IT was more than a holiday romance.
After six weeks in Magaluf, Matt Crooks flew to Las Vegas to continue what seemed like a never-ending summer of sun.
Five days later, he was back in the Spanish island of Majorca’s most infamous resort. Vegas with the lads had been brilliant but Ashleigh wasn’t there. Ashleigh was in Magaluf and Crooks had a yearning to be back with the woman he’d spent much of his off season chasing.
“She was working there, at Daiquiri’s in the bar on the front,” recalls the Rotherham United midfielder about his partner and mother of his young son, Eliás.
That was in 2015 and the 26-year-old, who was a youngster with Accrington Stanley at the time, adds: “I was out there for, like, six weeks on holiday.
“My grandma has got a place there. It’s about 20 minutes outside Magaluf but every day I’d go in because my mates were all there. Ash worked there and I was ‘grafting’ her for about three or four weeks.
“I went to Vegas for five days — it was a good summer! — with Wardy (former Millers striker Danny Ward) and a few other mates and when I was there I decided I liked her enough to book a flight back to Magaluf after Vegas.
“We spent some more time together and here we are five years later.”
The pair of us are talking in January at Rotherham’s Roundwood training complex. I nod knowingly when he talks about ‘grafting’ yet I have no idea what it means in this context and make a mental note to check when the interview is over.
It’s around 9am and manager Paul Warne is holding court in the background with his staff, Richie Barker, Matt Hamshaw and Andy Warrington, the day before his League One side would beat Bristol Rovers 3-0.”
“What are you doing here?” enquires the boss, used to seeing me bowl through the doors on a Monday (Richard Wood column), Tuesday (I often find a reason) and Thursday (press conference) but rarely on a Friday.
First-team rehabilitator/masseuse Matt Lowndes has copped for the tea round and he asks if I fancy a brew. Analyst Matt Neil is buried in his laptop and is far too busy for beverages.
Crooks’ brown eyes are warm and twinkling and he possesses a sense of humour that manages to be sharp and gentle at the same time as he talks about his early days and making his way in the game in Huddersfield Town’s youth set-up.
All was going well until the day epilepsy first reared its head and his pals feared he was close to death.
“I first had it when I was 18,” he recounts cheerily. “I’d been on a night out. I keep talking about going on about holidays and now I’m on a night out.
“There was me and two of my Huddersfield under-21 teammates. I was staying over at the flat of one of them and took a seizure in bed around eight o’clock in the morning.
“I was unconscious. It was scary for the other two. They were screaming down the hallway for help. My mate, Max, said to me afterwards that he thought I was dying.
“On the Tuesday I went in for an under-21s fixture and just mentioned it in passing because I didn’t think it was a big thing at the time. I was a bit blasé about it. That’s when I went to see a neurologist.”
Around ten seizures in the next six months confirmed it was, actually, a big thing.
“They had to find out what medication I could take because not every kind of medication suits a footballer,” Crooks says. “They got the right kind for me, Keppra, and then it was a case of finding the right dosage. You don’t want to have too much but you need to take enough to keep you on a level. I’m still on medication now. I’ll be on it for the rest of my life.
“If I have a bad performance I sometimes blame the medication but, in all honesty, it has been fine. It’s caused me absolutely no problems.
“It says it can make you get angry quicker but I’m a pretty relaxed guy and I’ve had no side-effects from it. I had my last seizure when I was at Rangers. I’ve been good since then.”
January 2019 saw the former Manchester United trainee joining the Millers after 18 months at Northampton Town, which had been preceded by his release by Huddersfield, a breakthrough spell at the club he refers to as ‘Accy’ and a dream move that went wrong to Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers in 2017.
2020 finds him living with Ashleigh, Eliás and three-year-old husky dog Lily in the village of Shafton just outside Barnsley.
“I moved to Huddersfield from Leeds when I was five and lived there until I moved to Accy when I was 20,” he says. “I lived with my dad. My mum and dad split up when I was quite young. It was me, my dad and my older sister, Chloe.
“My mum has always been in my life. She lives in Beighton near Sheffield. She’s got her own new family now. I’ve got three little half-brothers through her and her husband.
Lily the Husky
“She likes her odd names does my mum. My sister’s middle name is Margherita. Like the pizza. I’m Matthew Davidson Rider. My aeldest half-brother is Darci Yul and the others are Marley Zane and Jarvey Lewis.”
Crooks’ Magaluf romance continued to blossom in less picturesque climes: a shabby Accrington home being shared by a quartet of players who didn’t know their dusters from their dishcloths.
