The subs, the comeback, the fans, the fire, the fist pumps and the fighting physio ... the story of MK Dons 2 Rotherham United 3

By Paul Davis | 24/11/2019

The subs, the comeback, the fans, the fire, the fist pumps and the fighting physio ... the story of MK Dons 2 Rotherham United 3
Millers partners in crime Freddie Ladapo and Kyle Vassell. Pictures by Trevor Price

IT began with a fist pump, a small signal big on intent.

Rotherham United were trailing 2-0 but Dan Barlaser pounced to bring them back into the contest at MK Dons in the 66th minute.

The midfielder grabbed the ball and wheeled way, half in celebration half to get the game restarted quickly. As he went, he made his sign to the travelling faithful packed into a nearby corner of the ground.

It was short, sharp, fleeting. But it spoke of pride, of passion, of possibilities.

The comeback was on. Oh, how it was on.

Substitute Freddie Ladapo scored. Then he scored again. In between he missed a penalty but who cared? Not manager Paul Warne as he leapt around his technical area, not the massed Millers choir belting out songs about promotion.

Ladapo scores the winner

A two-goal deficit became a 3-2 win as Rotherham, inspired by Ladapo and fellow half-time replacement Kyle Vassell, transformed themselves from dire to dynamic.

Warne had no doubt what lay behind one of the great Millers away days.

"I spoke to the lads afterwards about how sometimes sport comes down to character," he said. "We can give them all the tactics, all the ways we want to play, but sport is a character thing.

"Vass had the character to keep getting on the ball no matter what, to keep causing problems. Freddie had the character to get over the penalty and score the winner.

"Sometimes a game is a character test. We stood up to that test."

Three goals, two subs and a battle famously won in the sodden arena of Stadium MK by one almighty refusal to yield.

THE GAME

At half-time it seemed all over. Surely there was no way back.

Those who wrote off Rotherham reckoned without their new superheroes: Vass Man and Goal Lad.

Vassell, playing for the first time after 11 weeks out with hamstring and calf injuries, destroyed MK with his twists, turns and set-piece delivery. Record signing Ladapo repaid some of his £400,000 fee with poacher's finishes from two of his teammate's free-kicks.

"I thought we started the game really poorly," Warne said. "I didn't really recognise our players for the first 20 minutes.

"The team couldn't be as bad as they were in the first half. "I made some changes at the break. I knew I'd get a response.

"I talk all the time about the culture we have at the club, about how you've got to train well when you're not in the team and you've to live right when you're not in the team.

Millers fans at MK

"There will be days when the starting 11, for whatever reason, doesn't work and then the game-changers have to come on and have a massive effect. Wins don't come from the 11, they come from the 14.

"Vass was unbelievable. The lads trust him with the ball. Virtually everything that was good about us in the second half came through him. He and Freddie were a constant threat when they came on."

The boss was emotionally spent following the comeback which moved his team up to fourth place in League One and gave them their fourth straight league success on the road in a run of eight wins in their last 11 outings.

After climbing to the press box to deliver his post-match verdict, he was quiet, almost subdued, a drained man held together by three points.

"I'm exhausted but really pleased," he said. "Trust me, I do feel positive!"

Meanwhile, hearts were pumping even more than fists as the Millers roused themselves from their first-half slumber.

Goalkeeper Daniel Iversen launched a superb kick down the right and Barlaser took advantage of Baily Cargill's weak header back to run in and poke home his first goal for the club.

The flare-up between the benches

Five minutes later, Vass Man delivered a floating ball, Michael Ihiekwe clipped it back across the area and there was Goal Lad lurking on the line.

Just two more minutes had passed when Cargill tugged at Ladapo in the area only for the Millers striker to smack the bar with his spot-kick.

With time ticking down. Vassell's supply was on the money again, Carlton Morris's header put the ball into the danger area and Ladapo superbly headed it into the one sliver of goal at the far post that was open to him.

"The second-performance was more like us," Warne said. "If we lose games - which we will, obviously - I can accept it if we have played the way I want us to play. 

"I can accept losing if we play in the Rotherham way. You just have to get at teams, you've just got to attack. Sometimes our defenders might be left one on one ... well, boohoo, they get paid to defend.

"The first half just didn't feel like us. A few players are carrying a few things. The subs were game-changers. On another day that might not work. Today it did."

As the manager spoke to the media, that opening period when Alex Gilbey and Joe Mason scored inside quarter of an hour and only three sharp saves from Iversen kept the score down seemed a long time ago.

Rotherham had seized the initiative, seized the day, and the portly figure of physio Paul Gambles had been an unlikely symbol of their fire when trouble flared between both benches in the dying seconds.

Cargill instigated the melee and the MK centre-half's miserable afternoon was compounded by a sending-off.

"The ball went out of play and Thommo (Millers substitute Adam Thompson) stepped over it, I think," Warne said.

"Their lad pushed Thommo and he went into the advertising boards. Then, as usual, it was a lot of nothing.

"Thommo got a yellow card, their lad got a red and Gams nearly had a heart attack.

"He was feisty. I quite like that about him! It was just a bit of a sour end to a really good game of football."

THE SUPPORT

At the final whistle, Warne and his squad ignored the elements and celebrated with the near-1,000-strong throng of Rotherham followers, the slanting rain somehow adding to the vibrancy and meaning of the moment.

He went to them, they came to him: a shared experience, shared glory, a shared journey.

One happy manager

The floodlights picked out the water on his black coat, giving him a sheen of satisfaction, the shine of victory.

"I'd like to sincerely thank our fans because they stayed with the team massively," he said. "I thought the players were going to get booed off at half-time.

"Second half, the fans were unbelievable. It doesn't half help the lads."

Eventually, the players departed and the manager was last man standing.

He copied Barlaser, the man whose goal had instigated the fightback. This time there was nothing small about the gesture which brought roars of approval.

The fist pump, like the result, was huge.

MK (4-4-2): Lee Nicholls; Regan Poole, Joe Walsh, Baily Cargill, Dean Lewington; Callum Brittain (Hiram Boateng 69), Alex Gilbey, Jordan Houghton, Conor McGrandles (Ben Reeves 76); Joe Mason, Jordan Bowery (Brennan Dickenson 82). Subs not used: Stuart Moore, David Kasumu, Dylan Asonganyi, Matthew Sorinola.

Rotherham (4-4-1-1): Daniel Iversen; Matt Olosunde, Michael Ihiekwe, Clark Robertson, Billy Jones; Carlton Morris, Ben Wiles, Dan Barlaser, Jake Hastie (Trevor Clarke 64); Matt Crooks (Kyle Vassell H-T); Michael Smith (Freddie Ladapo H-T). Subs not used: Lewis Price, Adam Thompson, Jamie Lindsay, Julien Lamy.

Goals: Gilbey 4, Mason 13 (MK); Barlaser 66, Ladapo 71, 86 (Rotherham).

Referee: Ross Joyce (Cleveland).

Attendance: 7,811 (983).


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