IT was quiet. Too quiet.
Then Lincoln City thudded an arrow into Rotherham United’s heart with a late goal.
What had been a 2-0 Millers’ stroll was turning into a desperate battle to cling on to the victory that would give their League One promotion bid a huge, possibly-season-defining lift.
Manager Paul Warne called on the crowd.
AESSEAL New York Stadium had watched on too passively for the boss’s liking as his team stuttered after being stupendous in the first half.
He turned to the West Stand, to the North Stand, to the East Stand, raising his arms, imploring them to respond. ‘Help us,’ was the unspoken but urgent, obvious plea.
“Sometimes it’s the injection of enthusiasm from the fans that gets you through,” the boss said. “We need them, we need their noise. We are not Manchester City, we are Rotherham United.”
Suddenly, New York was as New York can be as the volume button was pressed.
The last few minutes, Rotherham damaged but digging in ... would it be enough?
Thirteen minutes had gone and the Millers were magnificent.
Ben Wiles had scored, so had Chiedozie Ogbene and Lincoln didn’t know what was hitting them. Rotherham were first to first balls, second balls and third balls as they squeezed the life out of the visitors.
The table-toppers knew a win would open up a seven-point margin between them and third-placed MK Dons with only eight games left to play.
Wiles’ opener was a thing of beauty as he picked the only spot available to home after being played in by Ollie Rathbone’s pass.
Ogbene’s strike looked to be a thing of beauty as he despatched Wiles’ supply from the edge of the area although later it emerged it was no more than a lucky cross.
Rotherham were making their own fortune. Josh Kayode was running the Imps ragged and Wiles, Mickel Miller and Michael Smith were all close to further goals.
“That was our best performance, first half, for many a week,” Warne said. “We were right on it. My only criticism was we didn’t score more. If we’d got a third the game was over.
“JJ should take all the plaudits. He was outstanding, the best I have ever seen him play. He wasn’t overshadowed by Smudge and his pressing was phenomenal. I’m really proud of him.”
The manager warned his players at half-time of the tension-inducing consequences of Michael Appleton’s side reducing the arrears.
“No two halves are the same,” he said. “If you’re 2-0 down at Rotherham you know you have to step it up or it could be a heavy defeat. Lincoln came at us. It made the night harder than it needed to be.”
City were a different side after the break and, unfortunately, so were Rotherham. Where there had been slick understanding and front-foot precision now there was slack uncertainty and back-foot anxiety.
Chiedozie Ogbene scores
The Millers, wilting after weeks of back-to-back matches, had gone into their shell and so had the crowd by the time Tom Hopper atoned for a glaring earlier miss by steering Cohen Bramall’s low 81st-minute cross into the net.
With their fans playing their part, the home side stood firm. Time was up. Almost. In the dying seconds of stoppage time Josh Vickers denied his former club by saving from John Marquis and Lasse Sorensen turned the rebound over the bar.
“Because of a couple of circumstances, we just weren’t as good in the second half,” Warne said. “We were just hanging on.
“I felt pretty helpless, truth be told, because it is hard to get instructions out to players who are absolutely exhausted. You could see they were dead on their feet.
“We were desperate to get the win. Lincoln could have got a couple of goals but we could have scored four or five as well.”
The ‘circumstances’ the manager spoke of were Kayode running out of steam and injuries that robbed Rotherham of Rathbone and Dan Barlaser’s further output.
3-5-2 became 4-3-3, and a comfortable evening became a Tuesday night of gut-churning stress.
“We have got no other fit strikers to replace JJ so we had to change the formation,” Warne said. “Then we had to get Ollie and Dan off.
“I don’t think we came to terms with the change in system. That is us, as coaches, who are at fault. We need to prepare the lads for different systems.
“The second half was like basketball. I thought we were going to score then they were going to score. It was end to end.
“After they got the goal it was mostly them. Our game-management in the last few minutes was not amazing.”
His creased face told the story of those frantic closing stages.
Ollie Rathbone in action
“I was thinking that if we threw away a two-goal lead after our last home game when we threw away a lead against ten men (MK Dons) it could psychologically scar us,” he said. “I was feeling pretty sick.