“Ash is from Northampton,” he says. “It was nice for her when I was playing there because she was close to her family. We’d been in Scotland and different places before then.
“It was a little bit of a long-distance relationship at first. She came back to Northampton after I left Magaluf. I was in Accrington and she would come up to the house I was living in. There was me, a 6ft 7in Irish goalkeeper called Jason Mooney, Shay McCartan who’s at Bradford City now and Josh Windass.
“She got a swift introduction to football life. The house was awful. The ceiling was falling down and all sorts. The kitchen would be absolutely covered in plates and cooking stuff when she came up on a Tuesday and by the time she left on Thursday it was spotless. When I moved to Rangers, she came up with me.”
At Roundwood, breakfast TV is blaring from the wall and Crooks’ teammates are arriving in dribs and drabs for training as he talks about the special spirit Warne has fostered.
Jamie Lindsay wanders in and puts his hand on his fellow midfielder’s shoulder in a silent show of support. Soon afterwards, striker Michael Smith does the same.
Something unspoken is going on and I later learn there has been a bereavement on Ashleigh’s side of the family.
Crooks’ dad, David, and mum, Sharon, are deaf and he tells me about that. He sniffs now and then and sounds like he’s on the brink of catching a cold but that’s just how he speaks.
I’m enjoying his company. He’s open and intelligent and laughs at himself for coming across like a holiday freak as various other foreign jaunts crop up.
“I don’t actually know how my mum and dad met,” he confesses. “I’ve never asked that question. I’m assuming it was at a deaf club. They have them up and down the country. The deaf community is massive and they all intermingle and get to know each other.
“Being brought up by deaf parents just seemed normal to me. I don’t know what it’s like to have parents who can hear. I could ask you what it’s like being brought up by hearing parents. You’d say normal because you don’t know anything different.
“It was a quiet house. My dad could shout and make noises. He couldn’t speak but he could certainly shout. I knew when he was mad with me!
Eliás supporting his dad at New York Stadium
“He wasn’t very good at cooking. That was his only down side. His favourite was baked beans on toast. When I was younger I’d have a kebab on a Friday night, which wasn’t great pre-match preparation!”
Crooks’ half-brothers are also deaf and the player uses sign language to communicate. “I don’t know it all,” he says. “I know enough to get me by. My sister is better than me. She’s a qualified interpreter now. She’s done her level six.
“I see a lot of my sister. She also lives in Beighton. My half-brothers are all quite young — in their teenage years or at primary school. It’s easier now because I don’t live far away. I see quite a bit of them.”
He turns up in casual grey joggers and changes into his training gear before we chat. He’s big, really big, his 6ft 5in physique as towering as the contribution he has made to the Millers during his 14 months at AESSEAL New York Stadium.
I tease him about the topless photos of him playing table tennis with striker Michael Smith during the pre-season tour to Germany and he bites.
“It was boiling in that room,” he protests. “I was absolutely roasting! Smudge absolutely smoked me. It was awful. I thought I was decent until I played him.
“Fitness and diet is a big thing for me, especially when it comes towards summer. I like to look good in my trunks!”
We’re back on holidays again but fatherhood has seen him curb his wanderlust. Last summer there was just a family break in Portugal and two other brief trips
“It was Wardy’s stag do,” he says. “I went to Ibiza with them. Woody was also there. I went to Benidorm as well. That was another stag do. I do like my holidays. You have to, don’t you? You have to enjoy life.”
Elias turned one in December and Crooks says: “That’s gone so fast. He was born on December 17 and about two weeks later I signed for Rotherham. It was a busy time! I love being a dad. It’s class.
The Advertiser's Paul Davis asks the questions
“I just love going to the play gyms, having a coffee and letting Eliás play. It’s cool. I go to Woody’s play centre when he’s working there on the players’ day off. I say: ‘Any chance of a free cake?’ To be fair, he has given me a few free coffees.
“I like to walk my dog but my missus has been on at me about that, saying I don’t do it enough. Lily gets a good run-out now and again. She’s perfect with the little one. He loves her to bits. He’s always trying to grab her tail or bite her fluff or just generally annoy her. She deals with him really well.
“I’m a chilled-out family man these days. There’s nowt crazy going on. There’s no six weeks in Magaluf anymore!”
Ah, the place to where Crooks flew across the Atlantic Ocean to be with the woman he was falling for.
“The breeding ground of love was Magaluf!” he cringes. “When we get round to telling Eliás we’ll have to think of a more romantic version.”
Training is calling and it’s time for him to head outside in his red Guardian top, black shorts, white socks and white trainers.
