A FIGURE in a white-and-black shirt shot past him yet again and Lucas Digne didn’t know what to do.
This had never really happened to the French international defender before during his time with Lille, Paris Saint-Germain, Roma, Barcelona and now Everton.
The £18 million left-back was feeling the full force of Rotherham United’s Matt Olosunde.
It was an FA Cup tie against the Premier League Toffeemen at Goodison Park last January and Olosunde, a flying wing-back on the right flank, was delivering the best performance of his two-year spell with the Millers and scoring the first goal of his senior career.
The young American had come a long way since arriving, untried and untested, at AESSEAL New York Stadium in July 2019 after being released from Manchester United’s junior set-up.
After 72 games, a League One promotion and a second-tier relegation, the 23-year-old, having turned down the offer of a new contract, won’t wear a Rotherham shirt again, but he’ll remember the club that facilitated his progression from boy to man.
“Rotherham gave me my chance in professional football,” he said. “They gave me the chance to make my debut in men’s football and really get my career started. I’ll always be grateful to them for that.
“It was an unbelievable thing for my first season to be a promotion season. That was very enjoyable. Also, I got to play in the Championship.”
Olosunde came to Rotherham as an unassuming kid eager to do his talking on the pitch; very much part of things at the Roundwood training complex but a quiet voice happy to leave the louder stuff to others.
He shared a home in Wickersley with partner Maisie and liked having several of his teammates living in the same small apartment block.
The Millers’ media team still smile fondly when they recall his innocent, undisguised pleasure when he first made the cover of the matchday programme.
It took no time for his pace and energy to catch the eye and he was in the opening-day starting 11 at right-back for the victory at Wimbledon that kicked off the 2019/20 season.
By the end of a promotion campaign cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, he was being mentioned in Team-of-the-Year discussions when journalists picked their League One line-up.
“Matt’s just got a willingness to play forward, to play fearlessly, which is lovely,” said manager Paul Warne as Rotherham led the table for several weeks before finishing runners-up to Coventry City.
“I think that in around 500 league games as a player I did that about twice! He wants to get on the ball, he wants to go past people, he wants to cause problems.”
Ah, go past people, cause problems... Lucas Digne was being given a torrid time as the Millers took Everton to extra time in their third-round showdown.
“Au revoir,” said Olosunde as left the Frenchman trailing in his wake for the umpteenth time.
“Merde,” cursed Digne.
“Ooh la la,” thought Warne, resolving to push the issue of a fresh deal nearer to the top of his in tray.
Things hadn’t always been going so well for Olosunde in his second year. He’d impressed in League One but then found himself behind new signing Wes Harding as Rotherham embarked on life at a higher level.
It wasn’t until November that he started a match and the switch from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 soon after allowed him to prosper in a new role as a wing-back.
“I just had to bide my time and work my way back into the team,” he said. “I didn’t take it as a bad thing, it was more of a good thing, a make-you-hungrier kind of thing. It was good for my character.”
Thirty-nine appearances in that truncated first season were followed by 33 more as the Millers fell six minutes short of survival and now he is hoping to find a new home in the Championship.
Olosunde says he came close to staying at New York, but he and club were apart on finances and he is willing to take the gamble that he’s done enough for another second-tier side to want him.
Despite his swish, white BMW 4x4 with personalised number plate, he wasn’t one of Rotherham’s bigger earners and there is probably a better pay day waiting for him elsewhere.
Everton was the high point last year and his form dipped after one of the best individual displays by a Miller in the last decade. The mobility that made him a presence at both ends of the pitch was still there but he looked nervy at times as the relegation pressure came on.
Throughout his New York stint his positioning in defence could be found wanting yet he had the pace to get himself out of trouble. That speed — only winger Chiedozie Ogbene was quicker — was a major weapon.
One goal-saving block, after he’d flown across the penalty area in a blur of commitment at Accrington Stanley at a crucial stage of a 2-1 win in February 2020 when promotion was on the horizon, will live long in the memory of the hardy souls braving the elements in the uncovered away end.
He came to the Millers at the right time to play under the right people. Warne and his backroom clan pride themselves on their development of young talent. Olosunde improved Rotherham and Rotherham improved Olosunde.