“The crowd got behind the team and we got over the finish line.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone did.
All that mattered in the end was the three-point haul and that seven-point gap.
Goals: Wiles 11, Ogbene 13 (Rotherham); Hopper 81 (Lincoln)
Attendance: 9,575 (1,209)
Josh Vickers: 8
Crucial save in stoppage time. After leading 2-0, the Millers had to win. The goalkeeper made sure they did.
Michael Ihiekwe: 7
Quietly effective. The Imps had plenty of possession but Ihiekwe helped to restrict them to very few clear chances.
Richard Wood: 8
A rock. Bullied John Marquis out of the game.
Joe Mattock: 7
Excellent in the first half before tiring in the second.
Chiedozie Ogbene: 7
Looked to have taken his goal so, so well but he was honest enough to admit he’d just been trying to play the ball into a dangerous area. Sporadic bursts of menace throughout.
Ben Wiles: 8
Rampant in the opening period when he scored a beauty and created the second goal. Put in a less-glamorous shift after the break.
Dan Barlaser: 6
Looked great in that opening blitz and played the pass of the game to set Michael Smith free. Less of an influence after that.
Ollie Rathbone: 7
He and Wiles were on to every loose ball early doors. Amazing snap and energy. Perfect pass to set up his midfielder partner to bag the opener. Will be a huge miss if he’s out for any length of time.
Mickel Miller: 8
Playing at the top of his game. Goes past opponents as if they’re not there and delivers telling crosses.
Josh Kayode: 8
Well done, young man. Worked his socks off and had a real impact. His best display in a Millers shirt.
Michael Smith: 7
Industrious. A presence at both ends of the pitch. Didn’t go for him in front of goal but he was a handful.
Angus MacDonald (for Barlaser 67): 5
Not at his best. Looked a bit leggy after playing the full game at Wycombe Wanderers three days earlier.
Wes Harding (for Kayode 67): 6
Part of a double change as injuries forced a change in formation to 4-3-3. Made a steady contribution although he let Cohen Bramall get the better of him to set up Lincoln’s goal.
Hakeem Odoffin (for Rathbone 76): NA
Didn’t look up to the pace of League One football.
Not used: Viktor Johansson, Rarmani Edmonds-Green, Jordi Osei-Tutu, Shane Ferguson.
Lincoln (3-5-2): Jordan Wight 6; TJ Eyoma 6, Adam Jackson 7, Joe Walsh 7; Brooke Norton-Cuffy 6, Ted Bishop 6 (Lasse Sorensen 73), Lewis Fiorini 7, Anthony Scully 6 (Liam Cullen 69, 6), Cohen Bramall 8; John Marquis 6, Tom Hopper 7. Subs not used: Max Sanders, Morgan Whittaker, Chris Maguire, Hakeeb Adelakun, Ben House.
Referee: Andy Haines (Tyne and Wear): 7
“In the first half we played into Rotherham’s hands and got caught up playing their way, and we’re not good at that.
“They were very comfortable in the first half and I asked the lads to make them feel uncomfortable. You can only do that by being aggressive and running harder and being braver on the ball.
“The players gave me everything second half and we had two or three glorious opportunities to get something out of the game. Rotherham were on the ropes.”
— Imps boss Michael Appleton
Possession: Millers 38 per cent, Imps 62 pc
Goal attempts: Millers 13, Imps 10
On target: Millers 7, Imps 3
Corners: Millers 6, Imps 3
Fouls: Millers 15, Imps 12
Easy to start with, tense beyond tense at the end.
“We had a good start. We invited pressure on to us towards the end. We changed shape and were disjointed.
“At this stage of the season, I’m happy we were able to grind out the win. It’s all about getting results.
“In the first half, we had energy and we were pressing high up the pitch. The second half, they went gung ho and had nothing to lose. You have to manage it differently. We had to modify our game to try to contain them.
“I felt we defended well. We have a great goalkeeper behind us. Good teams find a way to win.”
— Chiedozie Ogbene