“He’s not like that. He wouldn’t just lash out,” said Rotherham United teammate Paul Green.
“An absolutely shocking, awful, woeful, disgraceful, abject decision. There are no other words I could use for it,” said boss Steve Evans in slightly stronger terms.
“It was close,” said Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka, given and rejecting an opportunity to say definite red card.
Referee Michael Russell might have been the man who sent off striker Jordan Bowery, who had been on the pitch for only five minutes as a replacement for the injured Alex Revell, but the decision was that of the assistant linesman, Keith Lawson, who flagged after a tangle between the home striker and Boro’s George Friend.
Bowery challenged fairly for the ball in the 30th minute and Lawson gestured for a foul. In the ensuing melee Friend ended up on the floor and Bowery’s right boot made contact with him but not in a serious or premeditated way. It looked like Bowery was trying to lift his foot over Friend but, off balance himself, didn’t quite get it high enough.
That seemed the end of it until Dawson’s flag went up. Seconds later Bowery was off and New York Stadium was in uproar.
It happened right in front of me. I thought, at worst, both players might be spoken to. I was surprised when the referee went to his pocket, shocked when he produced red.
“That assistant is known to us as a management team. We have to ask, first and foremost, why he was appointed. When he was appointed, we feared what would happen and it has happened today,” added Evans, surprised, shocked and a whole lot more.
“There’s not even a case for a yellow card. You look at the reactions of players and there was no reaction from the players or the Boro bench. I wouldn’t expect it as they are a really professional outfit and one or two of their players and staff were apologising to me in the tunnel at half-time about the sending off. So they know it has been a wrong decision as well.
“We have looked at it back. I hold no portion of blame to the match referee. If he is told by an assistant someone has kicked out, the player should go off.
“We have to let the authorities look at that one.”
This from a man who was objective enough to acknowledge the quality of the side his team, who had been five games unbeaten beforehand, had just fallen to.
The Millers will today appeal the straight red which ended any real hope of a fightback against a team now up to third place in the Championship.
Let’s remember Boro, backed by superb away support, were already leading 2-0 before Bowery’s exit, looking one of the best sides seen at New York Stadium and had the game probably won. But let’s also remember being down to 10 men did nothing to further the Millers’ cause.
Green added: “We didn’t help ourselves and gifted them a goal start and then went down to 10 men. It would have been nice to have 11 v 11. But they do look a strong outfit.
“It’s a big ask. Even with 11, it’s tough being 2-0 down. But at ten as well ... When they have a lot of confidence and were keeping the ball, it was tough. But we had a go. We have got to put that game to bed and move on.”
Rotherham matched the visitors early on until Patrick Bamford struck in the eighth minute. Green had a chance to clear but lost his footing and Bamford, the young loan striker from Chelsea who hit the winner at MK Dons against the Millers last season, swivelled and sent a natural goalscorer’s shot into the bottom right corner.
Eleven minutes later Boro right winger Yanick Wildschut announced himself to the Championship. The 23-year-old Dutchman, fast, tricky, strong and making his first start since a transfer-deadline-day move to England, took possession, beat international defender Kari Arnason with stunning deft-feet skill and fired a left-footed shot into the top corner. A quality moment from a player who was a class act all afternoon.
Revell had been causing Boro problems in the air. When the big man went for a ball in the centre circle with his head, Daniel Ayala chose to contest it with a high foot and the home side lost their talisman to a face injury which, says Evans, shouldn’t rule him out of tomorrow’s trip to Reading.
Ayala and fellow Boro centre-half Ben Gibson committed foul after foul when contesting balls in the air and got away with it. Clever. Not until the 53rd minute did Russell have a word and both had escaped a booking by the final whistle.
Bowery came and went and Kike missed two inviting chances from the Wildschut supply line as Boro, well-organised, quick to break and full of clever passing in the final third, assumed control.
At half-time Evans got his response spot on. He took off wide men Ben Pringle and Paul Taylor who had both struggled to make a mark, brought on Richard Smallwood as a defensive midfielder, Matt Derbyshire as a strike partner for Jonson Clarke-Harris, told midfielders Green and Lee Frecklington to support the front two whenever they could and went 4-3-2.
Smallwood received a warm reception from the Boro faithful, recognition of the contribution he made at his boyhood club before his permanent summer switch to New York.
