DESPITE their poor league form, Saints had at least been able to take some solace from their performances in the Carling Cup this season.

But even the most loyal Saints fan would have struggled to take any positives from last night's display at Rotherham.

The last time Saints played in this competition they were riding on the crest of wave, having dispatched Birmingham 2-0 in the second round.

That impressive display was preceded by their stunning performance in a 1-0 win against Derby at Pride Park.

But just weeks later they turned in an embarrassing show at Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium.

The confidence appears to have been well and truly sapped from Jan Poortvliet’s young squad.

Too many times last night Saints were outworked and outfought.

The most disappointing thing about that is it was nothing more than an ordinary Rotherham side causing them so many problems.

Saints struggled throughout the game to create anything of note.

The sharp passing and movement that had been present, even in defeat, was rarely in evidence last night.

The alarm bells must be ringing loudly in Poortvliet’s ears.

Rotherham may have knocked Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves out of the Carling Cup already this season, but they are a limited side. Unfortunately, that was still more than enough to see them comfortably past an inept Saints team.

Poortvliet and his squad had travelled north in the hope of picking up a confidence-boosting win. But instead of creating some positivity, all they achieved was to create more doubt.

Admittedly, Poortvliet has had to deal with a number of injuries and absences and last night’s lineup was far from his preferred one.

The Dutchman felt forced into a change of system, but stopped short of playing with two out and out strikers.

Instead, he opted for just one holding midfielder, in Paul Wotton, and Adam Lallana and Bradley Wright-Phillips in the ‘hole’ behind David McGoldrick.

Unfortunately, Saints’ attack was toothless, until the second half introduction of Stern John.

They lacked width, a cutting edge and willingness to do what Poortvliet had asked them before the match – take risks going forward.

But regardless of formation and personnel, Saints should have more than enough quality to be able to overcome sides such as Rotherham.

They certainly couldn’t use the excuse of an intimidating atmosphere affecting them.

Only the main stand at the Don Valley Stadium – where Rotherham are playing their home games this season – was populated with fans, with three sides of the ground empty.

Even then, they were some distance from the pitch, which was surrounded by an athletics track.

The small band of travelling Saints fans – 398 in total – did their best to encourage their side.

But they were given scant reward for the long, midweek trek north.

They certainly left the stadium with more questions than answers about their team.

Poortvliet now faces the difficult task of picking his side back up for a crucial trip to Doncaster on Saturday.

That is followed by a home clash with Norwich and those two games are looking increasingly critical in shaping Saints’ season.

The quality is undoubtedly there and they have to do their best to forget last night’s display.

But the worry with such a young team is that such defeats will linger in their minds.

Because of that, Poortvliet now faces his biggest test since taking over as Saints boss.

If he can quickly rebuild the confidence then it could still be an encouraging season. But it is all too swiftly descending into one that has the look of being very long and increasingly hard.

The night had started reasonably quietly, with neither team offering much going forward.

But, crucially, it was Rotherham who claimed the first goal, which set the tone for the game.

Bartosz Bialkowski flapped at a 20th minute corner, allowing Ian Sharps to head it back across goal. Nick Fenton’s header was cleared by Joseph Mills, but the linesman flagged that it had crossed the line, before Drewe Broughton followed up to make sure.

In the 57th minute, the hosts made it 2-0, with a stunning goal Saints could do little about.

Danny Harrison latched onto a clearance from a corner and turned and fired in an unstoppable volley from 20 yards.

John, who had been introduced shortly before, produced his own sensational strike four minutes later, lashing a volley into the top corner from 25 yards.

But Saints’ fate was sealed in embarrassing fashion 20 minutes from time. Surman tried to shepherd a ball back to Bialkowski, but the pair’s indecisiveness allowed Reuben Reid to nick in and square it to Broughton to tap into an empty net.