Alex Neil said his Preston North End side made the game difficult for themselves as Joe Rafferty’s own goal inside 20 seconds helped Rotherham United to a 2-1 win at Deepdale.
The Lilywhites rallied thereafter with Jayson Molumby, Anthony Gordon, Tom Barkhuizen, Ched Evans and Ben Whiteman – whose free-kick struck the post and rolled agonisingly across the face – all went close before the break.
But the visitors doubled their lead through Ben Wiles, with Ched Evans reply ten minutes later not enough for North End to get back into the contest.
Speaking to iFollow PNE post-match, Alex said: “I don’t even know how to comment on the first 20 seconds of the game.
“They get the ball, they nearly get a free-kick, and then within two passes, the ball ends up getting headed into their own net, which is probably the worst start to a game I’ve ever seen.
“We make it tough for ourselves. I thought for the first ten minutes we didn’t really get started but then I thought we found a foothold in the game. From then to half-time, we were comfortably the better team.
“I thought we created probably five really good opportunities, but didn’t take any of them, and obviously then it becomes difficult. We then spoke about half-time obviously next goal is really important.
“The simple fact is we left the game a little bit loose today because I was hoping we had better quality and ultimately those chances fell our way. But the difference at this level is if you score those goals, it’s a completely different game, it’s a completely different result.
“The fact that you miss those chances, and then I thought some of our defending at times was poor, it just became problematic for us.”
Alex felt that, as the contest grew older, it became more evident that his side was made up of five changes – including full debuts for Evans and Gordon in attack, and Liam Lindsay in defence.
“I thought we started quite brightly again second half, created a couple of opportunities again, and then it’s just poor defending for the second one,” he added.
“I think you could the see as the game wore on where people start to get tired, that we had quite a lot of sort of strangers on the pitch with each other, I think you could see that.
“I have said during the week and I reiterate it again today, I thought we looked threatening but we didn’t punish the opposition enough.
“But we’re going to take time for these lads to get used to each other and I think that was quite evident today, certainly as the game wore on where players got tired.”
There were a number of penalty appeals for the home side, and one that the manager felt most strongly about was a late challenge on striker Ched Evans – whose performance was a plus point for the gaffer – and Alex said that partly made for the story of the afternoon.
“The one [penalty claims] that I have seen back that I felt was quite clear was Ched Evans’ one. I’ve watched that back on the video, Ched gets his foot there, knocks the ball out of his path and the lad kicks the back of his ankle – it’s a penalty. But we didn’t get it.
“I thought the story of today was when the chances we came, we didn’t take them. When we could have had decisions – and I didn’t think we got many decisions today if I’m being honest – we didn’t get them.
“We made a horrific error in the first 20 seconds of the game that’s put us on the backfoot right away. It’s difficult because there’s a lot of good parts in between.
“My overriding emotion is real frustration today because you can talk about games as much as you like and based on the game and based on chances, we didn’t deserve to lose the game, but we did and that’s really frustrating.
“I thought he was excellent,” he continued, speaking of Evans. “He gave us a platform, he was probably as close to a Jordan Hugill as we’ve had since I’ve been here, I thought he was very similar in that aspect; backed in, took the ball in, kept the ball alive, was a threat, had a header that the ‘keeper saved, got his goal.
“Really good all-round performance from him and I hope he can continue that because he was certainly a plus point today.”
The manager stressed that his players still need to get know each other on the pitch after a busy January transfer window for North End.
“The simple fact is it’s difficult – I’ve said this all week, this isn’t anything new for me – I think people think it’s magic and you can just rock up and fling everybody together and everyone will be alright.
“Building relationships with players is really important but not only that, having relationships where your strengths counteract your mates’ weaknesses, and vice versa, is equally as important.
“That’s something that we’re going to have to get, those combinations, nailed down as quickly as we can really.”
Watch more from Alex on iFollow PNE.