Not even the leaders can topple Rotherham United as Warne gets it dead right: Wigan Athletic 0 Millers 0
Like the rest of us, Rotherham United wide men Jon Taylor and Ryan Williams must have wondered what was going on.
The game should have already been five minutes old, yet the only action involving wings was coming from Army Paratroopers.
The teams had already been out on the pitch and were then ordered off after the obligatory handshakes. As players from both sides did their best to stay loose on the touchline, three members of the Red Devils display unit performed pinpoint landings at the DW Stadium.
It was all part of Armed Forces Day and a good spectacle. No-one minded the delay, caused, it turned out, by a late aircraft.
Soon, the play-off-chasing Millers were locked in absorbing combat with League One leaders Wigan Athletic.
They might have won, they never looked like losing. They attacked when they could, defended when they had to. One of their most impressive displays of the season brought one of their most impressive results.
“I didn’t go gung-ho,” said manager Paul Warne. “No-one could complain, Rotherham or Wigan fans, that the points where shared.”
Athletic are the division’s best outfit, the top scorers, the meanest defenders, the side with the most wins, the champions elect. They’d hit nine goals in their last two outings.
Resilient Rotherham, looking more and more likely to finish in the fourth place they already occupy, brought them down to earth like Paratroopers dropping from the DW sky.
In 40 league matches, Wigan’s defence had been breached just 27 times, yet only 26 seconds had been played when Rotherham should have added to that tally.
Matt Palmer’s ball was perfect for Taylor whose first-time cross was touched by Williams to Michael Smith who shot and looked certain to score until Chey Dunkley produced a stunning block.
Smith glanced a header wide from another Taylor set-up and Williams tested home goalkeeper Christian Walton with a shot after Josh Emmanuel’s surge into the penalty area.
All this before eight minutes were on the clock and well before Will Grigg drove off target, after his initial effort had been parried by Marek Rodak, and placed a header the wrong side of the woodwork.
After the break, Wigan saw a lot of the ball, but they also saw a lot of Rotherham as the Millers got close to them, pressed, harried, fought for everything, kept their shape and refused to yield.
“We started the game really well and could have gone one or two up in the first few minutes,” Warne said. “At the start of the second half, Wigan were excellent. They’re the best team in the league by a country mile.
“I thought we defended really well and weathered the storm, then in the last 20 minutes, the way I saw it, we were by far the better team and could have nicked it.”
Michael Ihiekwe, recalled in place of Semi Ajayi for his first start at centre-half since December 9, was superb in Rotherham’s only 0-0 stalemate of the campaign so far.
As Warne spoke by the players’ tunnel, there was a sudden noise high in the stand behind him. “It’s not a parachute, is it?” he quipped as he addressed the 82nd-incident when Wigan centre-half Dan Burn tried to control the ball, which then bounced up, in his own box.
“I thought we had a penalty,” the manager said. “The ball definitely hit his arm.”
Williams, after a lovely cut inside, was inches away with a fierce right-foot shot in the 77th minute before Michael Jacobs, two minutes later, and James Vaughan, in time added on, directed Latics efforts over the bar.
One man agreeing with Warne’s assessment was Latics boss Paul Cook. “A draw was a fair result,” he acknowledged. “Rotherham caused us all manner of problems in the opening exchanges.”
One up front and five in midfield. Warne changed from his favoured 4-4-2 formation for one of the Millers’ biggest tests of the season and it worked perfectly.
Smith - mobile, strong, never conceding an inch and contributing right across the frontline - gave Wigan’s centre-halves an afternoon so tough that his main marker was reduced to appealing to the referee for help. As Burn fiddled, Smith roamed.
Numbers in midfield gave Rotherham options going forward and extra security at the back.
“I think we got the tactics spot on,” Warne said. “Icky was outstanding. Tayls and Wills gave us real energy and pace down the sides. With a couple of bits of more class, we could have won it.
“Smith deserved a goal for his performance. He didn’t let their centre-halves rest. They’ll go home knowing they’ve played against a really good player.”
The Millers head to Gillingham on Tuesday when a victory could all but secure their play-off berth.
With four matches to play, they’re seven points clear of the pack outside of the top six and appear to be running right back into form just when it matters.
As the Red Devils will testify, it’s all about timing.