A boxer called Jackson and a fighter named Icky ... Michael Ihiekwe opens up about family life and his Rotherham United career

By Paul Davis | 18/09/2019

A boxer called Jackson and a fighter named Icky ... Michael Ihiekwe opens up about family life and his Rotherham United career
Michael Ihiekwe with partner Rosie and their son, Abel

THE TV cameras panned in on the body on the ground to capture the anguish.

The semi-final was 18 minutes old and Rotherham United had been in front for just 60 seconds at Glanford Park when Scunthorpe United attacked.

Michael Ihiekwe, believing Duane Holmes' off-target shot was heading in, tried to intervene. Player and ball ended up in the net and the pain was written all over the centre-half's face as Sky Sports focused on his prostrate frame behind the goalline.

“That was a hard day,” he recalls. I thought I had to play it. It looked worse on the telly. I was angry.

“I'd had a decent season but then that happened when the game was on television and a lot of people were watching.”

The match would go on to finish 2-2, with all to play for at AESSEAL New York Stadium the following Tuesday in the second leg when a date at Wembley and a place in the League One Play-off Final would be at stake.

Not for the first or last time in his career, Ihiekwe had a decision to make.

“You can go under or you can fight,” he says quietly.

That dark Saturday afternoon in May 2017 seems a long time ago as we sit in the baking late-August sunshine on the verandah at Rotherham's Roundwood complex.

Half an hour earlier, wearing a white, cap-sleeved top, he'd been covered in a sheen of sweat as he took part in a training game.

Now, showered and changed into a red, club-issue polo shirt, he's a more relaxed figure, sipping on a concoction put together by head of performance Ross Burbeary. It starts out as a high-energy slush but the heat soon melts it into liquid form.

“Crushed berries or something,” he says in a Scouse burr. “Then it's mixed with coconut water. Yeah, it tastes good.”

Life is also tasting good for the 26-year-old right now. His time with the Millers hasn't always run smoothly but he impressed in the Championship in the second half of last season and has been the stand-out performer in the opening games of the 2019/20 third-tier campaign.

Rotherham were talking to his agent about a new contract this week.

“I took to the Championship,” Ihiekwe says. “The players are more talented but less physical, apart from one or two centre-forwards who are talented and physical!

“Playing at that level and in those big stadiums forces you to be on your game the whole time. You can't switch off for a second. If you lose your concentration just for a moment you get punished for it.

“I was pleased with how I handled the step up and I think I've done okay this season so far. But I've still got a long way to go. Being with Rotherham has made me a better player but there's room for improvement in every aspect of my game.”

The Millers picked him up from non-league. Brought up in Allerton, 15 minutes from Liverpool city centre, he'd started out in Liverpool's youth set-up, then moved to Kenny Jackett's Wolves before making his way in senior football, in League Two and the National League, with Tranmere Rovers.

“I started as a striker, moved into midfield, then Liverpool made me a defender at 11,” he recollects. “I remember saying to the coach 'Can you move me forward a bit?' and he said 'Trust me, I can see a defender in you'. I wasn't happy on the way home!

“I loved it in the National League. Tranmere were doing well and I was playing well. I didn't mind the poorer facilities and smaller grounds.

“You can't be big-headed about things just because you've been at big clubs in the past. That kind of approach gets you nowhere. You adapt to your surroundings and get on with things. You have to show the right attitude.”

Paul Warne travelled to the 2017 National League Play-off Final to watch Forest Green centre-forward Christian Doidge. Doidge scored in a 3-1 win but it was someone in the Rovers backline who caught the Millers manager's eye.

“I was in the players' lounge at Wembley and the gaffer and Hammy (first-team coach Matt Hamshaw) came over and introduced themselves,” Ihiekwe remembers. “You know what the gaffer is like, he's happy to speak to anybody.

“He told me how well he thought I'd played and that he was interested in signing me. It was a huge boost hearing that. He didn't have to bother to talk to me but he did. It showed what kind of man he is.

“I came up to Rotherham and he brought me to the training ground. It wasn't like it is now. Rotherham had sold Danny Ward in January and the gaffer said that he'd told the chairman that he wanted to spend the money on upgrading the training facilities.

“He showed me round the stadium as well. Obviously, that was a big draw. I had interest from other League One clubs but I chose here. Once you've met the gaffer, you want to play for him.”

