‘One town, one team’. Just one problem.
Rotherham United boss Paul Warne’s mantra in the days leading up to this League One opener had been his desire to reunite club and supporters after last year’s relegation.
Yet, on an afternoon which began with so much optimism, the Millers failed to find the form they’d shown in pre-season and lost to opponents who made the play-offs in May.
The fans played their part, 1,170 of them selling out the away end at the Cod Army’s homely Highbury Stadium and making a right old racket ahead of kick-off and in the frantic opening stages.
They were close to the pitch, they outsang the home contingent, the atmosphere was intimate and intense at the same time, their guttural roar as the team applauded them before heading back inside for final preparations a sign that Warne is achieving his aim.
It felt good.
Fleetwood manager Uwe Rosler added extra edge by refusing Millers goalkeeping coach Mike Pollitt’s offer of a handshake moments before kick-off.
But Rotherham then looked nothing like the side that had taken apart Barnsley 4-0 in their final warm-up match a week earlier.
“We had a good following and it would have been nice to get something for them,” Warne said. “That’s the worse we’ve played for a while. The stats show we had more possession. There’s a big difference between playing friendlies and the ‘Real McCoy’.
“I don’t think we had enough class in the final third to win the game.”
Just like nothing is decided in pre-season, nothing is decided on opening day.
But this was undeniably disappointing.
Had Lee Frecklington’s 13th-minute goal been allowed to stand, things might have turned out differently. His close-range touch on Will Vaulks’ shot was ruled offside and photographs appearing later on social media showed the officials’ decision was borderline.
Three minutes later, Fleetwood were ahead as Conor McAleny got in front of Michael Ihiekwe to sweep home and the former Everton man added a second on 66 minutes as his turn and low shot evaded Richard O’Donnell’s dive at the near post.
Rotherham followers making a weekend of their seaside trip were in high spirits after finding a pub selling Foster’s, Strongbow and John Smith’s for £1.55 a pint.
However, the Millers proceeded to give the ball away just as cheaply, their attempts to move the ball forward quickly and get in crosses lacking the fizz and precision that had made the summer so encouraging.
They started each half well but when a 20-minute spell of total territorial domination at the beginning of the second brought no reward the game was up
“For the first 20 minutes of the second half, they couldn’t get out of their half,” Warne said. “We were pressing really well and putting crosses in, but it didn’t seem to fall to us.
“It was an acid test. I said before we came that we would know roughly where we are. I have been saying where I think we are, but until we actually play League One teams we don’t really know.”
Vaulks gave Alex Cairns his only real scare, his 18-yard shot in the 58th minute bringing a sharp save from the ex-Millers goalkeeper.
Questions could be asked of O’Donnell about both Fleetwood goals, but he did well to deflect a 38th-minute Jordy Hiwula shot on to the post and, seconds later, keep out Kyle Dempsey’s fierce drive.
“We can play significantly better, but also you can see we are a team to be reckoned with,” Warned added. “I am not hugely despondent with the lads, but they are disappointed. They came here with confidence.”
Rosler had no issue with Warne, shaking his hand as the pair took their places in the dugout and warmly inviting him into his office after the game, but it was a different story when Pollitt went to greet him.
To Pollitt’s obvious anger, the Fleetwood boss turned away, refusing to acknowledge the man who once worked under him at Wigan Athletic.
Warne did his best Arsene Wenger impression afterwards, claiming not to have noticed anything. Rosler, without mentioning Pollitt, had more to say.
“I shake the manager’s hand, the assistant manager’s hand, the head of medical’s hand,” he said. “Do you think I should shake more people’s hands?
“I shake the hands of who I want to. Next time, I will ask who I should shake hands with.”
THE NEW BOYS
It can happen. You play against your former club, try too hard and nothing really comes off.
New Rotherham strikers David Ball and Jamie Proctor, who have shared 13 pre-season goals between them, had afternoons to forget on their return to Highbury.
Ball was brought off after 70 fruitless minutes. Proctor lasted to the end but never looked like scoring and found it hard going against Fleetwood’s three-man central defence.
With right-back Josh Emmanuel giving his first poor performance since arriving last month, centre-half Ihiekwe was the only one of the four new signings to start who did himself any semblance of justice.
“I think Michael was the best out of the group,” Warne said. “I think Josh has been a bit sharper than that. It was a tough game for Bally - he couldn’t really get into it - and it was a tough day at the office for Procs.”
Rotherham were beaten by a team who looked stronger in midfield and sharper in attack. Another new signing, midfielder Darren Potter, was on the bench because of a illness and his composure and ability to use the ball were missed.
Warne will hope Potter is fit for the league visit of Southend United next Saturday and that his side play like they did in the build-up to the season.
He’d shake hands on that deal right now.