Rotherham United verdict and reaction: Burnley 2 Millers 0
For one tantalising second, it looked like the Great Escape was about to arrive early.
Not the Championship survival mission Neil Warnock has been brought in to mastermind. That will play out, for better or worse, over the next 14 matches to the end of the season.
This was Rotherham United’s big moment to snatch an unlikely draw at the home of high-flying Burnley, now unbeaten in nine league matches and occupying an automatic promotion spot.
The Millers had been outplayed by superior opponents but were hanging in valiantly when Joe Newell found himself on his own with only the goalkeeper to beat in the 80th minute and the chance to make the score 1-1.
Newell hurried his shot wide when it looked easier to score and even Warnock accepted as the midfielder’’s effort slipped the wrong side of the post that the game was effectively up.
“When Joe missed that chance to make it 1-1 you almost felt that was it really,” the manager, taking charge of his second game, said. “We could have made it nervous for them.
“They had a bit more quality than us, but that’s not to say we couldn’t have got something out of the game.”
As Warnock also said, you don’t play Burnley away every week. No-one expected the Millers to get anything at Turf Moor and, with fellow strugglers MK Dons losing at Bristol City, the gap between them and a survival spot remains at five points.
But is is another game gone in the short spell the new boss has between now and early May to preserve the club’s second-tier status.
Rotherham are reaching the stage where draws aren’t enough. Tuesday’s match at 16th-placed Reading is crucial, Saturday’s home clash with 14th-placed Brentford simply huge.
There was no lack of spirit from the players who have responded to Warnock’s arrival. The Millers’ makeshift back four offered staunch defensive resistance against a powerful, well-drilled side, but the early withdrawal of Danny Ward after a head knock disrupted them up front and fellow striker Jonson Clarke-Harris asked too few questions of the Clarets’ backline.
Warnock had said earlier in the week that Leon Best would be given a practice run-out after this match, but gambled on the centre-forward, who hadn’t played since November because of a groin injury, by including him on the bench.
Rotherham were better for his 72nd-minute introduction, and Clarke-Harris’s one contribution of note came after being moved out to the right wing when he delivered the ball which set up Newell’s untaken opportunity.
Warnock looked and learned, but wasn’t letting on what he’d picked up ahead of the trip to the Madejski Stadium.
“There were one or two things,” he said. There were one or two lads I have not seen. But I will keep that to myself. There was some good and some bad.
“I asked Best if he could do 15 or 20 minutes on Thursday and he said he would. I thought he contributed and it was good to get him on the pitch.”
From high up in the James Hargreaves Stand, you can look out, way beyond Turf Moor, on to one of the most evocative views in the Football League as a brown LS Lowry landscape of uniform terraced roofs and chimney stacks eventually gives way to rolling hills and rural green.
Appropriate really because it rained matchstalk cats and dogs throughout this game.
Back on the pitch the Millers had Lloyd Doyley, one of three 30-something free agents signed by Warnock in his first week, making his debut at centre-half. He barely put a foot wrong before departing with cramp late on, but the one time he did it was to tread on the trailing boot of George Boyd just inside the penalty area and Sam Vokes converted the 27th-minute spot-kick.
Doyley hadn’t played since leaving Watford at the end of last season and here he was up against Andre Gray, a £9 million signing and arguably the division’s most dangerous marksman. Therein you have the size of the challenge facing Warnock and his men as they fight a desperate rearguard action in a bid to preserve their second-tier status.
Rotherham were dogged but had only a dipping long-range 42nd-minute attempt just over the bar from Grant Ward, on for namesake Danny, to show for their first-half efforts while, for Burnley, Gray headed on to the bar in the 35th minute and, after the break, he and Vokes between them passed up on four decent chances to increase the lead.
Just after Newell’s miss, Lee Camp saved from George Boyd and Frazer Richardson produced a goalsaving block on Vokes.
Centre-halves Kirk Broadfoot and Doyley, right-back Greg Halford and Richardson, pressed into action at left-back, let nobody down.
“I thought Halford was fantastic - first game in about three years! - and I thought Doyley did all right apart from the penalty,” Warnock said. “Young Wardy did well when he came on so there were quite a few plusses.”
As the game progressed without a second goal, Burnley became edgy. Rotherham tried and pressed but lacked the attacking thrust to take advantage. Home goalkeeper Tom Heaton was called into action only once, making a comfortable save from Broadfoot’s 70th-minute header.
Scott Arfield wrapped up the points for Sean Dyche’s men in the 87th minute with an emphatic shot past Camp after being set up by Gray’s pass
In a grim season, it’s the fourth time in four matches in this Lancastrian neck of the woods that Millers fans have driven back across the M62 in disappointment. Blackburn, Preston, Bolton, Burnley ... always beaten, always raining.
Newell held his head in his hands at the time of his miss and, after trooping disconsolately off the sodden pitch at the end, ackowledged his mistake to his teammates, knowing he should have scored.
“Our best period was when Joe had that chance,” Warnock said. “He is disappointed is Joe. He could have side-footed it in. That would have put the cat among the pigeons.”
As time runs out, the battle intensifies.
“They are a good group of lads and they just have to enjoy the last 14 games now,” Warnock added. “They are going to give us everything until the end of the season and when you are a manager in the dugout you can’t ask for any more.
“I do think we have got a fighting chance. If we get the rub of the green and take our opportunities, I think we can come close.”
Not for one second, tantalising or otherwise, did he ever expect the job to be easy.
Burnley (4-4-2): Heaton 6; Lowton 8, Keane 7 (Tarkowski 32, 7), Mee 7, Ward 7; Boyd 7(Taylor 90), Jones 6, Barton 9, Arfield 7; Vokes 6, Gray (Hennings 90 7). Subs not used: Robinson, Kightly, Darikwa, Ulvestad.
Rotherham United (4-4-2): Camp 7; Halford 7, Broadfoot 7, Doyley (Best 72) 7, Richardson 7; Burke 5 (Shinnie H-T, 5), Smallwood 6, Green 6, Newell 5; D Ward 5 (G Ward 38, 7), Clarke-Harris 4. Subs not used: Kenny, Collins, Derbyshire, Thomas.
Goals: Vokes pen 27, Arfield 87 (Burnley).
Referee: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).
Attendance: 15,849 (644).