 6, Adeyemi 8, Frecklington 7, Newell 5 (Vaulks 84); Brown 8 (Odemwingie 67, 6); Ward 6. Subs not used: Bilboe, Kelly, Broadfoot, Taylor, Blackstock.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen 6, Kellett 6 (Byrne 80), Buxton 6, Burn 7, Warnock 6; Jacobs 5, Gomez 6, Power 6, Wildschut 8; Grigg 5, Davies 5 (Le Fondre 56, 6). Subs not used: Lavercombe, Flores, Woolery, Burke, Stubbs.
Goals: Belaid 8, Ward 32, Burn og 45+1 (Rotherham); Wildschut 51, Gomez 79 (Wigan).
Referee: David Coote (Nottingham) 5.
Attendance: 10,158 (1,241).