MORE than an hour had passed since the final whistle and dark was drawing in by the time Paul Warne emerged to face the media.
The Rotherham United dressing-room debrief had been a long one.
At half-time at AESSEAL New York Stadium, the League One leaders led 1-0 against third-placed MK Dons who had been reduced to ten men.
See out the game and the margin between the two sides would stretch to 13 points with only ten matches left to play.
By full-time, the depleted visitors had fought back to inflict a first defeat on the home team in 12 games and New York spirits had dimmed like the early-evening light.
Still ten matches left to play. But now the margin was down to seven.
In truth, Saturday's result had been coming. Feb had been fab in terms of results but the volume of points gathered had disguised a drop in the standards that had taken Rotherham to the summit of the division.
Wins against Accrington Stanley, AFC Wimbledon, Morecambe and Plymouth Argyle could have been draws, a March 1 draw at Shrewsbury Town could have been a defeat.
"It is not a lack of effort from the lads, we just haven't been at our best," manager Warne said. "I don't want people to think it is going to be a nice pedestrian walk to promotion. That is not how football is, it is difficult.
"The opposition played well today but our level of performance has got to improve if we are going to achieve anything."
The game was there to be killed off. It's hard see to see how MK would have come back had the Millers pressed home their numerical advantage and scored again.
Yet, for some reason, a team that have gone forwards all season suddenly went sideways after the interval and the visitors were able to regroup.
Complacency? Arrogance? Warne smelled fear.
"No-one wanted to make a mistake," he said. "We kept the ball but did nothing with it. We moved it side to side and they were camping in. We didn’t play ugly enough. We should have put it on them more
"We played with a bit of fear. We should have moved the ball quicker. We didn't have the ball speed to hurt them enough."
Rotherham goalkeeper Josh Vickers had been called into action after only 58 seconds, saving well from Troy Parrott when Chiedozie Ogbene's miscontrol had allowed Scott Twine to find a defence-splitting pass.
But the Millers gradually took charge and in the 25th minute Ogbene atoned for his earlier error with a searing run to get on the end of Michael Smith's flick-on from Shane Ferguson's raking ball.
Dan Harvie's only means of stopping the wing-back were illegal and a penalty and a red card followed. Dan Barlaser, four days after being in a hospital suite for the birth of his first child, produced a special delivery of his own to give Dons keeper Jamie Cumming no chance.
Dan Barlaser scores
A bad miss from Freddie Ladapo, who failed to make contact as the break approached after being set up in front of goal by sharp work from Ben Wiles and Ogbene, seemed of little consequence.
Warne, when he eventually arrived to answer questions in the media suite, acknowledged the magnitude of what his side would go on to let slip.
"It was an ideal position to be in at half-time," he said. "There were a couple of tactical things we talked about, but it was more about having three points in our hands and keeping a clean sheet.
"The second goal was always going to be crucial. The longer the game went on at 1-0, the more they were able to thrown the kitchen sink at it because they had nothing to lose."
There seemed little danger when Rotherham cleared a 57th-minute corner but Dean Lewington put the ball back into the mix and Harry Darling's header was placed too well even for someone of Vickers' quality.
Two minutes later Barlaser dillied and game-changing substitute David Kasumu didn't dally, stripping the midfielder of possession in a flash before sending in Mo Eisa to steer the ball into the bottom corner.
The silence around three sides of the ground was as stunned as it was deafening.
Ogbene blazed wide on the turn from close range as Rotherham tried to respond and, with the clock ticking down, Smith twice stretched those long legs of his to hook the ball towards goal only to see neither effort go in.
Six minutes of added time brought a wave of attacks and a wave of frustration as nothing of note materialised.
"For them to score twice before the hour mark, I didn't think we needed to panic," Warne said.
"I thought we had enough time to create enough chances to get back in it: a Chieo chance, Smudge chance. But we've probably used up our luck in recent weeks. That wasn't us at our best."
SO NEAR, SO FAR
The manager offered up some perspective.
"I am not sitting here full of pride at the performance," he said. "Remember, though, we have lost three games in 30-odd. The lads are a good group. They all want to achieve things."
