SATURDAY, January 19 2019, just after 4.30pm ... Zak Vyner wished he was anywhere other than at AESSEAL New York Stadium.
The young full-back's number was held up in the 78th minute of a Championship clash with Brentford and some fans jeered as he left the pitch.
Rotherham United were losing 3-2 against the Bees and Vyner was being made the scapegoat for a disappointing day.
Manager Paul Warne was quick to point out after a 4-2 defeat that the substitution had nothing to do with the 21-year's display and was a tactical switch — striker Jerry Yates for a defender — as the Millers chased the game.
Yet the damage by the vocal, misguided minority was done.
“To be honest, I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up,” the player recalls.
“It was a dark time for me. I'm not going to beat about the bush and say I was happy when I left the ground.”
Vyner, on a season-long loan from Bristol City, isn't suited to dark times. He's bright and likeable, as engaging as he is well-spoken, with a bright-eyed, open face flecked with freckles that are broken only by a huge, ready smile.
He claims the reaction three months ago didn't bother him too much.
But it did.
“I've got a great family and great friends and obviously the lads here as well,” he says. “They didn't want to make a big deal out of it because they were surprised by it themselves.
“They were kind of like: 'We didn't think you'd done anything wrong.' Certain people think differently, I suppose, but it's not my place to say anything about that. I just had to rely on my belief in myself and the manager's and coaches' belief in me.
“It built my character massively. I feel like if I get any stick now, well, at least it's not as bad as it was then, I suppose.
“I just brush it off and don't think about it too much. If people want to say something bad about me, it's not going to stop me playing my game and doing what the manager wants me to do.”
It says much about his quiet, steely resolve that his performances since his Brentford nadir have been better than they were before it.
With two games left, third-from-bottom Rotherham are on the brink of losing their fight for second-tier survival, but the bristling, battling Millers have made their mark this term on a division packed with bigger clubs and larger budgets.
Vyner quickly bought into the desire to prove wrong all the pre-season doubters who predicted brave Rotherham, humble Rotherham, could be relegated by a record margin following their 2017/18 promotion from League One.
“Teams have been changing the way they play to suit playing against us,” he says. “That's a compliment. When you're going to big clubs and you're playing against top players and they're changing the way they play so they can disrupt our game, you're doing something right.
“Everyone loves an underdog story. At the start of the season everyone wrote us off. We were favourites to go down. I know we're in a relegation spot now but we're not down and out.
“Maybe teams earlier in the season came to us and thought: 'It's just little old Rotherham. We'll get at them.' Then they play us and find we're not little old Rotherham and that we're going to keep getting at them. We've beaten some of the teams with much bigger budgets.
“We kind of like the 'underdog' thing. It spurs us on a little bit.”
Vyner was a callow kid when he pitched up at New York last July. He'd made a handful of appearances for Championship Bristol City — where he is rated highly enough to have a contract until 2021 — but most of his limited experience had come in loan spells at League Two Accrington Stanley in 2016/17 and League One Plymouth Argyle last season.
Since then he has played in more 30 second-tier matches for the Millers, despite competition from a rival with a Premier League pedigree in 32-year-old Billy Jones. Both have had spells as first choice but it's the younger man who has played most times.
“I've feel that I've put in some good performances over the last few games,” he says. “Me and Billy have a had a good competition going. He's a great pro, a great player, and has had an amazing career.
“I keep trying to pick his brain about a few things. He's a great guy. We just want to do the best we can for the team. That's the main focus.”
Injury kept Vyner out of the Easter Monday clash with Birmingham City but three days earlier he had tamed the threat of arguably the best winger in the Championship, Swansea City's Daniel James.
He's mobile, hard-working, with the lungs to get forward and the appetite to tackle. Importantly, he's willing to learn. Warne loves the attitude of a youngster who sees himself as a centre-half and has uncomplainingly operated out of position since August opening day.
What fans who have criticised him for holding a narrow position close to the centre-halves don't realise is that he's been asked to play that way by his manager.
There was a welcome reaction to that winter afternoon when there was too much coldness in the New York air in more ways than one.
Most supporters were angered that a player still taking early strides in his career and giving his all should be publicly derided and a ground swell of goodwill towards him ensued.
Help was at hand closer to home too.
“I did get a lot of support,” Vyner recollects. “Will (Vaulks), I remember, was cooling me off on the pitch. The gaffer was good as well. They were as surprised as I was.
“I just knew that I needed to confide in the team, my parents and my brother, trust in myself and move forward.
“I got over it after a couple of days. It wasn't like I was 'harping' on it for a while. It was a new experience for me. I'd not had that before in my career.
“It's just a different aspect to my development, I suppose. If it happens again in the future — touch wood, it doesn't — then maybe a can 'harp' on it for less time than I did this time.”
Warne describes him as “a brilliant kid” and he's popular among his teammates.
My first encounter with him came in the communal area at Rotherham's Roundwood complex when he bounced in after training one day, spotted a face he didn't recognise and headed over to announce himself with a strong handshake and that beaming grin.
That was back in October. Journalists normally introduce themselves to players, not the other way round. I was impressed. He'd arrived in South Yorkshire with good standards and was picking up more with the Millers.
In just over a week, Vyner returns to the Robins to fight for a place next term at the club where he has been since he was nine.
“It's definitely been a season where there have been surprises,” he says. “I didn't think I was going to get 30-plus league games under my belt. I want to keep that going and just be a sponge really, to take information on board from anybody that I can so I improve as a player.
“There have been ups and downs. I'm looking at it as a success. I've learnt a lot, even in the darker times there have been for me.
“I've learnt about myself and how I can grow as a player in those times and take things from them instead of just thinking about the negatives and what people are saying about me.”
He goes back wiser, hardened, more experienced, better. The 78th minute against the Bees became a turning point.
“I think my performances since then have peaked a bit and I've had some good games,” he says. “I hope to get people on side a bit more.”
It's testimony to him that he will be remembered more for his form since Saturday, January 19 2019, than for one dispiriting moment just after 4.30pm.
Full name: Zachary George Onyego Vyner.
Date of birth: May 14 1997.
Bristol City career: Joined the Robins' youth set-up as a nine-year-old and signed his first professional deal in 2015. He has made eight first-team appearances in the league and five in cup competitions.
Loan spells: 2016/17 - Accrington Stanley, League Two, 17 games. Jan-Jun 2017 - Plymouth Argyle, League One, 17 games. 2018/19 - Rotherham United, Championship, 34 games.
Interesting fact: He played for Plymouth in their 2-1 home win over Rotherham towards the end of the Millers' 2017/18 League One promotion campaign.
This article first appeared in the Advertiser
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