This was the Millers’ first game in 13 days, and they only got back into a training ground shut down by Covid-19 on Monday.
They went 3-0 down inside 40 minutes to poor goals from the second phase of set-pieces but it was hard to know how much slack to cut a side whose manager Paul Warne was watching from not-so-splendid isolation at home for a second home game against top-of-the-table opposition. Watford – quite rightly – did not cut them any.
Their manager, Xisco, was very different, stressing his “big respect” for them as soon as he took his seat for the post-match press conference. A Hornets side which still has plenty of lingering quality from five consecutive seasons in the Premier League swarmed, punished a team 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.
“It wasn’t an ideal scenario to come back after one day’s training and play against an ex-Premier League team who I’m pretty sure will be there or thereabouts for promotion but the effort from the lads on the back of one day’s training... we could have given them a bit of a scare,” reflected Barker, leading in Warne’s absence. “The goals were disappointing but there is a possibility we could have made it a really difficult last 15 minutes for them.
“We could have ended up winning the second half which doesn’t give you any points but it might give you some momentum and confidence.”
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 early in the second half, captain Richard Wood, who missed the last match with coronavirus, went down with cramp with all five substitutes on.
To hear a fitness fanatic like Barker struggling so much after not even playing gave some indication as to what his players went through.
“These are elite athletes who haven’t trained for two weeks,” he pointed out. “If you had a Formula 1 car you hadn’t run for two weeks you wouldn’t put it in the Monaco Grand Prix.
“I genuinely feared for a couple of them. Before this I used to train every day and I can’t think of anything worse right now.
“However the bigger picture is we’re running out of dates for our games to be played. Unfortunately we just had to get the game over and done with.”
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, 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.
Blackman saved a Zinckernagel shot from a similar position to where he made the first from but as defenders stood flat-footed, Sarr pounced on the rebound.
Blackman made another good save from Nathaniel Chalobah but the Millers never dealt with the corner, and Ken Sema hammered home from the back of the area.
Rotherham fought hard in the second half, Wood producing a heroic tackle as Pedro threatened to score three minutes after the break. Daniel Bachmann made a good save from Smith’s penalty but was beaten when Ladapo cut inside to launch a dipping shot from long range.
Watford went straight down the other end and although Blackman kept out Andre Gray, he could do nothing to stop Dan Gosling burying the rebound.
Crooks took a hefty bang heading over and Kieran Sadlier whipped a free-kick off target 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), Hughes, Zinckernagel; Sarr (Ngakia 53) Pedro, Sema. Unused substitutes: Foster, Cathcart, Lazaar, Success, Sanchez, Hungbo.
Referee: J Simpson (Lancashire).
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