TEMPERS frayed in the away dressing room at the City of Cardiff Stadium.
Rotherham United had just suffered a last-day relegation, having come within six minutes of securing Championship survival.
A late Cardiff City equaliser on May 8, 2021 had done for them. Now, bonded by their effort and misery, players and staff were exchanging handshakes.
Except Freddie Ladapo. The striker — unhappy he’d been kept on the bench until time was almost up — refused to acknowledge any offered hand.
A couple of his teammates verbally dug him out over his attitude. A third was ready to make it physical.
Not for the first time, and not for the last, Ladapo found himself out of step with the Millers’ sense of unity.
He exited the club last week at the end of his three-year contract. Rotherham could have exercised their option to extend his deal by 12 months and hold out for a transfer fee but opted instead for a quick, clean break rather than a messy divorce.
He’d played a part in two League One promotions worth around £15 million to them. They’d had their money’s worth from their £400,000 investment in him: 41 goals in 123 outings. It was the right call.
Ladapo’s disquiet had lingered from Cardiff into this term and his tipping point came in late September when he was left on the bench as the Millers beat AFC Wimbledon 3-0 at AEESEAL New York Stadium.
That night he decided his Millers time was coming to an end and submitted his request as soon as the January transfer window opened.
He just wanted to be happy, to feel appreciated.
It begs the question, can a likeable but complex character be happy anywhere if he couldn’t find contentment under a manager with the sense of decency that Paul Warne brings to the job?
Going public with his transfer request within a few days of making it helped no-one, least of all the 29-year-old himself, especially when he found himself still a Millers player come February.
Maybe he regrets it now. I suspect he doesn’t but I don’t know for certain as my text to him asking for an interview has gone unanswered.
His stay in South Yorkshire was far from all bad: 17 goals in his first year, 15 in his third, that rampaging 97th-minute derby winner against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough in his second.
It was the Goal of the Season, one of the goals of any season.
And there was another strike in the victory at the home of the Owls on February 13 this year, a day before Valentine’s Day as the love affair between club and centre-forward briefly threatened to re-ignite following the stand-off of a month earlier.
Even then, though, something still wasn’t right. Check out the stilted manner of his celebration. It was almost as if he was an unwillingly participant in his own success.
Whatever his issues, Ladapo was never a disruptive presence in training where he went quietly and diligently about his business. Several people in the Millers camp have talked of his love of the game and desire to better himself.
Back in 2019, he’d been keen to come to Rotherham who paid the biggest fee in their history to lure him from Plymouth Argyle. Some players shy away from an expensive price tag but Ladapo wanted to be the record signing and thrived on the kudos that came with it.
That mindset makes him the player he is and the problem he can be.
His last action came as a 38th-minute substitute at Burton Albion on April 19 when It looked like his heart was elsewhere, just as it had at home to Charlton Athletic and at Portsmouth in his two previous matches.
Warne made a tough call, one of the bravest of his managerial career. He removed a proven scorer from a squad struggling for form and told him his presence wasn’t required in the dressing room on matchdays.
Exile sent out the right message: either you’re in it or you’re completely out of it.
It lifted the Millers, who took seven points from their last three games and went up without the need for their second-top marksman.
That day in Cardiff, when confronted by a fellow player, Ladapo chose not to fight.
In a different context, 12 months later, he made a similar decision when the Millers’ promotion bid was wobbling. Only he truly knows why.
After two League One promotions, after all the goals, after Hillsborough, especially after Hillsborough, he should be leaving New York as a legend.
Instead he leaves as an outcast.
2021/22 (League One):
31 league appearances, two FA Cup, one League Cup, seven Papa John’s Trophy. 15 goals.
42 league apps, one League Cup. Nine goals.
2019/20 (League One):
32 league apps, three FA Cup, two League Cup, three Papa John’s Trophy. 17 goals.
COACH MATT HAMSHAW'S VIEW
“The train has come to the end of the track on this one. Some of the timings of his decisions haven’t been great, but then again we’ve all made mistakes, haven’t we?
“He might not even think it’s a mistake. Looking back, he might think he should have handled the situation in a different way.
“You can’t take away what he’s done for the club. He’s a good kid and he’s been fantastic for us. He’s scored a good number of goals; some important goals. If the ball is in or around the box you always fancy him.
“And I do think he’s improved during the time he’s been with us. He’s worked hard on his game. He takes time to watch his clips and learn from them.
“I know people might have an opinion on him because of what’s gone on, but they haven’t seen him in training. He’s dedicated to his craft, dedicated to trying to be better every day.
“We wish him well. There are no hard feelings from our end — he might say something different but there genuinely aren’t.”
OWLS FAILED WITH LOAN SWOOP
SHEFFIELD Wednesday made a late bid to sign Rotherham United hot-shot Freddie Ladapo in the last transfer window, the Advertiser can reveal.
The 15-goal striker was seeking to leave the Millers and derby rivals the Owls made their move as the January 31 deadline approached.
They wanted to sign Ladapo on loan until the end of the season but Rotherham had no interest in allowing one of their players to go to a fellow League One promotion contender on a temporary basis.
A second club, from Scotland, also made an enquiry.
Ladapo ended up staying at AESSEAL New York Stadium until the end of the season and has now been released by the Millers.