MICHAEL Smith could only look on in envy as Dan Barlaser celebrated his stunning strike in Rotherham United’s last League One match.
Everyone remembers Smudge when he headed the 97th-minute winner at Shrewsbury Town on Boxing Day: the demented run followed by the world’s worst ever knee slide.
The Millers striker hit the deck, travelled about six inches then toppled forwards and almost headbutted the corner flag as he came to a sudden, jerking halt far sooner than he expected.
Compare that with Barlaser at AESSEAL New York Stadium on New Year’s Day when the midfielder’s sumptuous 85th-minute free-kick clinched the contest against Blackpool and lifted Paul Warne’s side into an automatic-promotion place.
There was the same ecstatic dash but the ensuing knee slide into the corner was a thing of beauty. Barlaser seemed to glide across the turf forever before finishing off with a theatrical, arms-raised turn that allowed him to embrace his chasing teammates.
The poet in motion. Everything Barlaser does right now is touched with class.
After a slowish start to his season-long loan with the Millers, the Newcastle United youngster has flourished and contributed as much as any player to the club’s rise to second spot.
“He’s done really well,” said manager Warne. “I’m really pleased with him. The fans probably hadn’t seen the best of him until recently because I chopped and changed my midfield quite a lot.
“Sometimes a player just needs a good run in the team to really settle in. He’s had that run and he looks really good.”
Barlaser’s ability was evident from the day he arrived from St James’ Park although his languid style didn’t find favour with some supporters who wanted to see the ball moved more quickly.
The 22-year-old has the best range of passing at the club and the coolest head in possession. Even when the pressure of spectators is on him not once does he look to hurry his next move.
Whether it’s establishing himself in the side or picking the right option, the Geordie is a player who won’t be rushed.
“Not being in the team for a couple of games made me want to work harder and get back in,” he said. “I don’t want to leave the team now.
“I’m living in Sheffield with my girlfriend and it’s been absolutely brilliant being with Rotherham. All the people at the club and most of the fans have been unbelievable.”
Earlier in the season, he wasn’t happy at being on the bench but never sulked.
He would team up with fellow midfielder Shaun MacDonald and challenge his manager and coach Matt Hamshaw to a game of head tennis after training.
Former player Warne takes his head tennis very seriously, treating these contests as his cup final, and he and Hamshaw, another ex-pro, have formed a formidable duo.
“You’re both in the side on Saturday if you reach double figures,” Warne would joke from across the net. Barlaser and MacDonald always seemed to lose 15-9.
His July signing was a coup for Warne. The youngster had played for Turkey at youth level through his father’s ancestry before switching his allegiance to England and making the under-18 set-up.
The Magpies thought enough of him to tie him to a new contract before letting him leave for South Yorkshire.
The season before, he’d played 44 third-tier games on loan at Accrington Stanley, so I contacted several journalists whose sides had competed in League One that year.
“One of the best players at that level,” came back the verdict. “The quality of his passing is a joke.”
He’d been one of Rotherham’s priority summer targets and the Millers feared they would lose him to a Championship team until a meeting with Newcastle loan manager Shola Ameobi sealed the deal.
“We went and visited a club to sell the dream really and to present to them how we play and how it would help us and their player if Dan came on board,” Warne said.
Barlaser has been a regular starter since early November, missing only the home defeat against Rochdale, and has found his true form in a five-match unbeaten run which culminated in three straight victories over an extremely merry Christmas and happy new year.
He controlled all three of those encounters, pulling strings and pulling apart Shrewsbury Town, Peterborough United and Blackpool with passing and delivery at corners and free-kicks that few players in the division can equal.
Warne, a fan of American football and describing the loanee as his “quarter-back”, said: “He makes us tick. If you took him out of the team we wouldn’t be the same team.
“He switches the play really well. He allows Chieo (winger Chiedozie Ogbene) to get on the ball in dangerous areas. He’s unbelievable on set-pieces.”
Barlaser’s ambitions are clear: “I want to score as many goals as I can and create as many goals as I can.”
Last time out in the league, against the Seasiders, he set up the opener with a corner that hung wonderfully at the perfect height throughout its flight straight on to Smith’s head before leaving goalkeeper Mark Howard clutching at nothing but forlorn hope with a 25-yard, Ronaldo-esque free-kick.
“I’ve been practising getting a ‘dip’ ball’,” the player said. “I try to get it to wobble a bit.”
Warne enthused: “He came up with one of those crazy ones that no players of my generation can hit.”
Smudge, realising his limitations, made no attempt at a knee slide of any kind after either goal.
After another eye-catching display in the FA Cup clash against Hull City last weekend, Barlaser is a certain starter tomorrow when Rotherham look to underline their top-two credentials at fourth-placed Oxford United.
“I feel very confident about us staying up there,” he said. “A couple of sides have got a game in hand on us but if we go to Oxford and get a result we will be putting down a big statement to all the other teams that we can, hopefully, push for first place.
“After the Rochdale game, we just wanted to get back to playing like ourselves. In that game we weren’t good enough.
“We were unlucky to draw at Southend United in the next match. We had enough chances to win the game. It was the same when we drew against Fleetwood Town at home. The last three games, the lads have been superb and we’ve deserved to win all three.”
“I think Blackpool was our best New York performance this season. We had countless chances to win the game. Blackpool knocked the ball off the line twice and at every set-piece we looked like we were going to score.”
It took the midfield man time to convince the crowd but Barlaser had little trouble winning over everyone in the Millers camp.
He’s not the greatest public talker and the purveyor of some of the longest passing in League One is also the supplier of some of the shortest answers in interviews. However, away from the limelight he’s engaging, softly-spoken company and a popular figure at the club’s Roundwood training base where his knack of saying daft things generates laughs he’s not expecting.
“He is one of the nicest kids in the world,” Warne said. “He’s the only player who brought in a bottle of wine for the staff at Christmas. One between around ten of us is a bit stingy but it was better than anyone else’s contribution!”
The onset of the January transfer window has brought concern of a Magpies recall and Barlaser plying his trade somewhere else but he nailed that fear with the precision of one of his set-plays.
“Am I staying? Definitely,” he said. “I’m here on a season-long loan. What’s the point in leaving when we’re second in the league and pushing for promotion?
“Promotion would be an unbelievable thing to have on my CV. I’m staying here. Unless Barcelona come in for me!”
His sublime strike versus Blackpool was his second goal of the season, coming after the opportunist, second-half tap-in that launched the Millers’ comeback from 2-0 down to 3-2 victors at MK Dons on November 23.
Players of Barlaser’s talent and languorous way of playing can sometimes look like they’re too casual, that they’re not trying, that somehow they’re not giving as much as their teammates.
But his reaction to scoring at Stadium MK, so different to that graceful sweep across the New York pitch against the Seasiders, spoke differently about his will to win.
He grabbed the ball, gave a manic fist pump to away fans in a call for solidarity and raced straight back to the centre circle.
It matters to him all right.
DEADLY DAN'S LAST THREE LEAGUE RATINGS
Shrewsbury A, 2-1 win, Boxing Day:
Bossed the contest. Great range of passing and showed vision and composure. Possibly his best game for Rotherham. The Millers look a more dangerous side when he’s on set-pieces.
Peterborough H, 4-0 win, December 29:
Getting better and more influential with every game. The boy can play. The best passer at the club and his set-piece delivery is a huge asset.
Blackpool H, 2-1 win, New Year’s Day:
Absolute class. Ran the game, pass, pass, pass, made an assist, scored a wonder-winner and provided one deadly set-piece after another. Brilliant.
3 sub appearances