There's no reason to panic - at the start of the season everyone would have been happy with pole position and a seven-point promotion buffer at this stage - yet there is cause for concern as the gap reduces and the tension of the run-in begins to exert an ever-tightening grip.
Jordi Osei-Tutu on the attack
Sixteen Millers goal attempts to MK's four suggest that on most days the visitors wouldn't have pulled off such a spectacular comeback.
However, the harsh reality was a first home defeat in six months, plus a six-point swing in league position and an even bigger one in terms of morale.
"If we are going to get promoted we have to win six games between now and the end of the season," Warne said. "Where those six come from doesn't matter. Today would have been a good one to win."
Indeed it would as it would have put his side on the brink of a third return to the Championship in five years.
The boss was full of genuine apologies for having kept journalists hanging around for such a length of time.
Now there's more Millers waiting to be done after the race for the automatics took an unwanted twist.
Goals: Barlaser pen 25 (Rotherham); Darling 57, Eisa 59 (MK)
Attendance: 9,731 (608)
Josh Vickers: 7
No blame for the goals and made an important first-minute save when Troy Parrott should have scored.
Wes Harding: 6
Some smart defending at times, but not all the time. As always, he got forward well.
Michael Ihiekwe: 5
Fine in the first half, but went through a poor spell in the second. Like all of the back three, he was too safe in his passing when the Millers had MK stuck in their own half.
Joe Mattock: 6
Average. Steady. Okay.
Chiedozie Ogbene: 7
Great run for the penalty. His pace was a problem for MK and he made good use of the space he was afforded when they lost a man. Not for the first time this season, his final ball was found wanting.
Ben Wiles: 6
Moments when it happened, moments when it nearly happened but didn’t. A real attacking influence when he got it right.
Dan Barlaser: 6
Took a good penalty and there were one or two 'diags' that had the 'Laser' mark of quality stamped on them. Was fading by the time he was brought off and he’ll have to hold up his hand for his part in MK’s winner.
Ollie Rathbone: 7
Probably the pick of the Millers players. Industrious, got a foot in and played some smart passes.
Shane Ferguson: 7
Good deliveries. Made the right decisions. Looked after the ball. Rotherham needed to get him on it more often.
Freddie Ladapo: 5
Right place at the right time when the net opened up for him soon after the penalty. Wrong finish as he failed to connect. Looked threatening on occasion but the Millers needed a little more from him.
Michael Smith: 6
The MK defence couldn't cope with him before half-time but after the interval too much of his best work was done out wide. Needed to convert at least one of two inviting late chances.
Jordi Osei-Tutu (for Ferguson 68): 5
One good run to set up a late chance for Smith, but yet to consistently look like the player Cardiff City and Nottingham Forest fans said he was after loan spells at those clubs.
Josh Kayode (for Barlaser 75): NA
Got involved. Drove forward and made a contribution.
Tolaji Bola (for Ladapo 80): NA
Decent cameo. Looked quite sharp.
Not used: Viktor Johansson, Richard Wood, Angus MacDonald, Hakeem Odoffin.
MK Dons (3-4-3): Jamie Cumming 6; Warren O'Hora 7, Harry Darling 7, Dean Lewington 6; Tennai Watson 6, Conor Coventry 6, Josh McEachran 5 (David Kasumu 49, 8), Dan Harvie 5; Scott Twine 7 (Hiram Boateng 85), Mo Eisa 7, Troy Parrott 6 (Kaine Kesler Hayden 69, 6). Subs not used: Franco Ravizolli, Matt Smith, Theo Corbeanu, Dan Kemp.Referee: Marc Edwards (Tyne and Wear): 6
“It was extremely eventful and not what we had planned with the penalty and the red card.
“I couldn't be more proud of how the group dug in and fought. They stayed composed in moments of chaos and pressure. I thought they showed togetherness.
“You face challenges and get things thrown at you that are not always in the script. You have to be adaptable and the guys did not get flustered.
“The players have got quality in and around the penalty box and even down at ten we remained a threat.”
- MK boss Liam Manning
Possession: Millers 57 per cent, MK 43 pc
Goal attempts: Millers 16, MK 4
On target: Millers 4, MK 3
Corners: Millers 4, MK 3
Fouls: Millers 17, MK 9
A contest there for the taking wasn't taken.