All he’s known since the age of nine is life with Rotherham United ... now Jacob Gratton is seeking a new challenge elsewhere

All he’s known since the age of nine is life with Rotherham United ... now Jacob Gratton is seeking a new challenge elsewhere

By Paul Davis | 05/06/2022

All he’s known since the age of nine is life  with Rotherham United ... now Jacob Gratton is seeking a new challenge elsewhere
Jacob Gratton in action against Manchester City Under-21s in the Papa John's Trophy

FROM a distance, they looked like a couple of sixth-formers from nearby Wickersley School.

Wearing shorts and trainers and carrying a football between them, they squeezed themselves through the narrow entrance next to the locked car-park gates at Sorby Way Playing Fields.

Closer inspection revealed it was young Rotherham United duo Ben Wiles and Jacob Gratton.

It was last summer and they were about to have a kickabout two days before the Millers reported back for training.

Wiles was already an established first-teamer. Gratton, three years younger, was hoping to follow in his pal’s footsteps.

I was out running and stopped to chat to the pair. ‘Gratts’ talked about giving everything he had in pre-season and seeing where it took him ... hopefully into Paul Warne’s matchday 18.

A kid with a dream.

Twelve months and two frustrating National League North loans later, the 20-year-old is looking for a fresh start after being released by the club he’d been at since he was nine.

“I’d had an inkling about what was going to happen for a while so it wasn’t a big shock when the news came,” he says. “It’s disappointing but I’ve always dealt with setbacks all right. I think I’ll be okay

“Back in August I went out on loan to Guiseley. I went there primarily as a striker but it didn’t really go as I wanted it to. I didn’t play up front at all. ‘Number 10’ is my other favoured position and I didn’t play there much either.

“They struggled and they ended up going down. The league table doesn’t lie so that shows you what kind of loan that was.

“On the back of that move, my hands were tied in January. A lot of teams look at statistics and because I hadn’t scored many goals I ended up going to Farsley. They were a great club but they finished only one place above Guiseley.

“As an attacking player, going to the bottom two teams in the league ... you’re not going to get as many chances to score and you’re not going to get the ball high enough up the pitch. It was just a catalogue of little things going against me.”

Gratton is from good Thurcroft stock — a family of staunch Millers — and still lives with dad Paul, mum Samantha and sister Isabel.

He had an AESSEAL New York Stadium season ticket from the age of ten to 16 but won’t dwell on missing out with his boyhood team.

“Once you go full-time, there are two sides to it,” he says. “You have your ‘fan’ head and you have your ‘work’ head and you kind of separate them. I want a career in football and that’s it. I have to look at it like that.

“I’ll go to New York and watch Rotherham when I can. However, my main priority now is playing for someone else. I want to do well for myself.”

There was no League One opening as Warne’s side closed in on promotion but two dates will live with him forever: September 7 2021 when he made his senior debut as a substitute in a 6-0 Papa John’s Trophy win at Doncaster Rovers and October 26 which brought a start in the same competition as Rotherham saw off Manchester City Under-21s 5-0.

“It wasn’t just big for me, it was big for my family,” he says. “My dad loved seeing me put on a Rotherham shirt. No-one can ever take it away from me. I was absolutely on top of the world when I made my debut.”

Back to that late-June day at Sorby Way ... around an hour later, coming towards the end of my run, I found myself circling the football pitches again.

The kickabout had grown. Gratton and Wiles had been joined by a host of other players including Josh Kayode and Matt Olosunde, even though the latter had just left the Millers and would soon be moving to Preston North End.

They were just young lads doing something they loved. The optimism of youth was tangible.

Gratts had joined the professional ranks the previous year after his quick feet, even quicker thinking and eye for a goal had made him a stand-out prospect

His first season as a pro had been ruined by cruciate-knee-ligament surgery but he’d won the respect of everyone in the Rotherham camp with the way in which he’d attacked his rehabilitation.

Now he was completely over that and scampering around with the best of them.

“A good attitude is just part of my make-up,” he says. “It’s partly down to my upbringing. When I was coming through the academy, my dad always said to me: ‘Everyone can have a bad game but don’t ever let someone out-run you or work harder than you.’

With the Millers as a boy

“I’ve always kept that with me. It’s a big part of my game. One of my biggest assets is my energy.”

I interviewed him last week and he was a credit to himself and how he was raised: mature, friendly, accommodating, looking himself in the eye just as much as he was me.

