Season preview: Rotherham United could be hot if Freddie fires

By Paul Davis | 06/08/2019

Season preview: Rotherham United could be hot if Freddie fires
Freddie Ladapo's famous signing-day pose

FREDDIE Ladapo didn't look too happy about it, but there was no doubt that Rotherham United were making a real statement of intent.

The striker had just been signed from Plymouth Argyle for an initial £400,000 fee potentially rising to £550,000 in add-ons and the Millers were setting a new club record to get their man.

Never before had the club spent so much on a single player. They might have just dropped out of the Championship, yet there was no relegation hangover. They were aiming to climb straight back.

Ladapo, famously, forgot to smile as he posed for his first photographs in red and white, staring sternly into the camera while manager Paul Warne beamed for the both of them.

The 26-year-old, scorer of 19 goals in his previous third-tier season with Argyle, has gone on to be one of the stand-out pre-season performers and is one of many reasons why Rotherham head into the new campaign with justified optimism.

“I think he's been really good,” Warne said. “Obviously, I had high expectations of him. I don't like to spend the chairman's money unnecessarily. We wanted someone to have an impact. He makes us a bit more dynamic.

“He works for the team in and out of possession, and that's crucial for us. Our centre-forwards don't just stand in the middle of the goal and wait for something to happen. They have to work hard.”

Freddie's finishing can be wilder than his haircut but the player, strong, quick, mobile, tricky and with a cut-inside side-step that leaves opponents for dead, thinks of nothing but taking on the shot.

He's the kind of forward the Millers have been lacking.

One of Rotherham's biggest battles will be against the pressure of expectation. The last time they came down from the second tier, two years ago, they had been a shambles but Warne still led them out of League One in his first full season in charge.

In 30 months permanently in the hot-seat, he has transformed the playing operation. Where once there was rancour, there is resolve; where once there were bad eggs, there is bonding; where once there was profligacy, there is planning.

The Millers in August 2019 start on a footing so much stronger than the one of August 2017.

Remember King Kieffer and the 5-0 win over Southend United early in the promotion season? It seems so long ago, it seems like yesterday. When Rotherham get on the front foot, Ladapo and company could be just as thrilling and impossible to contain.

Warne, with pace, power and size throughout his side, will be brave, bold and try to blitz teams with a 4-3-3 formation: the no-wing wonders.

“I like the system because it allows me to play more attacking players,” the boss said. “I've got a really good midfield and great attacking options.

“I haven't seen wide men out there who are good enough for me to want to bring them in and change the way we're playing. There's no point signing wingers if they aren't as good as my strikers and midfielders.”

Meanwhile, Ladapo's unblinking, poker-faced countenance on his first-day pictures hid the real truth.

“He's a lovely kid,” Warne said. “He smiles all the time. He's great to have around the place. He's confident. You could see that by the way he took and scored his penalty against West Brom.

“Every time he steps on to the pitch, he thinks he's going to score, which is fundamental for a good goalscorer.”

Ladapo isn't the only arrival to excite supporters. The nine players who have come through the door at New York, to replace 16 who have left since the end of last season, are the result of a talent-finding policy developed by Warne and then taken to another level by the appointments of recruitment duo Rob Scott and Chris Trotter.

Striker Carlton Morris, midfielders Dan Barlaser, Shaun MacDonald, right-back Matthew Olosunde and goalkeeper Daniel Iversen have made an impression, Jamie Lindsay should bring bite and goals to midfield while the most recent of the additions, left-back Trevor Clarke, may turn out to be the best athlete of them all.

Clark Robertson and Kyle Vassell have been the pick of the men left from last season, although midfielder Ben Wiles suddenly came good with a scintillating second-half showing against West Bromwich Albion ten days ago.

Robertson, as good as any left-sided centre-half I saw in the Championship, is doing what he's always done: quietly going about being excellent in all areas.

Frontman Vassell, curtailed by wing duties and injuries in his first Millers year, has been a close-season revelation, scoring regularly and outmuscling and outpacing every defence he has come up against.

