AT the end of the game, Paul Warne kept his distance.
He wasn't being evasive. True, he was hugely disappointed his side had gone out of the League Cup in a first-round tie they had dominated, but the Rotherham United manager is too big a man to sulk.
This was his touchline press conference in the rain that had suddenly started teeming down at Salford City's Peninsula Stadium on Saturday: two metres apart from journalists he normally rubs shoulders with, voice recorders dangling in the air on selfie sticks, the new normal during the coronavirus pandemic as football finally returned after 182 days.
"Their goalkeeper made some unbelievable saves, came for crosses, punched things away and kept us at bay," he said.
And that was the story of the day really as the Championship Millers spurned chance after chance before losing a penalty shoot-out against League Two opposition.
There were no fans, no atmosphere, just the language of the matchday battle - normally muted by the passion of the crowd - echoing round the empty stands at Salford's neat, compact home in leafy Kersal.
"Quicker, quicker," exhorted City's manager, Graeme Alexander, from the dugout.
"Effing this, effing that," spat Rotherham striker Smith in the direction of the referee as a throw-in that plainly should have gone his way was awarded to Salford. There was a pause in his anger. "F*ck me."
Freddie Ladapo in possession
Parking spots were available right outside the ground - ten yards from car to stadium gates. Where were the burger vans, the splashes of home and away colour spilling out of pubs?
There were questionnaires to fill in, temperatures to be checked. The lack of people, the lack of growing, communal anticipation as kick-off approached, was eerie.
"It was just surreal," said Warne. "Even when you see the managers behind the scenes, you don't know whether you are shaking hands, rubbing noses or touching elbows.
"The Salford crowd would have liked to have been here to celebrate their win, wouldn't they? I know a lot of our fans would have loved to come as it would have been another ground to tick off their list.
"Football is an entertainment business and it does feel weird without fans. Sadly, that is the world we live in at the moment."
It isn't meant to be like this. The game had all the importance of a cup match yet all the feel of a pre-season friendly.
Kyle Vassell smacked the post with the first Rotherham penalty and Joe Mattock, taking the fourth, saw his spot-kick saved. In between, Salford scored all of theirs and won the shoot-out 4-2.
The contest should never have got that far. Rotherham dominated and should have been well clear by the time City took an undeserved, 83rd-minute lead with their only effort on target in regulation time.
Smith missed after less than a minute, setting the tone for an afternoon when Chiedozie Ogbene, three times, Kieran Sadlier, twice, Jamie Lindsay, Michael Ihiekwe and Wes Harding were either off target or denied by the outstanding form of Salford shot-stopper Vaclav Hladky.
With the clock ticking down, Millers debutant keeper Jamal Blackman misjudged a ball over the top, getting nowhere near it as he came out to clear and colliding with Salford substitute Tom Elliott.
The teams had run out to the strains of Dirty Old Town, Blackman didn't quite chop Elliott down like an old, dead tree but the contact was full on and the spot-kick - converted by Ian Henderson - inevitable.
"It was definitely a penalty, 100 per cent a penalty," Warne said. "I have no complaints about it."
Henderson had played and scored for Rochdale in Rotherham's last match before lockdown back in March and this time the Millers old boy's effort squirmed under Blackman.
The visitors rallied and their pressure saw Ash Eastham head on to his own bar before, in the dying seconds of six minutes of stoppage time, they forced an equaliser.
The final Millers touch was sub Matt Crooks' header but it was the head of a City player that diverted the ball into the net.
"I don't think my keeper had a save to make apart from the penalty and we still bow out," Warne reflected. "I felt we did enough to win.
"When we went behind Salford slowed the game down. They were not interested in a second goal and I don't blame them for that.
"We absolutely peppered them. We went to a back three and tried everything we could to score. We did, but once it goes to penalties it is just a lottery and either team can win."
Matt Crooks scores
Freddie Ladapo and Kieran Sadlier did their stuff for Rotherham in the shoot-out but so did Ibou Touray, Henderson, Darron Gibson and Brandon Thomas-Asante for Salford.
"It is disappointing because I did not bring a weakened side and cannot say I blooded young players or anything like that," Warne said. "I brought a really strong side because I wanted to win."
"Chieo is a good player and created a lot of chances. He probably could have scored early on if he'd pulled the trigger. I think that is what disappoints me the most - I don't think we pulled the trigger enough today."
THE NEW BOYS
Warne handed debuts to three summer signings: Blackman, right-back Wes Harding and winger Sadlier.
Sadlier was Rotherham's best performer, looking sharp, skilful, possessing an eye for a shot and showing the ability to cause problems with either foot.
There was nothing wrong with Harding, who has pace and athleticism, but Blackman looked nervy and hesitant and will hopefully up his game for Championship opening day at Wycombe Wanderers next weekend.
"It is difficult to judge Jamal on what he had to do," said Warne. "Sads put some great balls in and got better as the game went on.
"Wes played a part. He is going to have a relationship with Chieo. I don't think it is fully there yet. There are pockets of goodness and we need to improve him. That is what we are paid to do."
The ground was segregated by coloured sections and the boss kept his temper out of the red zone as he walked into the amber area to talk to reporters. There were smiles but none of his usual humour.
"I will watch the game tomorrow when I am not as emotional about it and will try to pick the pieces out of it," he said. "I am disappointed we did not take more chances. There were a lot of good balls going in."
His viewing will show that his team had 14 attempts on goal to Salford's two and still didn't progress to the second round.
Everyone made it through the temperature checkpoint, but those statistics will have the mercury rising.
Goals: Henderson, pen, 83 (Salford), Crooks 90+6 (Rotherham).
Salford (4-3-3): Vaclav Hladky; Oscar Threkeld, Tom Clarke, Ash Eastham, Ibou Touray; Darron Gibson, Ash Hunter (Jordan Turnbull 87), Jason Lowe; Bruno Andrade (Brandon Thomas-Asante 79), Ian Henderson, Luke Armstrong (Tom Elliott 64). Subs not used: Nick Hayes, James Wilson, Alex Denny, Tylor Golden.
Rotherham (4-4-2): Jamal Blackman; Wes Harding (Billy Jones 76), Michael Ihiekwe, Richard Wood, Joe Mattock; Chiedozie Ogbene, Shaun MacDonald, Jamie Lindsay (Matt Crooks 71), Kieran Sadlier; Freddie Ladapo, Michael Smith (Kyle Vassell 58). Subs not used: Viktor Johansson, Adam Thompson, Angus MacDonald, Clark Robertson.
Referee: James Oldham (Derbyshire).