Up close, he's an imposing presence: well-muscled, handsome, brown-eyed, with manicured stubble and a ready smile. I ask him how tall he is as I suspect the main football websites have his details wrong. “Six foot one?” he scoffs with a pearly flash of perfect teeth. “Put me down for six foot three.”

The light demeanour disappears at talk of his Glanford grief. “I was begging the gaffer to play me in the second leg so I could put it behind me,” he reveals.

Rotherham won the New York return with Scunthorpe and went on to clinch promotion to the Championship.

“I picked up an injury during the second game,” he continues. Then I got a second injury in the build-up to Wembley and had to miss the final.

“Not a lot of people know that I was injured and that's why I wasn't in the squad. They assume I was dropped.”

His second outing against the Iron lasted less than an hour and his season ended with him limping off in the 52nd minute, but his point had been made, his resolve underlined.

Out of calamity had come character. You can go under or you can fight.

Nowadays, Ihiekwe has even more incentive to keep proving himself. He and partner Rosie became parents earlier this year and their son is now eight months old.

“Having Abel has changed everything,” he says. “It's not about me anymore. I'm doing it for him. It focuses you on being the best you can possibly be.

“We moved from Liverpool to a house in Chesterfield a few weeks ago. It was for football and family reasons really. The journey to and from training takes me only 25 to 30 minutes now, which is obviously better than being stuck on the M62.

“I also get to see a lot more of Abel. He goes down at about 7pm and some days I wasn't getting home until 5-ish so I was getting to spend only a couple of hours with him.”

Abel and the family dog, Jackson

Warne, known to shed a tear or two now and then, jokes that the only person in the Millers camp to cry more than him was Ihiekwe around the time he became of a father.

The defender smiles: “I love being a dad. My time with Abel and Rosie is precious so it's good that I've got more of it now.

“I sometimes do things with the other players — we'll go out together for a Nando's or something — but generally I'm happy to just head home.

“I met Rosie when I was with Wolves. I was on a lads' holiday in Ibiza and was due to go home. She was staying in the same hotel as me and we were inseparable for the last two days.

“She's from London and she'd travel up to Wolverhampton every weekend so we could be together. I couldn't get to London because of the football.”

Their wedding is booked for next summer and it says something about the player's values that his best man will be one of the pals from way back with whom he spent a happy childhood chasing a ball in the street.

“I had a decent upbringing,” he says. “My mum and dad separated when we were younger. I'd get to see my dad at weekends and I was with my mum through the week.

“I was always out playing football with my mates. That's how I got into football. I just loved it. I'd be out all day and night. I'd be in the next road. My mum would shout me in for tea and then I'd be straight back out.

“I got spoiled a bit, my brothers always say!”

Those brothers are Uche, Lewis, Charles and Damon. 'Icky' is the youngest of the lot and it's a large family in more ways than one. “They're the same size as me,” he says. “Some are even bigger!”

He's chatty, open, friendly. We're enjoying each other's company and he laughs out loud as he tells me about the antics of his Boxer dog. He dotes on Rosie and Abel and two-and-a-half-year-old Jackson isn't far behind.

His trial by TV at Scunthorpe isn't the only Millers difficulty he's had to overcome. At the start of his second season, Rotherham were in the Championship but he found himself down the pecking order and staying in League One at unglamorous Accrington Stanley on loan.

“I really enjoyed it there,” he says. “They're a fantastic little club. The facilities weren't brilliant but the manager was good and the players were a great bunch.

“I'm not a snob when it comes to football. I had no problem going there. I'm not some bighead who thinks a move like that is beneath him. I've had numerous setbacks through my career and I've always come back stronger.

“I was impressed by how good the Accrington side was. I just wanted to play games and then come back and challenge for my place here.

“The gaffer here was excellent while I was there. He was watching all my clips and texting me regularly. That made me feel good. There are a lot of managers who wouldn't bother to stay in touch like that.

“I kept thinking of Rotherham and wishing I was playing for them in the Championship.”

He got his wish in February, forcing his way into Warne's team within a month of being recalled from Stanley. Since then, he has missed only one Millers league game and that was because of Abel's arrival.

His manager already anticipates Championship bids in the next transfer window.

The glitch of Glanford isn't forgotten, Yet it fuels Ihiekwe rather than haunts him.

