IT should have been an easy decision but Paul Warne was suddenly finding it harder than he expected.
There is only one skipper at Rotherham United, Richard Wood, and the 34-year-old was returning from injury and due to lead out the side against Blackpool on New Year’s Day.
Yet manager Warne had mixed feelings as he prepared to hand his old Wembley warrior the captaincy again.
Michael Ihiekwe had led the Millers so well in Wood’s six-week absence that they had climbed from tenth to third spot in League One.
“I love Woody — everyone knows how much I love Woody — but I felt a bit harsh taking the captaincy off Icky,” Warne says.
“Obviously, Woody is the dinosaur captain and has the respect of everyone. That’s why he’s been skipper ever since Frecks (Lee Frecklington) left and long may that continue.
“I wouldn’t say it killed me but I did think Icky deserved to have the armband.”
Ihiekwe, so smooth in possession as Wood’s partner at the heart of the backline, just carried on with his job of being an inspiration, an organiser, a blocker, a battler, a set-piece threat and defensive rock.
The Scouser has been the Millers’ most impressive performer this season as Warne’s team have turned themselves into one of the favourites for automatic promotion.
However, it hasn’t always been so for the centre-half signed from non-league Tranmere Rovers in the summer of 2017.
His first season ended with him holding his head in his hands in the play-off semi-final when he gifted Scunthorpe United a goal and missing out on the final when Wood scored twice to become a legend and earn Rotherham a place in the Championship.
His second started with him unable to make the starting 11 and heading out of AESSEAL New York Stadium.
“He went to Accrington Stanley,” Warne says. “Loans can be good for players.
“People think that if players go out on loan that’s the end of them at their parent club and, don’t get me wrong, certain players are sent out on loan because their clubs want them to go and play somewhere else as they have no chance of playing a part for them.
“But I never felt that about Icky. I signed Icky. He was my choice. I just felt that he’d lost his focus a little bit, as harsh as that might sound.
“He went to Accrington, did really well, had loads of clubs after him, then came back to us in the January and proved himself in the second half of last season. He looked a different bloke.”
Icky to Accy worked out for everybody.
Now he’s a fixture in the Millers side, arguably the best central defender in the third tier and certain to start at home to Burton Albion this weekend.
“I know this sounds really cheesy but he left as a boy and came back as a man,” Warne says. “He had a kid last season. That definitely changed him.
“He’s a really rounded, great person. I really, really like Icky. He’s one of those I’d sit and have a coffee with for a few hours. He wouldn’t want to have one with me, obviously!
“He’s really improved on the pitch. The way he looks after himself — his diet, his sleep, everything — is perfect. I think the penny’s dropped with him about what he needs to do.”
The man who took the head role from Ihiekwe appreciates what the 26-year-old has to offer more than anyone.
Together, they’ve helped make Rotherham one of the meanest teams in the division and Wood says: “I can be more ‘front foot’ because I know he is going to clean up anything in behind.
“He’s quick. We work well together. Our communication is good. We’re both quite loud.
“We’re close off the pitch. I get on with him really well. He’s got a young son and I have two boys. The dad thing is always a good bond. Dads stick together!”
Ihiekwe with Rosie and Abel
Speed tests show that Ihiekwe is the second fastest defender after right-back Matt Olosunde who is second overall in the Rotherham pace rankings topped by flying winger Chiedozie Ogbene.
Warne acted with equal sharpness earlier this term by rewarding him with a contract taking him to 2022 and is delighted to have kept hold of a player he believes is only just approaching his peak.
“Sometimes, when you’re 22, 23 or so you think you’re going to play forever because playing is all you’ve ever done,” the boss says
“When you get to 24, 25, 26 you have kids and wise up a bit. Then you have that stage between 26 and 30 where you play the best football of your career.”
Life could hardly be better for the centre-half who is settled in Chesterfield with fiancee Rosie, one-year-old son Abel and the family’s pet boxer dog, Jackson.
He’s popular with fans who have nicknamed him ‘Big Dave’ in preference to trying to pronounce his surname and he’s getting married in the summer.
He’s also totally wedded to the idea of reaching the Championship before he ties the knot.
“Player for player, we probably have a better squad now than we did the last time we got promoted,” Ihiekwe says. “That’s despite the fact that we lost a few big personalities in the summer.”
“We’ve brought in great quality and brilliant characters. Competition for places is arguably the best it’s ever been so we’re in a good place.
“We don’t spend too much time looking at the league table. Our aim is just to carry on performing to the best of our abilities. We back ourselves because we believe that we’re one of the fittest teams in the division.”
Warne, meanwhile, is still waxing lyrical: “From pre-season onwards I’ve hardly seen him put a foot wrong. I joked to him the other day: ‘Look, you can have a few blunders now and you’re still way in credit.’
“He is, for me, by far the stand-out player for us this season. If he doesn’t win all the end-of-season accolades I’ll be cancelling all future awards dinners.
Jackson the Boxer dog
“My coaching staff send me stats all the time showing he’s won the most headers in the division and made the most tackles and interceptions. He’s top of virtually everything. We’re definitely a better team with him in it.”
By the way, in case you’re wondering, if it’s not Big Dave it’s ‘Ih-hek-way’.
The player says: “We’re not looking too far ahead. We can’t afford to do that.”
But what is required between now and the end of the campaign isn’t lost on anyone.
Warne and I are talking in the manager’s office at Roundwood two days before last Saturday’s trip to Peterborough United.
As I leave, Big Dave happens to be arriving for training. He’s full of smiles and bright-eyed greetings but he looks imposing; hard, strong, mean, lean.
Assurance radiates from him. It can’t be touched or felt but is definitely there.
He walks in, past a flip chart bearing a message, hammered out in black marker pen in Warne’s distinctive scrawl, that had formed the bedrock of the boss’s address at a team meeting earlier that week.
18 massive efforts left.
No-one is set to make a greater contribution than Ihiekwe, a leader with or without the armband.
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