Injuries, illness and how the man with the dodgy stomach helped the Millers recover from that first half ... the story of Rotherham United 2 Fleetwood Town 2

Injuries, illness and how the man with the dodgy stomach helped the Millers recover from that first half ... the story of Rotherham United 2 Fleetwood Town 2

By Paul Davis | 22/12/2019

Injuries, illness and how the man with the dodgy stomach helped the Millers recover from that first half ... the story of Rotherham United 2 Fleetwood Town 2
Matt Crooks makes it 2-2. Pictures by Dave Poucher

CHRISTMAS, a time to be with the people you're closest to.

So spare a thought for Matt Crooks. Home alone, forced  to prepare all by himself at AESSEAL New York Stadium for Rotherham United's League One clash with Fleetwood Town.

The 25-year-old was ill and defying medical advice to play. His sickness was such that he was kept away from his teammates on Saturday until it was time to kick off the run off four Yuletide fixtures in 11 days.

"Crooksy, bless him, has been changing in the other changing room," manager Paul Warne revealed. "It's like he's in quarantine.

"He hasn't seen any of the coaching staff today really because of how ill he is. We were told not to play him but, in fairness to him, he lasted."

Crooks not only lasted in an unfamiliar centre-half role, he scored the second-half goal that secured a point for a Millers side so ravaged by injuries and illness that their manager took the unprecedented step of publicly explaining the situation an hour before kick-off and appealing to fans to back his patched-up squad.

"Crooksy's had severe diarrhoea for 24 hours," Warne said after the 2-2 draw. "I don't know why it's making me smile."

There was a time earlier in the afternoon when smiling was the last thing on the boss's mind.

Shorn of more than half a dozen potential starters and with some players carrying knocks taking their place in a 3-4-1-2 formation that had been practised only once, Rotherham were - to use a favourite Warne word - honking in the first half and could have trailed by more than 1-0 at the break.

Seven goals in six games for Freddie Ladapo

It's to their credit that they managed to fight back after the interval and finish the match going all out for a winner.

"Sometimes when you have a first half like that in the second half you have nothing lose," Warne said. "It makes you think: 'Come on, here we go.'

"We spoke to the players at half-time about giving something that would make the fans happy. We wanted the lads to play more on the front foot, be more aggressive and get in crosses and shots. If you get crosses into the box, you get chances. 

"We wanted them to play with more speed. Even if you're going to lose the game you can still win your first and second balls. That's what I wanted more than anything else."

There have been too few victories at New York so far this season yet this wasn't a contest that should add to the home concern. In the face of such an injury crisis, the match should be taken - a bit like Crooks - in isolation.

A draw against an excellent, hard-working, organised, play-off-chasing Fleetwood side may have dropped the Millers from sixth to eighth in the table.

But, make no mistake, a point was a good point.

THE GAME

Rotherham ditched their makeshift shape at half-time, went 4-4-2 and looked a completely different team.

Chiedozie Ogbene came on and suddenly the visitors were stretched and balls were coming into danger areas as the flying winger tormented them with his pace.

"We'd had only half an hour on the training pitch on Friday with that system," Warne said. "We'd thought (centre-half) Michael Ihiekwe was going to be available but he wasn't.

"We played a 4-3-1-2 formation because we thought we could get Kyle Vassell on the ball. That didn't happen at all.

"Crooksy's not a centre-half. We thought that by having Adam Thompson on one side of him and Joe Mattock on the other it would made us a  bit more solid.

"We'd worked all week on playing 4-4-2 with two out-and-out wingers and going for it. That got kiboshed when Icky was ruled out.

"Chieo did brilliantly. He had a good effect. Him and Jake Hastie were both due to start before Icky's injury."

Crooks did a couple of midfielder things in central defence, giving the ball way cheaply when he should have cleared, but otherwise impressed in his unaccustomed position.

His 6ft 5in frame and shaggy hair have earned him the nickname, 'Tree', and somehow he coerced enough from his ailing giant body to be the Millers' best performer.

He also managed to get himself into the opposition box to score the Millers' all-important second equaliser with ten minutes remaining. The man with the runs making runs.

