MATT Crooks wasn’t mincing his words.
“I was terrible, wasn’t I?” he said.
He was talking about his start to the season.
One of the reasons Rotherham United have real hopes of Championship survival is that their giant midfielder is terrible no longer.
Crooks is back to the form that saw him chosen by his fellow professionals for the League One Team of the Year in last’s season’s promotion march.
He’s been pushed further forward in support of striker Michael Smith and the goals are flowing: four in the last five league games before last night’s trip to Middlesbrough for ‘Smudge’, three in the last four for his new partner.
“I really enjoy the attacking role,” Crooks said. “Last time in the Champ two years ago, I did it then towards the end of the season and got some joy from it.
“I feel I’m not as restricted in where I can go and I can take up different positions to try to get on the ball. I can run in behind when someone is holding it up.”
Heading into their Boro encounter at the Riverside Stadium, the Millers had taken four points from their previous two matches.
They played superbly in a 1-0 win at Derby County and a 3-3 home draw with Stoke City to prove they are capable of winning their fight for second-tier survival.
“We have got to take confidence from those games,” said Crooks who was one of the Rotherham players to test positive for coronavirus in December.
“Even in the games prior to that we have performed well and just not picked up the results. We have got to stick together as a group of lads and believe in ourselves
“We have a good opportunity to stay in this league and consolidate our status. If we continue to show the form we have against Derby and Stoke, it bodes well for the rest of the campaign.”
In the old days, Crooks would have fretted about his early-season blip but the tragic death of his best friend, Jordan Sinnott, 12 months ago has given him a new outlook on life.
“I have changed quite a bit over the past year,” he said. “Although not playing well was frustrating me, I was a bit more relaxed about it.
“Previously, I would have gone home and probably been over-thinking it. Now when I get home I focus on my family and put other things to the back of my mind.
“I’m pleased with my contribution now. I don’t know why I wasn’t at my best. Sometimes you just have those dips in form. I had to play my way through it.
“I had a few chats with the staff and was probably beating myself up a little bit. I kept working hard in training and trying to have an effect in games.
“I’ve come out of quarantine, cheered up a bit and played a bit better.”
The midfield man netted twice against the Potters last Tuesday but, with the country in lockdown and his missus, Ashleigh, heavily pregnant, there were no wild celebrations at his Barnsley home on his 27th birthday the following day.
“Just a few balloons,” he grinned. “There is not much you can do at the moment, is there?
“The balloons were already up anyway. We’ve still got them from (son) Eliás’s birthday in December. He likes them so we kept them.
“Ash is eight months pregnant, so she couldn’t pull too much out of the bag.”
Ironically, Crooks pinpoints an FA Cup tie as the day which has boosted league optimism more than any other.
The Millers took top-flight Everton to extra time in a January 9 third-round contest and a famous upset was on the cards before they lost 2-1 at Goodison Park.
“We have got to take confidence from every game we perform well in and that was against Premier League opposition,” he said.
“It showed all the lads — especially the younger ones who have not played against teams like that before — that they can compete at Championship level.”
After last week’s blank weekend, now the matches come thick and fast: a Saturday-midweek-Saturday schedule for seven consecutive weeks until March 20; 15 matches in 50 days.
Crooks can’t wait for the physical test, even though he knows it will take its toll on his six-foot-foot-five-inch frame.
“I prefer it when it is just games all the time,” he said. “You don’t want to be a footballer as a kid to train every week. You want to play games — the more games, the better.”
He’s relishing his alliance with Smith. Two big men. Two big, hard-working men. Two big, hard-working, hard-running men.
Anything but terrible.
Crooks might have been blowing hard when he was inflating Eliás’s birthday balloons but he was even more out of breath in pre-season.
He became the first ever Miller to break the five-minute barrier in the individual mile challenge manager Paul Warne sets all his players annually at their Roundwood training complex.
“I gave it a right go and did four minutes 54 seconds,” he said. “It was up the hill at the end and I was going for it like Mo Farah. I just collapsed at the end.
“We were a long time in the first lockdown and I was doing 5k runs every day. It was mind-numbing but I just had to do something and I made that mile my target.”
The teammate nearest to him at just over five minutes?