WHEN the coat that Neil Warnock had been sporting all afternoon to keep out the February cold was suddenly ripped off and thrown to the ground in a fit of pique, it felt as if one of football’s most colourful characters had never been away.
Predictably, a referee was the subject of his ire, Richard Clark’s decision to reduce Rotherham United to nine men having finally pushed their newly-appointed manager over the edge.
Just a few seconds of stoppage time remained but Warnock, whose side had already lost Richard Wood to a red card 15 or so minutes earlier, clearly felt the loss of Joe Mattock could yet cost the Millers a hard-fought point.
He need not have worried; a whirlwind 48 hours that had seen him lured out of retirement once again ended with a goalless stalemate that, even allowing for results elsewhere having extended the gap between United and safety to five points, offered enough to suggest football’s Red Adair may yet again pull off a famous fire-fighting rescue act.
“Of all the tasks I have faced, this is the biggest,” said the evergreen 67-year-old. “I am not joking. I honestly can’t remember a bigger task than this, but it is what it is – and I am going to enjoy every minute.
“I told the lads afterwards, ‘If you think that was exciting, we’ve got 15 more games like that’. We are not going to lie down now and we are going to give it a real go.
“We are five points adrift but it will fluctuate. I think we can go and upset a few clubs because it is that time of the season when the top clubs are all under pressure because of what is at stake. I am going to make the most of the underdog tag.”
Warnock, of course, has built a career by overcoming the odds to be successful.
He has also had more than a few run-ins with officials along the way so it was perhaps no surprise that his return to the dugout should be marked by more strife.
“I was sweating so thought I better take my coat off,” was Warnock’s deadpan explanation to The Yorkshire Post for the animated response that met Mattock, adjudged to be time-wasting by referee Clark, being shown a second yellow card of the afternoon.
But there was no mistaking his sense of anger, not least because, in more than 1,300 games as a manager, the Millers’ chief had never previously had a player sent off while attempting to take a throw-in.
Warnock strode on to the field at the final whistle and made a point of waiting for the officials.
“I think the referee made a complete hash of it,” he said afterwards. “There is no way he thought he had booked him earlier.
“There has to be common sense. But, once he showed the yellow card he had made a rod for his own back, made himself look a little foolish.”
If Mattock’s dismissal was controversial, the same could not be said for Wood’s own exit on 77 minutes.
Already booked for a foul on Clayton Donaldson early in the second half, the former Sheffield Wednesday defender badly mis-timed a lunge at the Blues striker to leave Clark with no alternative but to reach for his cards.
Up to that point, both Rotherham and Birmingham had seemed capable of breaking the deadlock in a game heavy on endeavour but lacking in genuine guile and craft.
For the Millers, Kirk Broadfoot headed narrowly wide in the first half shortly before Matt Derbyshire brought a smart save from Tomasz Kuszczak.
Then, after the break, Danny Ward fired straight at the Blues’ goalkeeper and headed wide when picked out wonderfully by Joe Newell.
At the other end, Lee Camp had to be brave to thwart Jacques Maghoma after the home defence had been opened up by a slide-rule pass from Jon Toral. Wood also had to rescue Rotherham with a brave header deep in the six-yard area to deny Donaldson, who was also left frustrated by a flying save from Camp just after the hour.
Once down to 10 men following Wood’s second indiscretion of the game, the Millers’ priority became protecting what they had. At times, this led to muddled thinking with Grant Ward and Jonson Clarke-Harris dithering so much at one stage that Warnock could only berate the pair from the sidelines.
That exasperation with his own players was then turned on referee Clark following the dismissal of Mattock, who had been yellow-carded in the first half for a foul on Will Buckley.
But, come the final whistle, Rotherham had earned a precious point that Frazer Richardson believes can be built upon in the coming weeks.
“Results didn’t go for us elsewhere,” said the 33-year-old full- back. “But what I will say is we have a good set of lads here. There is no one who will shy away from the fact we need points. And we will only get those points by working hard and pulling in the same direction.
“The manager has brought a very positive demeanour to the club. It was a surrpise when the decision (to sack Neil Redfearn) was made. But the chairman has said it is a results business. The Charlton and Bolton games (that were both lost), everyone expected us to pick up some points. But we didn’t.
“It was very disappointing to us, as players, not to do that. The best thing we can do now is keep working hard and set the record straight. We need to get the club out of trouble.”