It’s funny how a pair of slim fitting trousers and a nice new stadium can influence your perception of a club. I always had Paul Warne and Rotherham down as a progressive bolthole, someone for us to aspire to being like. As is patently obvious, I don’t follow the fortunes of other teams that closely, I’d read about our clash of styles and their reliance on set plays but I was still surprised at their sheer physical presence on Saturday. I had to look it up; on average we conceded nearly 4cm in height per player.
Matt Crooks, their number 17, was case in point. Officially standing at 6 ft 3 inches (but looking bigger) you’d expect him to be in the centre of defence, or attack, or in goal, not in the centre of midfield towering over Cameron Brannagan. It was like a stunt you see in the Conference, where physical freaks are played in unusual positions to flummox the opposition.
This wasn’t anti-football though, Crooks can play as could the others, it was a souped-up version what we have seen previously from promotion winning teams at this level – physical, direct, organised. Unusually physical, but not a total abomination. It wasn’t complicated, but it was overwhelmingly efficient. There was a lot of talk about our failings, but much less about how good they were, it was as close as we’ve seen to a title winning side as anyone this season.
They double-teamed constantly, attacked with pace and aggression and when they didn’t have the ball, they expanded to make it impossible to get around them. Conceding early was only part of the story, the physical mismatch meant we were playing two teams – the actual team and the team that was in our heads. That’s what happens with bullying; it goes beyond the physical.
As a result, we were less committed in the tackle, less assured in the passing, less vociferous with the referee. Generally, the confidence drained out of us and there was nobody able to take control of the situation.
It was all done and dusted by half-time, so the post-mortem was a long one. Did Karl Robinson make the wrong selections? I could see the logic of keeping the same core side as we’ve had all season. Jamie Mackie was the more obvious selection in a physical match-up. Simon Eastwood looked understandably rusty and Cameron Brannagan was out of sorts, but the thinking was sound and that’s all I ask.
3-0 down at half-time, Karl Robinson did exactly the right thing, rather than trying to play them at their game, we played them at a completely different one. Mark Sykes was the only player in the first half that looked like he was getting any joy, so pace was clearly something that they would struggle with. We doused them with it with the introduction of Browne and Holland and suddenly they looked a little more human. The result was a reassuring display which occasionally teetered on a comeback. Had Matty Taylor put away his one-on-one and the referee been a fractionally less inconsistent we may even have scraped an unlikely point. In Rotherham we may actually be watching the title winners, but we’re not done yet for promotion or the play-offs.
The other positive is that it’s out of the way and that future threats we face are more obvious. When the Rotherham fans were singing about being top of the league, I had to look it up; they’ve arrived at the top by stealth. Like League 1 is a Trojan horse; Wycombe were supposed to be the physical industrial unit that were streaking to the title, suddenly they collapse and there’s a new threat. We just happen to be the first team to properly face it. We knew they were good; I think we were surprised at just how good.
What comes next is no less straight forward, but at least we know that. Our League Cup run benefitted from players like Sam Long and Elliot Moore, straight forward percentage players who wouldn’t leave us vulnerable when faced with quality. Games against Ipswich, Sunderland and Portsmouth may be more like League Cup ties than some of our more swashbuckling League displays of earlier in the season, but, let’s face it, that served us OK.