County’s FA Cup adventure came to an end with a single-goal defeat at League One leaders Rotherham United’s New York Stadium.
In another performance that did them great credit against opponents from two tiers higher, the Hatters were roared on in South Yorkshire by a vociferous, 2,300-plus away contingent for their first competitive meeting in Rotherham since early 2011 – when a four-goal defeat at the now-demolished Don Valley Stadium pre-dated the opening of the hosts’ new ground by 18 months.
County took to the field on a mild winter’s Friday evening, showing just one change from the starting line-up at Wealdstone six days earlier – with Ben Barclay replacing the injured Jordan Keane. Zeki Fryers, who had recovered from injury, returned to the squad and was named among the nine substitutes permitted in the competition.
With just over two minutes on the clock, the ‘Millers’ unleashed the first shot of the evening – with Chiedozie Ogbene’s effort taking a deflection past the right post off Mark Kitching’s outstretched leg.
County had to wait another 10 minutes or so for sight of goal – although Will Collar’s low drive from the edge of the box did test home goalkeeper Josh Vickers, who required a second attempt to smother the ball.
A foul by Collar on Ogbene to the right of the County area handed the hosts a free-kick around the 20-minute mark, which the appropriately-surnamed Mickel Miller fired narrowly over the crossbar. And five minutes later at the other end, Scott Quigley also went close with a rasping shot from just outside the box that Vickers acrobatically tipped behind.
Ben Hinchliffe was the next ‘keeper to see action between the sticks – diving low to block an effort by Ben Wiles that took a deflection through a crowded area. But County’s Number One was powerless to keep out leading scorer Michael Smith’s tap-in that put Rotherham ahead two minutes from half-time, following good work by Ollie Rathbone on the left.
HALF-TIME: Rotherham 1 (Smith, 43), County 0.
Rathbone turned from provider to would-be marksman four minutes after the interval – cutting in from the right to execute a shot that Kitching deflected into the near side-netting. And shortly afterwards, Ogbene fired just shy of the left post as the hosts resumed strongly.
But County proceeded to earn three corners in quick succession – and from the third of those, Vickers was forced to dive and keep out a final touch by Antoni Sarcevic.
A Rotherham break threatened to put the tie beyond the Hatters’ reach just before the hour – but with Freddie Ladapo looking certain to score after collecting Rathbone’s squared pass from the right, a brilliantly-timed intervention by Barclay cleared the danger.
Next, Ash Palmer went close to repeating his First Round replay equalising deeds – but, having dived to connect with Ryan Rydel’s free-kick from the right, the skipper headed just beyond the near post.
The end-to-end fare continued, with Hinchliffe making two saves in as many minutes at his near post, from shots on the left by Wiles and Miller. And with a quarter of an hour left, County had the ball in Rotherham’s net – only for substitute Paddy Madden’s header, following another Rydel free-kick which had been flicked on by Kitching, to be flagged offside.
In added time, the Hatters forced two corners, but, alas, were unable to find the net and continue their campaign.
FULL-TIME: Rotherham 1 (Smith, 43), County 0.
Team (3-4-1-2): Hinchliffe; Barclay (Hogan, 77), Palmer (Capt.), Kitching (Raikhy, 85); Southam-Hales, Collar (Madden, 55), Croasdale (Rooney, 85), Rydel; Sarcevic; Crankshaw (Jennings, 77), Quigley.
Unused Subs: Ross, Minihan, Fish, Fryers.
Booked: Collar, Southam-Hales, Sarcevic.
Attendance: 6,466 (2,318 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.