SEPTEMBER 16 2020, Rotherham United had beaten ten other clubs to George Hirst and were unveiling their man.
The young striker was arriving from Leicester City on a season-long loan. He had the Premier League background of training with the Foxes’ first-team squad and everyone remembered that one prolific season in the Sheffield Wednesday youth ranks before his time at Hillsborough turned sour.
Few argued against the opinion that this was one of Rotherham’s best deals of the transfer window as they stepped back into the Championship after promotion from League One.
Hirst cut an assured figure on a Zoom date with journalists, confident in himself, embracing the challenge, eager to do well. He clammed up when asked about his Owls past but was effusive about his Millers future.
“I am going to be judged on goals” he said. “Scoring is what I pride myself on, and I also want to help get this team as high up the table as possible.”
This was to be his big year, his breakthrough year. The boy with potential was to grow into the man who delivered.
Sadly, it never happened.
The 22-year-old returned to Leicester last week, injury having cut short his time at AESSEAL New York Stadium two games before the close of the campaign. He played in more than 30 games but started only four of them. And his Rotherham goal account remained unopened.
“Fifty per cent of it is me and 50 per cent of it is George,” said Paul Warne, the manager who had tried to bring the youngster to the Millers several times in the past.
“I didn’t pick him enough, I didn’t give him enough minutes on the pitch. Every player asks for five or six games. You need a good run in the team.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position to offer him that because I just didn’t see enough, if truth be told. The strikers were playing well, although not scoring.
“I did give him minutes on the pitch when I could and — he might say differently — we were always really positive with him and really wanted him to do well.”
At times, there were encouraging signs — a clever pass here, a burst of sharp movement there — but Hirst never dominated a defender or made a sustained contribution.
He lacked the physicality for the division and what cunning he showed wasn’t enough to make up for it.
For an unproven talent, he earns well at Leicester and his season in South Yorkshire hit Rotherham hard in the pocket. They were paying a portion of his wages, a contribution that amounted to a figure well in excess of the salary of any of their contracted players.
The Millers would have been willing to part company but the Foxes showed little inclination to take him back in the January window, by which time the attacker had been reduced to a bit-part player, always in the squad but rarely making anything other than late cameos.
Rotherham have built a reputation for loan players making strides under their tutelage and the whole episode has left Warne saddened and frustrated.
“That’s true,” the manager acknowledged when it was put to him that Hirst hadn’t improved with the Millers. “He might be physically in better shape. On stats, he obviously hasn’t left a better player.
“When you’ve got 24 players in the building you’d do well to incrementally improve all of them. There are only so many game-time minutes that you’ve got.
“Unfortunately, some fall through the net. Out of all our five loanees, he has probably had the least amount of time on the pitch.
“The other four have played. We always try to do right by people, we’re always open and candid with them. It just hasn’t worked out as well as we would have liked.”
February 6 2021, Hirst’s last chance in the starting 11. He was in the team to face Preston and Rotherham won at Deepdale but he was selected only so Michael Smith could be rested and was substituted, as he was in all his starts.
That Zoom meeting turned out to be the only time reporters got to speak with him as he was never put up by the Millers for after-match media duties.
I contacted him last week offering him the chance to have his say but never received a reply.
Club insiders said there could be an air of Premier League strut about him on occasion but that generally he was a decent lad who was keen to progress and applied himself well.
More of the latter and none of the former would be his best way forward.
Player and manager held a meeting in February. One was seeking increased game-time and the other couldn’t give it to him. The circle had become vicious: the more Hirst was making little impact as a sub, the less chance he had of starting.
“I’d like to say on the record that George’s attitude always stayed spot on,” Warne said. “He was a really grounded kid. He doesn’t deserve any criticism.
“We were never in a position where we had plenty of points in the bank and I could take Smithy out of the team because Smithy was fundamental to our success.
“I feel sorry for George a little bit in that I didn’t give him as much game-time as I possibly could have. But then players earn their game-time.
“At the end of the season, you’ll see around eight players who have played 40-odd matches. They’re the most consistent performers day in, day out.
“Ironically, his best performances came right at the end and then he got injured for the last two games. He would probably have had more of a starting opportunity in those.”
After so much optimism, 2020/21 has been a wasted year. Hirst has stood still, maybe even gone backwards.
Leicester won’t play him in the top flight and it would a huge gamble for a Championship club to provide him with a second opportunity so he might have to re-invent himself by dropping into League One for a season.
“Your loans don’t automatically work,” Warne said. “We have Ben Wiles here and thought the world of him. We sent him to Frickley Athletic for his first loan and they just sent him back saying: ‘He’s not good enough.’
“Wilesy’s now past 100 appearances and has played more than 60 times in the Championship. Loans not working can be down to many things.
“I have no doubt George will go on and be an amazing centre-forward. Unfortunately, this year just didn’t work out for him as well as we all hoped it would.”
May 1 2021, Hirst’s final outing in a red-and-white shirt, as a sub against Blackburn Rovers, came and went in the same fashion as all the others and he returned to Leicester soon afterwards with his hamstring playing up.
“On stats, he obviously hasn’t left a better player.”
Ultimately, in the harsh world of professional football, there was only one stat that really mattered: 32 appearances, no goals.