When he’s gone, I remember to google ‘grafting’ and discover it means to work very hard to chat someone up.
Appropriately, it comes from a TV programme the title of which perfectly encapsulates what Majorca, Magaluf, a 6,000-mile detour and Ashleigh mean to him.
MATT Crooks has revealed how the brother of assistant manager Richie Barker played a part in his move to Rotherham United.
The midfielder was playing for League Two Northampton Town at Forest Green Rovers in December 2018 and his talent was spotted by Chris Barker who was working for Rovers at the time.
Chris was tragically found dead, aged 39, in January this year.
Crooks recalls: “Richie’s brother was at the game and rang Richie and said: ‘You’ll like him.’
“I think there had been a bit of Rotherham interest in me the summer before but I don’t think they were quite sure. It’s quite poignant that the move came about partly because of Richie’s brother. Things went from there.”
The Millers were in the Championship at the time and made their move in the January transfer window the following month.
“The Rotherham staff came to a game themselves,” Crooks says. “We were playing Bristol Rovers at home and my agent told me Rotherham would be watching.
“They’d already left by the time I scored but I’d done well enough for them to want me. I was definitely keen on the move. I’d gone from (Glasgow) Rangers to Northampton and it hadn’t gone how I wanted it to.
“We got relegated that year. I wanted to prove that I could play at a good level and Rotherham gave me that chance.”
Crooks made his mark in the final few months of the campaign as the Millers slipped out of the second tier and has played so well a division lower this term in the promotion push that he is a contender for the League One Team of the Year.
The midfield man knew former Millers players Danny Ward and Richard O’Donnell and asked them for tips before he met manager Paul Warne face to face.
“The first Rotherham person I spoke to was the gaffer when the deal was pretty much done,” he says. “We spoke on the phone and he said he wanted to meet me.
“I met him at Aston Hall Hotel near my mum’s place. He was absolutely fine. I’d spoken to Wardy and Richard so I already knew he was into his good human beings.
“I was on my best behaviour, pretending to be something I wasn’t for an hour! We had a good chat and he told me to go away and think about it. I thought that was strange at the time because I was going from League Two to the Championship and there wasn’t much to think about.”
More than a year on, the player has no regrets.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” he says. “It’s been the best spell of my career. Accy (Accrington Stanley) was good — I had a great time there — but this has been better, definitely.”
MATT Crooks plans to go from hot-shot to healer when he finally hangs up his boots.
The midfielder who has scored 11 times for Rotherham United this season plans to remain in the sport but has no ambitions to be a manager or move into coaching.
"I want to be a football physio," he says. "Everyone looks at me odd when I say that because they work crazy hours and there is a lot of studying. It's a four-year course at Salford University. I've looked into it.
"I want to stay in football but I can't see me being a coach and management looks too stressful. When you're a physio you can be one of the lads still. I can't see myself working outside of football.
"I did all right at school. I got nine GCSEs - fours As, four Bs and a C. I didn't mind school. I'd be happy to embrace the studying, I think.
"I say that now. Ask me a few years down the line! I like my holidays, though. Maybe I could be a holiday rep for Saga when I get older!"
Best player ever played with: I didn't actually play with him at Rangers because I hardly played there but I trained with him - Niko Kranjcar. Technically, he was unbelievable. In 11-a-sides he wasn't as good because he couldn't get around the pitch as much but in five-a-sides he was so good it was a disgrace.
Toughest opponent: That's a hard one. I can't think of anyone who stands out. I didn't play against Aston Villa at home last season. I was watching. John McGinn was unbelievable for them that night. They had ten men and he made it seem like 12. That's the best individual performance I've seen against one of my teams.
Favourite ground: Old Trafford. I'm a Manchester United fan. I've never played there. blew a chance to play against United when I was at Accy (Accrington Stanley) on loan. We had an FA Cup second-round replay at Yeovil Town. I've missed from about two yards out. That was to go through and play United. Have a look at that miss on YouTube. It's terrible. I go down to head it and I don't know what I've done.
Roommate: Smudge (Michael Smith). He's all right, yeah. I got stuck with him so I've to say he's all right. He's says I snore. He deals with it well. My missus says I snore as well so I can't deny it.
Best trainer: Woody (Richard Wood). I like Woody so I'll say him.
Best-dressed teammate: Icky (Michael Ihiekwe). He's got bit of both. He can do cool casual and he can dress up as well. I like his gear.
Worst-dressed teammate: Pricey (Lewis Price). Proper dad clobber.
