This was the Miller’s first game in 13 days, and they only got back into a training ground shut down by Covid-19 on Monday.
Given how little we understand about the virus and particularly its longer effects, and the fact it seems quite random in how the latter bit in particular affects people, not to mention we do not know exactly who had been suffering, only that some of them were on the pitch, it was hard to know how much slack to cut Rotherham, whose manager Paul Warne was watching from not-so-splendid isolation at home for a second home game against top-of-the-table opposition, but Watford – quite rightly – did not cut them any.
The Millers made three poor decisions inside the first 40 minutes and a Hornets side which still has plenty of lingering quality from five consecutive seasons in the Premier League swarmed, punishing a team who were in League One when the music stopped last year.
At 3-0, it became nothing more than a damage limitation job yet Michael Smith managed to win a penalty without any addition to the scoreline, and saw it saved, then Freddie Ladapo found the net with a dipping shot. Within seconds, Watford went down the other end and made it 4-1.
Matty Crooks headed over from almost underneath the bar as the Millers refused to accept their inevitable fate. The spirit – less so the heading and penalty-taking – was great to watch.
Watford’s bench was packed with top-flight experience, Rotherham needed two teenagers yet to play senior football – Jacob Gratton and Jake Hull – just to be able to name eight of the nine permitted.
Ben Wiles looked exhausted when he trudged off the pitch and down the tunnel early in the second half, captain Richard Wood, who missed the last match with coronavirus, went down with cramp after all five substitutes had come on.Still, Aitor Karanka, sacked as Birmingham City manager shortly before kick-off thinks things have fallen in the Millers’ favour.
Little had been seen of the visitors until Ismaila Sarr’s shot deflected off Angus MacDonald and behind for a corner. When the ball eventually came in from Philip Zinckernagel, centre-back Francisco Sierralta was still upfield to head past Jamal Blackman, in the side presumably because the benched Viktor Johansson was still struggling, who ought to have done much better.
He was brilliant from that point on, but the door had been pushed ajar after only nine minutes.
Defender MacDonald responded responded with a header of his own, from a Dan Barlaser free-kick, but Rotherham did not have the same ruthlessness. It went wide.
At the end of the half a cleverly-worked Barlaser free-kick played Matthew Olosunde in down the side but he thumped his shot at Daniel Bachmann. Already, only 42 minutes in, his side were playing for pride and goal difference by then.
Blackman did well to save a Zinckernagel shot from a similar position to where he made the first from but as his defenders stood flat-footed, Sarr pounced on the rebound.
“Just concentrate lads,” shouted one of the home defenders at the next set piece, highlighting the biggest difference between the sides. Tired bodies usually lead to tired minds.
Blackman made another good save, this time from Nathaniel Chalobah but the Millers never dealt with the corner, and Ken Sema hammered the ball home from the back of the penalty area.
Minutes later, with the defence in front of him cut open too easily, the goalkeeper did well to come off his line and tackle Joao Pedro.
Rather than surrender, Rotherham fought hard in the second half, Wood producing a heroic tackle as Pedro threatened to score Watford's fourth three minutes after the break, and Smith won a penalty only for Bachmann, furious at the carefully-considered decision, to dive left and keep it out.
Smith's striker partner Freddie Ladapo, who must have been more frustrated by the enforced break than anyone having written his name into Millers folklore with his stoppage-time winner against Sheffield Wednesday in the last game, showed him how it was done, cutting inside on his right foot to launch a dipping shot into the net from long range.
Watford went straight down the other end and although Blackman could keep out substitute Andre Gray, he could do nothing to stop fellow replacement Dan Gosling burying the rebound.
Crooks took a hefty bang heading over and Kieran Sadlier whipped a free-kick over the bar in stoppage time as Rotherham kept pushing right to the end.
Spirit only gets you so far, of course, but it was still very heartening to see.
Rotherham United: Blackman; Ihiekwe, Wood, A MacDonald; Olosunde (Giles 73), S MacDonald (Sadlier 73), Wiles (Harding 55), Barlaser, Crooks; Smith (Jozefzoon 79), Ladapo (Hirst 79).
Unused substitutes: Johansson, Gratton, Hull.
Watford: Bachmann; Femenia (Gray 53), Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Masina; Chalobah (Gosling 67), Huges, Zinckernagel; Sarr (Ngakia 53) Pedro, Sema.
Unused substitutes: Foster, Cathcart, Lazaar, Success, Sanchez, Hungbo.
Referee: J Simpson (Lancashire).
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