FOUR promotion heroes graced the screen: Dan Barlaser, Michael Smith, Jamie Lindsay and Matt Crooks.
Rotherham United’s online party last month was 50 minutes old and the celebrations over the rise to the Championship were in full swing.
Smudge and Crooksy were both sporting floppy red hats. Crooksy was also draped in a ‘going up’ flag and had his League One runners-up medal hanging round his neck.
The midfield maestro nicknamed ‘Laser’, back with parent side Newcastle United after a stunning season-long loan with the Millers, was simply sporting a bemused look.
Host for the evening was the BBC’s Rob Staton who was asking the questions in the Zoom show that was being streamed live to supporters on YouTube.
“You’re going back to your home-town club, Newcastle, and hoping to break into their Premier League team, which is totally understandable,” Staton said. “But if there is a chance to go out on loan again at any point would you be happy to come back to Rotherham United?’
There was a delicious pause before Barlaser finally piped up in his lilting North East burr: “Is that one for me?”
Lovely Laser. Lovely, talented, dopey Dan.
Few loanees have ever made the impression the 23-year-old Geordie did on and off the pitch during his stay at AESSEAL New York Stadium.
By the time the campaign was cut short by coronavirus in March, he had proved himself a playmaker without equal in League One.
In the beginning, when his form stuttered, fans doubted him. In the end, they adored him. He returned to St James’ Park an adopted Miller.
Barlaser was brave. Not full-on ‘Richard Wood ‘Wrecking Ball’ kind of courageous but the sort of player who was prepared to show for the ball anywhere, any time in any circumstances.
Paul Warne always loved him, even though the manager was wary about early crowd restlessness affecting the former England youth international. It never did. Barlaser had the ‘cojones’ to match his class.
Ironically, the one Miller with arguably less chance of making the boss’s quiz team than left-back Joe Mattock was always the cleverest operator on the pitch.
He spotted things faster than anybody, saw things other players didn’t see, had answers while the opposition were still thinking of questions. Everything seemed to slow down for him because he was so quick in his mind.
“He makes us tick,” said American-football fan Warne, before using an NFL term to underline his point. “We wouldn’t be the same team without him. He’s our quarterback.”
Barlaser enjoyed Rotherham as much as Rotherham enjoyed him. “On a personal level it’s the best year in my career and I am leaving a better person and player,” he told his Instagram followers. “I would like to thank the fans for the amazing support. You have stuck with us through thick and thin.”
He wasn’t actually daft at all; he just had a wonderful knack for saying things that made him seem that way. Every player had a ‘Dan’ story to tell and the poll for ‘Funniest Teammate’ was a near-unanimous vote. There were echoes of Jon Taylor about him in the way he was at his most laughter-provoking when he wasn’t intending to be.
Having watched the Elton John biopic, Rocketman, he unwittingly had the dressing room in uproar as he rushed to tell them about the movie he’d just seen featuring singer John Legend.
Meanwhile, back to the Zoom promotion party, once Barlaser had at last twigged that a Zoom question containing the words ‘Newcastle’, ‘Rotherham’ and ‘loan’ was indeed meant for him, he gave an encouraging answer.
“Yes, of course I’d be happy to come back,” he said. “It was brilliant at Rotherham. It was a tricky start, for everyone really.
“I was in and out of the team but I got in about October time and kicked on from there. We went on a run and got to the top of the league. I loved every minute of it.”
Millers supporters, looking forward to being back in the Championship, would welcome him with open arms, but much will depend on what happens at Newcastle over the summer.
Gateshead-born Barlaser’s priority is to make a name for himself with the Magpies, where he has 12 months left on his contract, and there is more chance of that happening if a long-anticipated takeover doesn’t go through and boss Steve Bruce remains in charge.
Bruce, whose job would be in peril if a consortium backed by Saudi money bought control from Mike Ashley, has pledged to include the midfield man in his senior set-up.
“I’ve never seen Barlaser play – he’s had good reports down in Rotherham – so let’s give him the opportunity to come and train with the players and be a part of us going forward,” the manager said.
The player headed back to the North East last month and reports reach me that he has been looking good in Magpies training.
I didn’t notice it at the time, but there was no Millers promotion medal round Barlaser’s neck during the online festivities. He finally received his last weekend when striker Michael Smith, a fellow Geordie, picked it up from New York and drove it up the A1 to him.
That slow-burn start to life in South Yorkshire seems an age ago now. The midfielder wasn’t pleased when he was left out of the starting line-up but sulking wasn’t his style and he and fellow midfielder Shaun MacDonald were regular, good-natured opponents of Warne in post-training sessions of head tennis where the boss and coach Matt Hamshaw were the top-dog double act.
Away from the action, he was a fairly gentle soul. He drove into Roundwood from the Sheffield apartment he shared with his girlfriend and was softly-spoken and engaging company, far more expressive in private than when the press-conference microphones and cameras were on him.
On the field, Barlaser’s football did all the talking.
When journalists got together to make their selections just after the onset of the March lockdown he was named in League One’s shadow Team of the Year and would surely have been picked for the main side had the season gone on to its proper conclusion and he’d had nine more games in which to showcase his gifts.
He was lethal with a deal-ball delivery: not just dangerous but consistently dangerous, and a major reason why Rotherham had the best set-piece record in the division.
There were so many moments of control, of vision, of pure quality: the 60-yard ‘diags’ that constantly switched play, corner after corner that landed right on the money, the prompting, the probing, the ball out to Kyle Vassell that ended in Matt Crooks’ unforgettable winner at Lincoln City, the pass of the season away to Coventry City that parted the defence like the Sky Blue sea.
Perhaps best of all was that late, long-range, free-kick winner at home to Blackpool on New Year’s Day that scorched into the net and had Rotherham shooting up the table with similar velocity.