Hope, magic, red-hot Robertson and 800 fans in the shed ... the opening-day story of AFC Wimbledon 1 Rotherham United 2

By Paul Davis | 04/08/2019

Hope, magic, red-hot Robertson and 800 fans in the shed ... the opening-day story of AFC Wimbledon 1 Rotherham United 2
The Millers celebrate Freddie Ladapo's goal. Pictures by Jim Brailsford

ARMS raised above his head, he clapped in acknowledgement of the support and the victory.

One man alone on the pitch. Off it, 800 fans stood in mirror image of the T-shirted figure in front of them and returned the salute.

Saturday's hard-fought League One battle had been won in a corner of Kingston upon Thames. Rotherham United's manager and followers were savouring the moment at the end of the season's first game.

"I thought they really supported the team," said Paul Warne. "That is what we need. They are all in it with us.

"They enjoyed the London sunshine and hopefully they will enjoy the journey home."

There's something wonderful about opening day, with fans clad in hope and newly-purchased shirts and a sense of magic pervading the August air.

A sold-out Millers contingent, packed into a shed down one side of AFC Wimbledon's homely little ground, had such optimism fuelled, tested then fuelled again as Warne's players emerged from their duel in the sun with a 2-1 win.

Rotherham wreaked first-half havoc, wilted dangerously after the break and gloriously came once more.

"I am really pleased with the win," the boss said. "I am not absolutely raging about the second half but I think we could have been better at times.

"We were sloppy on the ball and fatigue makes cowards of us all. The lads were tired and started to make bad decisions.

The win matters to Paul Warne

"But they have done enough to win a game of football and that is what it is all about now the league has started."

This was Warne's third attempt as a manager at an opening-day triumph and his first success.

Not since 2012 have the Millers started their campaign with a victory while the big kick-off last brought an away win in 2002.

No wonder he and the 800 were applauding.

THE GAME

A huge roar went up in the shed at 2.50pm as Warne's men concluded their warm-up by gathering in front of the travelling faithful.

Ten minutes later, Rotherham, fizzing with 4-3-3, force and fire, were punching hole after hole in the Dons' rearguard.

Freddie Ladapo should have buried a ninth-minute header but home goakeeper Nik Tzanev was a point-blank hero and Michael Smith didn't make enough of a Kyle Vassell cross five minutes later.

Record signing Ladapo made amends from close range on the half-hour mark, in the right place at the right time to open his Millers account as Smith headed Joe Mattock's corner into his path.

Dan Barlaser and Shaun MacDonald pulled strings, Vassell pulled markers everywhere and referee Brett Huxtable almost pulled a muscle as he tried to keep up with the visitors' high-speed onslaught.

"I thought for the first 20 minutes we were unbelievable and were exactly how I want us to play," Warne said.

Yet Wimbledon equalised five minutes after the break with their first attempt on target, Joe Pigott heading home unopposed from a corner.

It was hot and now, suddenly, so were the Dons. The contest was in the balance and the Millers were harried and harassed, their faces Cherry Red to match the name of the Dons' compact home.

Clark Robertson denied Anthony Hartigan and Ladapo's shot was kept out by an unbelievable goalline block by Paul Kalambayi before Ben Wiles arrived to wrest back control for Rotherham.

Kyle Vassell

"I thought the subs had a really positive impact, Wilesy especially," Warne said. "It gave us that bit of energy when everyone was fatiguing. Ben was really good.

"I am asking a lot out of the lads physically. That is why I am happy with my bench. If some players can play only an hour at the pace we want to play at, then they can come off because I can put other energetic players on the pitch.

"I didn't say to them at half-time 'Sit behind the 1-0 lead'. We didn't ask them to come off it. We asked them to play at the same intensity as the first half. If we had, Wimbledon would have struggled to live with us."

The pre-match roar was nothing compared to the one in the 84th minute as Robertson, from Wiles' pass, screwed a low shot into the corner of the net and the shed shook itself into a red-and-white frenzy.

Afterwards, the manager was a mix of satisfaction, relief and concern.

"We didn't maintain the intensity and that is something we are going to have to address," he said. "Against a top team, no disrespect to Wimbledon, there might have been a different outcome.

"I'm pretty pleased how the lads bounced back. We got the win so I can't moan too much."

Wiles, who tested Tzanev with a 20-yard volley, chased down everything and took the game to the opposition. Late on, he won the ball on the edge of his own box, drove more than 50 metres, despite being tugged back, and laid off a pass. Pressure alleviated. Job done by him. Job done, eventually, by Rotherham.

RED-HOT ROBBO

After a summer of nine signings, five Millers were making debuts, but it was a man still here from last season who shone brightest in the Kingston glare.

Only once did match-winning centre-half Robertson come close to buckling, and that was after hostilities had ceased and the grinning 6ft 5in, 15-stone frame of Matt Crooks leapt, without warning, into his arms.

Scorer Ladapo

Robertson's body sagged for a moment then, as he had done all game, he braced himself, rose to the occasion and met the challenge full on.

The pair left the pitch together, bathed in smiles, wreathed in sweat, caught up in that magic of August opening day.

The fans were still celebrating.

"They were very good," Warne said. "They were right behind the dug-out and I could tell they were pretty nervous in the second half.

"I think they could appreciate how well we played and that it would have been an injustice if we hadn't come away with three points"

The season is up and running, so are the Millers, so is the hope.

Goals: Ladapo 29, Robertson 84 (Rotherham); Pigott 50 (Wimbledon).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Nik Tzanev; Luke O'Neill, Terrell Thomas (Kwesi Appiah 85), Paul Kalambayi, Rod McDonald; Nesta Guinness-Walker, Anthony Hartigan (Shane McLoughlin 80), Will Nightingale, Callum Reilly; Michael Folivi (Dylan Connolly 83), Joe Pigott. Subs not used: Joe McDonnell, Scott Wagstaff, Mitchell Pinnock, Jack Rudoni.

Rotherham (4-3-3): Daniel Iversen; Matthew Olosunde, Michael Ihiekwe, Clark Robertson, Joe Mattock; Shaun MacDonald, Daniel Barlaser (Ben Wiles 69), Matt Crooks; Freddie Ladapo (Jamie Proctor 84), Kyle Vassell (Carlton Morris 75), Michael Smith. Subs not used: Lewis Price, Richard Wood, Jamie Lindsay, Jake Cooper.

Referee: Brett Huxtable (Devon).

Attendance: 4,657 (785).


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