“I’ve got to take some responsibility myself,” he reflects on his loans. “They weren’t the right moves for me but in some games I didn’t take as many chances as I should have done.”

The bad news he’d been expecting came last month, a couple of weeks after Rotherham had sealed their place in the Championship with that famous triumph at Gillingham.

“I’d messaged one of the coaching staff just asking what the situation was,” he says. “It had been left a bit late because we didn’t go up until the last day. They wanted to wait and see what division they were in before deciding which players they were keeping.

“I got in touch because I wanted to give myself as much time as possible to try to sort myself out.”

Coach Matt Hamshaw, the man who had helped guide the player through the youth ranks, phoned back.

Gratton recalls: “He just said to me: ‘Look, we’re not going to offer you a new deal. I think it’s for the best.’

“I agreed with him. Hammy and the rest of the management have always been brilliant with me.

“I had that big injury in my first year and in my second I didn’t think I was moving forward. I was out on loan, it wasn’t going so well and there weren’t reserve games at Rotherham anymore that I could go back and play in.

“I need to go somewhere where I can break through and show what I can do. I know I’ve got ability; it’s time to make a name for myself out there.

“I think it will be non-league team I go to. I could try to wriggle my way into a League Two club but I’ve got to be realistic ... am I going to play?

“I might be better than someone who has played 50/100 league games but they’ve played those games and I haven’t. Who of the two are the League Two club going to sign?”

For Gratton, it’s less of an end, more of a new beginning.

“The short-term focus is just getting some confidence back and playing well,” he says. “My ambition is to be a Football League player, definitely.”

A year older, a year wiser, but still that same kid with a dream.

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SYSTEM TROUBLE

ATTACKER Jacob Gratton is looking for  a club where he can flourish in his natural position.

“The system at Rotherham, 3-5-2, I wasn’t suited to it,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I would have played anywhere I was asked, but in that formation the management started looking at me more as a wing-back.

“I don’t think I was good enough in that role at Rotherham, to be honest.

“And with the players they have in those positions, I would never have been good enough.

“I know it was only youth-team football, but I’ve always played my best football as a ‘number 10’ where I can run from deep and have a bit of freedom.”

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BEST TO COME

THE talent of former Rotherham United youngster Jacob Gratton has never been in doubt yet the player acknowledges he has yet to show his true worth in the pro ranks.

“I need to get some confidence back,” he said. ‘I had two not-so-great loan spells but it’s not like I’ve lost my ability.

“In training I’d do stuff and Hammy would say: ‘Why aren’t you doing that in games?’ I think it’s to do with the mental side of things.

“I need to get out to a place where I’m going to play and get back to scoring some goals and performing well again.”

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MATT HAMSHAW ON GRATTS

“We really expected a lot of Gratts. I hope he goes on to have a successful career. His injury came at just the wrong time.

“He’d been brilliant in the youth team and had been here since he was nine. He’s Rotherham United through and through, as his family are. He’s a really nice kid who would do anything to help anybody.

“He did his rehab unbelievably well. He was really driven. His loans probably haven’t worked out as well as he would have liked.

“However, whenever I saw him he was always running around giving his all. He’s got more quality than he’s sometimes produced on a matchday.

“It’s just about having that confidence and getting the right home for him. Not that he hasn’t been looked after here. He just needs somewhere where he can go and play consistently.”

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HAMSHAW ON ONE OF THE WORST DAYS OF THE YEAR

COACH Matt Hamshaw has spoken of the pain the Rotherham United management feel when they have to break the news to players that they’re being released.

At the end of their League One promotion campaign, the Millers decided against offering six members of their set-up new deals.

Along with Jacob Gratton, Joe Mattock, Mickel Miller, Angus MacDonald, Freddie Ladapo and Jake Cooper were all told they were free to find new clubs.

“It’s not a nice thing to have to do. It’s one of the worst days of the year for us all,” said Hamshaw, who works with the first team but also retains close links with the youth operation where he was first employed after hanging up his boots.

“You’ve got Joe who’d been here since before we took over. He’d been there for us all the time, as we had been for him. He’d helped us to build the culture we’ve developed.

“Then there’s Gratts who was the last one to come through. We want him to go and succeed. We’ll ring around and try to get him a club.

“It’s not like that at every club. At some you just get dismissed, as I found out during my playing career. We’re not like that here.”