"He came in today and saw the doctor," Warne said. "The doc wasn't keen on him playing but it was needs must. If Crooksy hadn't played I'm not really sure what we would have done."

Fleetwood had already hit the post through Kyle Dempsey by the time they took a 26th-minute lead when Ched Evans glanced home a right-wing cross by Lewie Coyle and they should have added to their advantage on the stroke of half-time when Ben Wiles' error saw Dempsey scamper clear only to fire over.

Coyle clearly manhandled Michael Smith in the Fleetwood box just past the half-hour mark but referee Peter Wright, as blighted by bad decision-making as Rotherham were by absentees, gave nothing.

Freddie Ladapo and Wes Burns traded chances early in the second period before on-fire Freddie rose to head home Matt Olosunde's cross for his seventh goal in his last six games and his 12th in 24 since joining Rotherham in the summer.

Just seconds later, Olosunde's back-header was weak and Dan Iversen's response even weaker as he allowed Evans to mug him and force the ball through him for a totally avoidable Fleetwood second.

Then came Crooks' moment as he was on hand to prod home from close range in front of the North Stand after Thompson had been picked out by Dan Barlaser's cross and Town goalkeeper Billy Crellin had done just enough to keep out the defender's shot.

Mattock tumbled in the area late on and Carlton Morris steered the ball over even later on following another surging run from Ogbene before time ran out for the Millers.

"When a young team is under pressure it's difficult at times for players to get on the ball," Warne said.

"Dan Barlaser, even though, like Wilesy, he made mistakes in the first half, still had the 'cojones' to keep getting on it. That's not an easy thing to do. 

"Wilesy's played with a heavily-strapped ankle. He was in pain for the whole game. He didn't have his best game, nor did I expect him to. We had only two central midfielders available. 

Ben Wiles plays despite an ankle injury

"The majority of the fans were good. I think they understood the problems. When we were more like ourselves in the second half they were excellent. 

"I thought both penalty shouts were pretty strong candidates. The Mattock one looked like a penalty and I just saw the way my lads reacted. They don't normally over-do it, do they?

"When we got back into it, I thought we would go on and win it. It felt like one of those great days at New York.

"Their second goal was a calamity really. That's the nicest way I can put it. It was a bit of a mix-up. We didn't need that sort of misfortune.

"In fairness to their character, the lads came back into it again. I thought we might nick it."

ABSENT FRIENDS

Right-back Billy Jones injured, centre-half Clark Robertson nursing illness on the bench, centre-back Richard Wood not quite ready after a hamstring pull and Wiles hampered by an ankle complaint.

Ihiekwe missing with a back injury, midfielder Shaun MacDonald out with a calf problem, midfield man Jamie Lindsay in a Glasgow hospital tending his poorly baby son, Crooks debilitated by no food going in at one end and too much coming out at the other.

Thompson was the only fit centre-half.

That there was any degree of festive sparkle at New York at all was amazing when you consider that casualty list and that dire first half.

Crooks played as big a part as anyone in lifting spirits.

"He's absolutely exhausted," said Warne. "He's done well, hasn't he?"

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree.

Rotherham (3-4-1-2): Daniel Iversen; Adam Thompson, Matt Crooks, Joe Mattock; Matt Olosunde, Ben Wiles (Jake Hastie 77), Dan Barlaser, Trevor Clarke (Chiedozie Ogbene H-T); Kyle Vassell; Michael Smith (Carlton Morris 80), Freddie Ladapo. Subs not used: Lewis Price, Clark Robertson, Julien Lamy, Jacob Gratton.

Fleetwood (4-1-2-3): Billy Crellin; Lewie Coyle, Peter Clarke, Harry Soutar, Danny Andrew; Paul Coutts; Jack Sowerby (Josh Morris 83), Kyle Dempsey; Wes Burns, Ched Evans (Ashley Eastham 83), Paddy Madden. Subs not used: Alex Cairns, Conor McAleny, Harrison Biggins, Harvey Saunders, Gerard Garner.

Goals: Ladapo 62, Crooks 80 (Rotherham); Evans 26, 63 (Fleetwood).

Referee: Peter Wright (Merseyside).

Attendance: 7,883 (126).