Funniest teammate: Dan Barlaser. He doesn't mean to be funny. He's so dopey. Is he more dopey than Joe Mattock? Joe's not actually that dopey. He's cleverer than people think. I think Joe is quite switched on. It's just that sometimes he says a daft thing. Dan is proper dopey. He just starts singing 'What a Difference a Day Makes' out of nowhere. Just that one line. He makes me laugh.
Grumpiest teammate: Ooh, tough one. I'm going to say Vass (Kyle Vassell) because he complains the most during training.
Messiest teammate: I'd probably get a few votes. I'm not great in the 'neat and tidy' department, to be honest.
Longest in the shower: Vass likes a long shower. He preens himself.
Scoring at Gillingham
Best ever goal: The long-range chip at Gillingham earlier this season. But I'm a bit worried about Goal of the Season because Vass has scored a couple of crackers. Best goal I've ever scored and I don't know if I'll win it. I said to Vass after he'd scored that cracker against Hull City: 'Do you reckon that beats mine?' He just nodded. It depends what you like. If you like power and hit and hope then it's Vass. If you got good taste and go for aesthetic quality you'll go for mine!
Best quality: Ooh, another tough one. I think because I'm pretty chilled out I'm quite approachable. I don't get too irate or anything. I'm just a nice lad.
Biggest vice: Same as 'best quality'! It works both ways.
Best friend: I've got a few. There's Duane Holmes at Derby County and Jordan Sinnott who used to be at Chesterfield. He's at Matlock Town now. They were both in my youth team at Huddersfield. They've been my mates for years.
* A week after this interview Jordan died after an incident in Retford. Two men have been charged with manslaughter.
Millers teammates most likely to stay in touch with in the future: Jamie (Lindsay), Smudge and Woody. I've got on well with Jamie since he came here and the other two are good lads.
Best moment in football: Getting the move to (Glasgow)Rangers. That was a big thing for me. I'd been released by Huddersfield Town the year before and then gone to Accy. My goal that season with Accy was to be as fit as I could be and the best player I could be. It was nice to know it had worked. I got injured in the March and had already signed a pre-contract with Rangers. I was out for six months so when I got up there so it didn't start well for me. Then they got a new manager, a Mexican guy called Pedro Caixinha. I was in Magaluf and he texted me and said: 'Can I speak to you?' While I was in Magaluf he rang me and said: 'You're not in my plans for next season.' He'd never seen me train, never seen me play, because I'd been injured. I had three years left on my contract. It was a case of: 'Do I stay and wait it out and be a nobody for however long he's in charge or do I go and play footie somewhere?' I decided to leave.
Worst moment in football: Being relegated with Northampton Town. We had a good team. There was Matt Grimes and Lewis McGugan, myself, Chris Long. I just feel we let ourselves and the club down. The team were more than capable of doing something decent but it just didn't click.
Nickname: Tree. That was Jordan Sinnott when I was at Huddersfield. He started calling it me in the under-21s and it just stuck. I quite like it.
Favourite holiday destination: I can't say Magaluf. I'll go for Vegas. That was a good lads' holiday. It was unbelievable. If I got to the Premier League. 100 per cent I'd have a holiday home abroad. Maybe not in Magaluf but somewhere hot. I've thought about going and living a abroad fora year when I finish playing football to see what it's like. Maybe in Majorca. I love Majorca. It's beautiful. There are so many things to do and I think the lifestyle there suits who I am as a person.
Favourite band: I like all sorts. I've got a very eclectic taste when it comes to music. I can be listening to UK grime and then the next minute it can be something totally different.
Favourite TV programme: I've been watching You on Netflix. Netflix is the thing now. TV is kind of old-fashioned, innit? I've watched a couple of Spanish things which were decent.
Most memorable game: When I scored a hat-trick against Macclesfield Town for Northampton in 2018.
Career if hadn't become a footballer: My old answer would have been I'd have gone into the Army or Royal Marines. But I wouldn't be allowed in because of my epilepsy. I think I'd have done something sporty. I'd have become a gym instructor or something like that. I did all right at school, though, so I reckon my grandma would have pushed me to do a bit more. She was a big influence on my education.
Jul 2011 to Nov 2014
1 appearance, 0 goals
Hartlepool United (loan)
Oct 2014 to Nov 2014
3 appearances, 0 goals
Nov 2014 to Jul 2016
53 appearances, 8 goals
Jul 2016 to Jul 2017
3 appearances, 0 goals
Scunthorpe United (loan)
Jan 2017 to Jun 2017
12 appearances, 3 goals
Jul 2017 to Jan 2019
57 appearances, 10 goals
Jan 2019 to present
55 appearances, 14 goals