The Roundwood mercury continues to rise on the hottest day of the year and the warmth of the man in front of me is a match for the 80-plus-degrees temperature.

But there's an inner hardness behind the big beam and the soft eyes.

“The gaffer makes all of the lads give a talk to the group. Yeah, you can imagine how much we all love doing them,” he grins.

“I spent all night before mine thinking what I was going to say. I thought about that Scunthorpe game. I talked about how the disappointments make you better if you respond to them in the right way.”

You can go under or you can fight.

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Q&A

Toughest opponent: I was going to say Kieffer Moore in training, but I'll go for one of the players in the Derby County side that beat us 6-1 at their place in the Championship last season. They were coming at us from all angles. I could pick any of their attacking players but Martyn Waghorn scored a hat-trick so I'll choose him.

Best player played with: There was a midfielder at Wolves at the same time as me called Jack Price. Little bloke, big beard. He's playing in America now. He just kept things simple and always found a man with his pass. It seemed like he could go all week in training without giving the ball away.

Best friend: Joseph Mulby. I've known him since we were kids. We grew up together. He's going to be my best man at my wedding.

Roommate: It was Jamie Proctor before he went out on loan. He's probably the person I'm closest to at the club. We've been good roommates for each other. We've both got littles ones at home so all we want to do on away trips is sleep!

Best trainer: In terms of quality, Wilesy (Ben Wiles) does some unbelievable things. If I'm judging it on effort, I'd go for Vass (Kyle Vassell). He really puts it in.

Funniest teammate: Dan (Barlaser) really makes me laugh. He's so dopey that he comes out with some great things. He's a bit like Jon Taylor was last season — he's at his funniest when he's not intending to be.

Best-dressed teammate: That's a tough one. No-one really steps up in that area. Carlton (Morris) does his thing pretty well.

Worst-dressed teammate: I'll have to give that one to Freddie (Ladapo). He has a man-bag he wears across his chest the whole time. We're always asking what he carries in it and he says 'Everything'. I think he's got his hand-cream in there.

Longest in the shower: Freddie. Maybe he's using everything in his man-bag!

Best moment: Winning promotion from League One in 2017. It wasn't the day itself because I didn't play, but I'd contributed because I'd played in plenty of games. I felt part of it, so that is the best overall feeling I've had.

Worst moment: I'd have to say the first leg of the play-off semi-final at Scunthorpe. Don't make me talk about it again!

Best quality: My missus says I'm a kind person so I'll go with that.

Biggest vice: I eat really healthily during the week, but after a game I can be a shambles. I'm not bothered about sweets but I love chocolate. All chocolate. Any chocolate. I really like Galaxy Smooth and the Reeses ones – you know, the peanut-butter things. I can make a right pig of myself on a Saturday night.

What would you be if you weren't a footballer? It would probably be something sporting. I have two different mates who run gyms. Something in that field might be an option. One of my brothers is a fireman. I could see myself doing that.

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JACKETT'S GUIDING HAND

A PEP-TALK from former Rotherham United manager Kenny Jackett helped kick-start Michael Ihiekwe's league career.

The defender was on Wolves' books after leaving Liverpool but his route to the first team was blocked by the likes of Richard Stearman and Danny Baath and he had never made a senior appearance.

The Midlands outfit were a League One side and Jackett, boss at Molineux at the time, pulled Ihiekwe, then aged 21, to one side.

The centre-half says: “I remember Kenny speaking to me in the January of the 2013/14 season and saying: 'You're good enough for this level but you haven't played any games.'

“He mentioned Wolves winger Michael Jacobs (now at Wigan Athletic). Michael was only a couple of years older than me but he'd played loads of matches.

“I took that as a hint that I wouldn't be getting a new contract at the end of the season and went out on loan to Cheltenham Town in League Two.

“It was great for me. You have to grow up quickly. It's nothing like playing under-23s football.”

Ihiekwe would go on to spend three seasons at Tranmere Rovers before moving to the Millers in 2017.

***************************************

CAREER STATS

Cheltenham Town

Jan to May 2014

League Two (on loan from Wolves)

13 games

 

Tranmere Rovers

2014-17

League Two and National League

123 games, five goals

 

Rotherham United

2017 to present

League One and Championship

57 games, three goals

 

Accrington Stanley

Aug 2018 to Jan 2019

League One (on loan from Rotherham)

23 games, one goal

 


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