At half-time at the New York Stadium on Saturday, it seemed the tide had finally turned Stanley’s way.
A makeshift side missing two regular defenders, a goalkeeper who had met his team-mates only that morning and an early own goal had created havoc for the first trip to Rotherham’s impressive new stadium.
But then Craig Lindfield got the ball just outside the area and curled it into the bottom of the net on the stroke of half-time and suddenly the Reds had their tails up.
It seemed like something had finally gone Stanley’s way after a poor run of form, injuries, suspensions and plain bad luck had seen them slip closer to the bottom than the top.
But – just as the travelling Reds fans started to believe they could get something from the promotion-chasers – disaster struck with three goals in 14 minutes and, not for the first time this season, Stanley were again wondering ‘what if’.
Leam Richardson has said he can’t wait until January to bring his own players in and the club needs a lift.
The backline from Saturday had an average age of 22 – Lindfield the oldest at 24 – and they do need some experience to keep calm in moments of panic.
The Reds had done well to repel early Millers’ pressure where keeper Cameron Belford – signed on emergency loan from Bury on Friday tea-time – denied the nippy Kieran Agard in a one-on-one and had also kept out Lee Frecklington.
The own goal was a freak one – a long throw headed into his own goal by debutant Tom Eckersley at the near post – but then came Lindfield’s wonder goal and all seemed good.
However, the strength of Rotherham’s bench was shown by the fact they could bring on the experienced striker Daniel Nardiello, who was sitting on the sidelines despite his 11 goals so far this season.
He proceeded to add two more to that tally with Michael O’Connor making it look like a rout but had either of James Beattie’s or Lee Molyneux’s strikes gone in – kept out superbly by Andy Warrington – at 2-1 then it might have been a different story.
Instead, boss Richardson was left to reflect on another defeat for his depleted side with Toto Nsiala, Dean Winnard and keeper Paul¿Rachubka all suspended and all of the loan players except Belford now heading back to their parent clubs.
“We are light but we won’t make that an excuse as the lads who come in are honest and will do a job,” said the suited-for-the-day 33-year-old.
“We have conceded some sloppy goals from long throws and set-pieces and we knew they would do this and had been working on it.
“In parts we played some good football and we knew we would be under pressure but we withstood it initially and we managed to get back in it and then we needed to kick on.
“We came out at half-time quite confident but the goals affected us too much.
“We were caught out and the lads need to learn and learn quickly.
“If you do not take your chances at one end and then you are light at the other end there will always be a problem.
“But we are all in it together, whether it’s good, bad or ugly.
“We always knew December was going to be a tough month and now we are coming to January where I can affect things.
“Whether it’s personnel or working with the lads as, since I have been here, it’s been game after game and I have not had much of a chance to get out of the dugout.
“Injuries and suspensions have also hindered things so I am looking forward to January where we can regroup, take stock and get a couple of players in.”
It was hard for Belford who came in and, for the second time in just over a month, the Reds were meeting a new keeper for the first time on the day of an important match. But, after a tricky moment in the opening minute where a punch fell to Alex Revell and Beattie had to clear off the line, he kept Stanley in it, denying Frecklington and Agard – who was twice clean through – as Rotherham pressed a weakened Stanley line-up. The freak own goal came amid this spell of pressure and, while they couldn’t get a second, Stanley were always in it.
And it was something out of nothing when Michael Liddle’s ball in came to right back
Lindfield on the edge of the area. He looked to pass, saw nothing on and curled the ball beyond the diving Warrington in front of the travelling Stanley fans.
In the five minutes leading up to the break, the Reds – up against a team paid much higher wages and with more experience than Stanley – took the game to the home side with majority of the 7,000-plus crowd getting increasingly restless.
Millers boss Steve Evans sensed this and put on Nardiello on 58 minutes – he had scored twice against Stanley in their
2-1 win at the Crown Ground earlier in the season.
And Evans admitted he provided the spark his side needed, while the striker proved too much of a handful for the Reds’ relatively inexperienced backline.
Again a long throw caught out Stanley and found its way to Nardiello at the far post on 63 minutes and he fired low into the net.
Then Beattie had a big appeal for handball when his shot hit a Millers defender, the former England international made a clever chip which had Warrington scrambling while sub Molyneux tested the Millers keeper from distance.
Had one of these gone Stanley’s way, then who knows?
But number three came nine minutes later and knocked any fight out of the Reds. Nardiello headed in a cross to give Rotherham some breathing space and, three minutes later, O’Connor got the ball outside the area and fired home.
By the end of this game, Richardson had suffered seven defeats in his 15 matches in charge and this was the worst one.
But, with games coming up against Dagenham and Aldershot, he was more eager to look forward than dwell on these results, saying: “It’s easy to identity what we need, the hardest part is getting them in but I am sure we will come through January in a lot better shape.”