If they go down, they'll go down fighting. Heart, heartache and Handballgate ... the story of Swansea City 4 Rotherham United 3

By Paul Davis | 20/04/2019

If they go down, they'll go down fighting. Heart, heartache and Handballgate ... the story of Swansea City 4 Rotherham United 3
Handball appeals at Swansea. Pictures by Jim Brailsford

FEW bodies were left standing at the end.

Their season had been on the line. Now, maybe, it was over.

Rotherham United's players had utterly spent themselves in pursuit of points to keep their bid for Championship survival alive but an agonising defeat at Swansea City meant their all-out effort had brought no reward.

Michael Smith and Ben Wiles were on their feet motionless, Ryan Williams wandered aimlessly, Clark Robertson stood for an age in statue stillness with his head down and his hands on his knees.

The rest of the Millers were stretched out on the Liberty Stadium turf.

"I'm proud of the performance," said manager Paul Warne after his third-from-bottom side had lost ground on all the teams just above them. "I said that to the lads in the dressing room. I haven't berated them. I can't ask my team to give me any more.

"Swansea are a phenomenal side. They've won seven on the spin in the Championship at home and haven't lost at home this year in the league.

"We came so close to picking something up. But it's the time of the season when you have to pick up points. It's not about performances. Points are crucial."

As so often this season, Rotherham had reason to point accusing fingers at the referee. Handballgate brought yet another sense of injustice in a year of pushing bigger clubs all the way on the division's lowest budget.

Then came the crushing news that relegation rivals Wigan Athletic had pulled off a shock win with ten men at promotion-chasing Leeds United.

With three matches left, the Millers were five points adrift of the Latics and Reading and three behind Millwall who had played a game less.

"I feel a bit heartbroken," said Will Vaulks. "I felt like crying in the dressing room. It's hurting."

The captain had been one of the Millers laid out at the Liberty on the final whistle following a pulsating encounter.

Shattered men with shattered dreams.

THE GAME

Twice Rotherham led, twice they couldn't hold on to the lead.

They were in front after ten minutes when Michael Ihiekwe headed home Vaulks' cross but were pegged back by Oli McBurnie's 36th-minute aerial power.

Michael Ihiekwe opens the scoring

They were ahead again just two minutes later through Matt Crooks' wonderful twisting volley but were undone by another free header, this time from Barrie McKay, minutes after the break

The shouts for handball were loud, long and in vain when Kyle Naughton appeared to divert George Byers' shot into the net as Rotherham fell behind for the first time.

Crooks had been close to a second goal as half-time approached with a header saved by Kristoffer Nordfeldt and the midfielder's next headed attempt looked to have made it 3-3 until the home goalkeeper's stunning intervention.

McBurnie's precision shot across Marek Rodak made it 4-2 only for the Millers, knowing what a loss would mean, to come again.

Vaulks slammed in a volley off the underside of the bar on 83 minutes to give them late hope and in added time they converged on the Swansea net.

Smith saw his shot superbly saved, Anthony Forde fired over and Vaulks, in a final act of unrewarded defiance, called Nordfeldt into action again.

"You could see at the end, nearly every one of us was on the deck," the skipper said. "We had nothing left to give.

"I'm disappointed we conceded four goals away from home. You shouldn't have to score four goals for a point.

"The effort is there every week. If we'd had the rub of the green at the end, we would have got a point and it would have been thoroughly deserved. We looked like we were going to score at every set-play. I really felt we were going to get the equaliser."

With interviews moved from pitchside to avoid the whir of the mowers, the shadow of events at Elland Road darkened a tiny, cramped room just off the players' tunnel.

Matt Crooks scores

"The teams above us picked up points," Warne reflected. "I sort of earmarked Wigan as the team we might be able to grab hold of. I had a bit of faith in Leeds.

"If we end up with 46 points, or whatever the case may be, and a team gets more than us, then they deserve to stay up instead of us.

"The lads will give it their all until it's impossible."

CONTROVERSY

Referee Keith Stroud found himself trapped in a 62nd-minute circle of black-and-blue shirts.

'Handball,' screamed the Rotherham players. 'Handball,' cried the Millers bench.

Stroud, having finally extricated himself from the on-field throng, headed over to the technical area for a second argument that brought a booking for coach Matt Hamshaw.

"My players think it's a blatant handball," Warne protested. "If the ref can't see it, he can't see it. I'm not standing here to hammer him.

"But we've got one of the best, if not the best, disciplinary records in the Football League so you don't often see my players get around a referee like that.

Paul Warne and referee Keith Stroud disagree over the handball incident

"These are big decisions that can make or break your year. If that one point has a negative effect on our season then that would be a disaster.

"It was the only goal out of seven that wasn't replayed on the big screen. There's an obvious reason for that. I'm not stupid. At 2-2, the game was swinging both ways."

Vaulks ended the debate: "The lad's (Naughton) admitted it twice on the pitch, saying it is a handball."

Millers players, meanwhile, finally raised themselves from their sagging inertia and headed over to acknowledge followers who had made the four-hour-plus trip to South-west Wales.

These fans understood the dilemma, appreciated the endeavour, experienced the same numbing heartache.

The fact that they applauded on an afternoon when the survival pendulum swung firmly against them says it all.

Warne said: "I'd like to thank all the Rotherham fans for clapping my team off. That is never easy after a defeat. I think it sums up our display.

"If we're unsuccessful this season but the lads play like this to the very end then I'd like to believe that the supporters think they've seen something worthwhile."

Vaulks was already trying to pick himself up for the Easter-Monday clash with Birmingham City as he trooped out of the stadium.

The fight is still in the Millers. But the fight itself is possibly lost.

The prostrate figures on the grass told you that.

Against Swansea, ex-Premier League Swansea, Parachute Payment Swansea, Rotherham had gone up against insurmountable odds.

They'd done so well and given so much.

They'd fallen, heroically, just short.

There, in one game, you may have the season.

Swansea (4-2-3-1): Kristoffer Nordfeldt; Connor Roberts, Mike van der Hoorn, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Kyle Naughton; Jay Fulton, Matt Grimes; Barrie McKay, Oli McBurnie, Daniel James; Wayne Routledge. Unused: Steven Benda, Nathan Dyer, Joel Asoro, Declan John.

Subs: George Byers (for Fulton, H-T), Joe Rodon (for McKay, 75), Courtney Baker-Richardson (for Routledge, 88).

Rotherham (4-1-4-1): Marek Rodak; Zak Vyner, Michael Ihiekwe, Clark Robertson, Joe Mattock; Semi Ajayi; Jon Taylor, Will Vaulks, Matt Crooks, Anthony Forde; Michael Smith. Unused: Lewis Price, Richard Wood, Ryan Williams, Ben Wiles, Joe Newell, Kyle Vassell.

Subs: Richie Towell (for Ajayi, 57), Ryan Williams (for Taylor, 79), Ben Wiles (for Crooks, 81).

Goals: McBurnie 36, 79, McKay 50, Naughton 62 (Swansea); Ihiekwe 10, Crooks 38, Vaulks 83 (Rotherham).

Referee: Keith Stroud (Hampshire).

Attendance: 18,527.


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