“I’ve really enjoyed the experience, it’s been very good,” he drawled, three years in England having barely touched the soft, agreeable Philadelphia twang of a player whose parents and brother still live in the States.
“Playing all those games has definitely helped with my CV. I know from the experience of some of my friends at Manchester United that it doesn’t always go well when you leave there.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of having the Gaffer and his staff as my management team.
“They’ve been great with me ever since I’ve been here. They’ve been there for me from the day I joined.
“They’ve helped me along this whole journey. I’m really appreciative of that. I’ve got nothing but kind words for them. They’re good people, good coaches.”
At his best, he was a sharp defender. And a real threat flashing down the right wing.
Just ask Lucas Digne.
WHY HE'S LEAVING
ROTHERHAM United’s Championship relegation played a part in Matt Olosunde deciding to walk away from the Millers after two years at the club.
An offer of a new deal was on the table but it was rejected by the 23-year-old who wasn’t keen on dropping down a division.
Other clubs are hovering following this week’s announcement that the player is to leave AESSEAL New York Stadium and Olosunde would like to remain in the second tier.
“I hope to be in the Championship next season, yeah,” he said. “I’m hoping for the best and looking out for the best.
“It’s not up to me to decide at this point. Other clubs are showing interest but, as of right now, I’m not really decided on where I want to go.”
The full-back’s Rotherham deal is due to expire at the end of this month and he revealed that he almost signed on the dotted line for the Millers again.
“Yeah, definitely I came close to staying,” he said. “It was a difficult one.
“I would have like to have stayed but I weighed up my options and kind of thought it might be best to start a new challenge, a new journey.
“There would probably have been more chance of me staying if Rotherham had stayed up. But I would have still have had to weigh things up on my position with the team, how things would go next season and what I could do if I went somewhere else.”
The American joined the Millers in 2019 when he was released by Manchester United and, after making his debut in senior football and going on to make a further 71 appearances, says he departs with a heavy heart.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time here,” he said. “I wish that under other circumstances I could have stayed. But I feel like it’s time for me to look for a new beginning.”
While remaining in England is his preferred option, Olosunde hasn’t ruled out a move abroad.
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” he said. “It’s football. Anything can happen. Things can turn at a moment’s notice.
“I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket. I’m open really.”
MATT THE MILLER
High point: Probably the League One promotion. To play as many games as I did in that season was pretty big for me.
Low point: My time here has mostly been pretty positive. The worst feeling for me was probably the own goal against Sheffield Wednesday. That was pretty bad. It was a case of wrong place, wrong time! I was very emotional afterwards. I’m not sure if I was actually welling up but I was feeling pretty low. At least we won!
That performance at Everton: It was a a very happy moment. I scored my first career goal as well. The fact it was in the FA Cup against a Premier League side and all my family were watching back home in the States made it that much more special. I really had fun in that game.
Full-back or wing-back? I don’t really mind. Wherever I’m put, I’ll play there. I’m comfortable on the right side wherever I’m picked. Wing-back does suit my athleticism. I try my best to get up and down the flank.
Friendships: The whole team have been so friendly. If you reached out, they would always be happy to speak, happy to talk. I’ll try to stay in touch with most of the lads. The ones I’m closest to are the ones I’ve been living in the flats complex with: Freddie (Ladapo) and Trev (Clarke), plus Thommo (Adam Thompson) when he was here. Chieo (Chiedozie Ogbene) doesn’t live here but he’s always here!
WARNE'S WORDS OF FAREWELL
“On behalf of everyone here, I would like to say what a pleasure it has been to work with Matt for the last couple of years.
“As we try to with every player who comes through the door, we have worked on making him a better player than when he joined us and I hope that he agrees that we have been successful in doing so.
“He leaves the club with absolutely no animosity as he looks to pursue a new challenge somewhere else and goes very much with our blessing. Matt and his representatives felt it was time for a fresh start and are hopeful that he can secure a deal to continue playing in the Championship or at similar standard somewhere else in the world — something we totally understand.
“Matt is a good lad who has grown in confidence both on the pitch and off it and I hope that our footballing paths cross again in the future.”