To their credit, Rotherham took the game to Boro. Frecklington had a shot saved, Green’s header across goal was an invitation to score that nobody could take up and Derbyshire looked to have been impeded by that man, Ayala, in the penalty area as he tried to latch on to a long ball.
Inevitably, legs tired and the Boro threat emerged again, but the Millers hung in there.
“We gave it a real good go in the second half and we were spirited,” Evans said. “When you are 10 v 11 at home and are 2-0 down at home, you have to wait on a chance.”
That chance came in the 83rd minute when Derbyshire raced in on goal on the left side. He fooled Dimitrious Konstantopoulos into thinking he was going to shoot across goal but, with the Boro keeper going the wrong way, then dragged his shot on to the near post.
“I looked around the pitch and I see players heads fall to the floor. If that goes in we would have had them backs to the wall perhaps. But that’s all ifs and buts and football is not ifs and buts, but facts,” Evans said.
“Matt should score. I feel for him because he has done everything right and given the keeper the ‘eyes’ and sent him the wrong way. You waited for it to go in for the kid, but it didn’t happen.”
What a grandstand finish the striker who desperately needs a goal to kick-start his Millers career could have set up. So close.
“Close.” Back to that word used by Karanka, once assistant manager at Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho, about the red-card verdict. Surely an opposition boss would have been less equivocal if he’d really thought a sending-off was merited.
Salt was rubbed in Millers wounds in the dying seconds when Lee Tomlin went on a mazy dribble from left to right across the penalty area and shot back in the direction from which he’d just come for a third Boro goal.
Evans once tried to sign Tomlin when he was manager at Crawley Town and he tells the story that the deal was all agreed only for Tomlin to change his mind at the last minute and sign for Barry Fry at Peterborough.
Ever since, curbing their preferred choice of industrial language, Evans and Fry have wryly referred to him as “that naughty wee rascal”.
I’ll bet Keith Lawson was called something else in the Evans household on Saturday night.
Rotherham United: Collin 6, Richardson 7, Morgan 7, Arnason 8, Broadfoot 6, Taylor 5(Smallwood H-T, 7), Frecklington 7, Green 7, Pringle 5 (Derbyshire H-T, 5), Revell 7 (Bowery 25, sent off 30), Clarke-Harris 6. Subs not used: Loach, Hall, Milsom, Swift.
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos 6, Nsue 6, Ayala 7, Gibson 7, Friend (Husband 89) 7, Reach 5, Clayton 7, Leadbitter 7, Wildschut 8, Kike 6 (Tomlin 60, 7), Bamford 6 (Vossen 73). Subs not used: Mejias, Veljkovic, Whitehead, Fredericks.
Hero: No hero this week, but one real villain. Step forward assistant referee Keith Lawson. Ironic that he flagged for a foul that wasn’t in the sending-off incident then missed several clear ones right under his nose in the second half.
Key moment: Difficult to say Jordan Bowery’s red card because the Millers were already 2-0 behind, so how about Yanick Wildschut’s 19th-minute launch of his Boro career? Gave Rotherham a mountain climb even with 11 men.
Viewpoint: A frustrating way to lose your unbeaten record. Boro were excellent and would probably have won anyway, but going down to 10 men made the Millers’ task virtually impossible. Many say Bowery isn’t aggressive enough as a player. Ironic then he should be sent off in this way.
Manager’s view - Steve Evans: “There was nothing in the game when they got the first goal. We have probably started the game a little bit better than them. We were beaten by a good team. We dust ourselves down and we will come back fighting tomorrow. To still be 2-0 down with 10 minutes to go with that chance from Darbs to get back in the game says a lot.”
Manager’s view - Aitor Karanka: “I’ve been in the Championship for nearly a year and Rotherham are one of the most difficult teams to play away. That’s a very good three points and I am very pleased. The game was difficult, we knew it would be this kind of game. We didn’t start very well and conceded a few chances, but we played with intensity after that.”
Referee watch: Michael Russell (Cambridgeshire). Poor. You can’t blame him for the sending-off, but he let a host of indiscretions go, mainly to the benefit of Mssrs Ayala and Gibson. Booed off at the end of both halves.
Attendance: 11,282 (2,6218).