If the Millers manage to keep him out of Salford City's clutches, they could have a League One menace on their hands.

The first hour of the 1-1 friendly draw against West Brom at AESSEAL New York Stadium when Rotherham repeatedly punched holes in a Championship defence showed what the 4-3-3 side are about:

Full of running and hard to stop up front, tenacious and easy on the eye in midfield.

“Generally, I've been pleased with how pre-season has gone,” Warne said. “I think the new signings have added to the group.

“There has been a massive turnaround of players. We've lost more than half of our squad. We're pretty diligent about who we sign. A lot of work goes into our recruitment.

“I'm not saying every signing will be perfect, because that is never the case, but I think the ones who have come in have shown a bit.

“The group dynamic is really good. I don't see any divide. There are no little cliques knocking about. They're a brilliant bunch. I love spending time with them.”

League One looks a tough competition. Sunderland have the budget, the stature and the fans while Portsmouth, under Kenny Jackett, will be organised, functional and difficult to penetrate.

Maybe this will be the season when Peterborough United finally play to their potential for a full campaign rather than for parts of it. Blackpool are rejuvenated by new owners, free from the shackles of the Oyston-family influence and have a canny, effective manager in Simon Grayson.

Ipswich Town boast big financial backing, an even bigger history and they've signed striker James Norwood, but they've been heading in the wrong direction for a while. A hunch — and it's only a hunch — tells me that of all the favourites they will be the ones to fail.

Promoted Lincoln City have the momentum Ipswich lack, a management duo who have brought them nothing but success and an owner prepared to put his hand in his pocket.

A push for the play-offs shouldn't be beyond a Millers squad who will be as fast and committed as any of their rivals and fitter than all of them.

They also have, among many good things, the fire of Freddie.

“Bringing him into the building as well as Carlton has increased the input of all the other strikers really,” Warne said.

“Vass has had a really good pre-season, Smudge (Michael Smith) is now coming good and I thought Proc (Jamie Proctor) was good the other night against West Brom. The five main strikers — the sixth, young JJ (Joshua Kayode), is a junior pro really — have all stepped up. If any of them get the ball you just think that something might happen. Their interplay is getting better. Hopefully that's a sign of good things to come. I know it's pre-season, and I'm not getting ahead of myself, but I think they are exciting to watch.”

If Rotherham click, Ladapo won't be the only one smiling this season.

 

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HUNTING FAR AND WIDE

THE search has been wide but the wide men haven't been there.

Rotherham United manager Paul Warne is turning his back on wingers this season in favour of a 4-3-3 formation

Strength in numbers up front, where six forwards are vying for starting roles, is partly behind his decision.

But the lack of quality flank options in the transfer market is also a major factor.

“I love playing with wingers,” said the boss who had four wide men in his squad last season. “The problem is, I can't get wingers in who are better than the players I have already got in the team.

“If I get a winger in then I am going to have to lose a striker. Are the ones I can get better than the striker? At the moment, no, they are not.

“In the same way, I have very good central midfielders and I can play a diamond or play 4-3-3.

“If I get a winger in, they have to be better than the midfielder I take out or the team is going to be weaker.”

Jon Taylor, Joe Newell, Ryan Williams and Anthony Forde departed AESSEAL New York Stadium in the off-season and haven't been replaced.

“All summer we have looked tirelessly for wingers who are better than the ones who have left or are at least as good as the ones who have left,” Warne said. The search has been pretty fruitless.

“Football is changing. I don't think there are as many wingers out there as there used to be. You can't go to Liverpool Under-21s and say 'Can I have your winger?' because their players don't want to cross it.

“Our new right-back, Matthew Olosunde, came from Manchester United and we have got to teach him how to cross the ball because he was never told to cross it. It was always pull-backs.

“I would like the option of wingers but they are a dying breed really.

“If I can get full-backs who are more attacking it might be I play a different way — not with wingers but with a 'crazy' full-back, so to speak.”


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