The Advertiser's Rotherham United Player of the Year

The Advertiser's Rotherham United Player of the Year

By Paul Davis | 25/07/2020

The Advertiser's Rotherham United Player of the Year
Michael Ihiekwe

THE WINNER:

MICHAEL IHIEKWE

38 appearances: 33 league, three FA Cup, two EFL Cup

HE signed a new contract, he enjoyed a spell as captain and he developed into the best centre-half in League One.

The 2019/20 season is the year Michael Ihiekwe truly came of age.

Rotherham United will be delighted one of their prize assets is tied to them until the summer of 2022 after the defender, now 27, extended his stay at AESSEAL New York Stadium in October.

Not only was he excellent this term, he was excellent in virtually every game. Having been the stand-out player in pre-season, he built on those high standards and just got better and better.

Already peerless on the ground and in his decision-making, he added a physical dimension and an aerial dominance to his game and was named in the League One writers’ Team of the Year.

No-one came close to getting the better of classy, confident, combative Icky as the Millers marched towards promotion to the Championship.

It wasn’t always so. It took him a season and a half to become an established first-choice pick after his summer 2017 arrival from Tranmere Rovers and he was sent out on loan to Accrington Town in a loan move that saw him return a bigger and better man.

This season, he missed only two League One matches this season, the 2-2 home draw against Fleetwood Town in December and the 3-1 defeat at Rochdale in the final game before coronavirus closed down the campaign.

Manager Paul Warne believes Ihiekwe becoming a dad in early 2019 was the real turning point in the player’s career.

“It made him grow up,” the boss said. “He knew he was playing for more than himself. He’s lived a perfect pro’s life since then.”

Getting changed in the cramped, draughty, portable-cabin dressing rooms at Accrington’s Wham Stadium seems a long time ago these days.

The Liverpudlian has recovered from the knee injury which would have kept him out of Rotherham’s run-in had Covid-19 not struck and now heads into the division where he and his talents belong.

Michael Ihiekwe is the Advertiser’s Rotherham United Player of the Season.

THE CONTENDERS:

DANIEL IVERSEN

38 appearances: 34 league, three FA Cup, one FA Cup

WITH his stilted English, piercing eyes and hulking frame, goalkeeper Daniel Iversen can come across like a baddie in a Rocky film at the club’s Roundwood training HQ.

A few minutes spent in the company of the 22-year-old Dane soon teaches you there’s a lovely, friendly lad behind the stern exterior.

Continuing the Rocky theme, the Leicester City loanee packed a real punch on the pitch in the Millers’ promotion campaign.

There was no better shot-stopper in League One while Iversen’s ability to get the better of opposing players in one-on-ones bordered on the freakish.

For a big man, he got down on the deck like lightning. There were a few rash positioning errors on crosses but the youngster proved himself more than ready for the step up in class after spending the previous year with League Two Oldham Athletic.

He missed only one league encounter — the 2-1 defeat at Doncaster Rovers when he was called up for international duty — and Rotherham will be hoping their rise to the Championship will see the Foxes allow him to spend a second season at AESSEAL New York Stadium.

Leicester see Iversen as the long-term successor to Kaspar Schmeichel. For now, him, the Millers and the second tier would be a good fit.

MATT CROOKS

39 appearances: 33 league, three FA Cup, two EFL Cup, one EFL Trophy

THE arm in the air, the tears, the number 25 on the vest as he peeled off his shirt at Lincoln City in front of a tumultuous away end.

Matt Crooks’ reaction to heading the winner at Lincoln City after the death of Jordan Sinnott was one of the images of the season.

It was the giant midfielder’s first goal since he’d been devastated by the passing of his closest friend aged just 25.

The character Crooks showed by playing through his heartache was a fitting tribute to Jordan who had been his best mate since they were together as kids at Huddersfield Town.

His 12 goals made him the joint-second-top scorer with centre-forward Michael Smith and included that sumptuous long-range lob during the 3-0 win at Gillingham.

Despite nursing a groin condition, he was absent for only two league games — and one of those was Peterborough United away when he learned of the Jordan tragedy only a few hours before kick-off.

Oxford United players still have nightmares about his 10/10 display at the Kassam Stadium as he destroyed the best footballing side in the division with a display of hard running and ball control as colossal as his 6ft 5in frame.

His immense contribution over the year was noticed everywhere. As with Ihiekwe, the League One journalists included him in their first 11.

DAN BARLASER

35 appearances: 27 league, three FA Cup, two EFL Cup, three EFL Trophy

EVEN the celebration oozed grace and style.

Dan Barlaser had just won the home match against Blackpool on New Year’s Day with a free-kick of Premier League quality and there was an easy poise about him as he ran to the corner of the North Stand and slid like a skater towards the corner flag.

This was the Barlaser who’d struggled to make an impact when he first arrived on loan from Newcastle City, remember.

By the end of the season, every Millers follower was clamouring for a second year of Dan the Man at New York. Time will tell on that one.

He became the best playmaker in League, the third tier’s most effective string-puller. “Our quarterback,” said Warne who loves all things NFL.

No-one had Barlaser’s vision, range of passing or deadly accuracy from set-pieces.

Maybe it will be the top flight for him next season, maybe it will be the Championship. He’s certainly proved himself too good for League One.

CHIEDOZIE OGBENE

29 appearances: 25 league, three FA Cup, one EFL Trophy

‘CHIEO, Chieo, Chieo.’

Millers supporters had a new chant once Chiedozie Ogbene got up to speed following his summer switch from Brentford.

The flying winger pulled his hamstring on his August debut and supporters had to wait until October before the new boy began to terrorise League One.

His speed was too much for the division handle while hard work on the training ground saw his crossing improve week by week.

Defender Matt Olosunde is really rapid so when Warne and assistant boss Richie Barker watched open-mouthed as Ogbene burned past the right-back at Roundwood they knew they had something special on their hands.

“He’s the fastest player I’ve ever seen,” Warne acknowledged.

The player, who has just turned 23, scored his first goal in senior football in the 3-0 home triumph over Bristol Rovers and turned several matches in Rotherham’s favour with his bullet raiding.

There have been plenty of promotion smiles in the Millers’ season of success.

But no-one has had a grin wider than the pace ace who has taken to Rotherham fans as much as Rotherham fans have taken to him.

FREDDIE LADAPO

39 appearances: 31 league, three FA Cup, two EFL Cup, three EFL Trophy

WHEN Freddie Ladapo’s sights were set, he knew how to pull the trigger.

The record signing’s 17 goals came in bursts: seven in six games during a purple patch through late November and all of December, five in seven in February before coronavirus meant no more football could be played.

The striker’s tally justified the initial £400,000 it took for Rotherham to acquire his services from Plymouth Argyle last summer.

However, the Londoner wasn’t always a first-choice selection while Warne’s men were closing in on promotion.

For every two appearances in the starting line-up there was one off the bench as he finished the season with 26 starts and 13 substitute outings.

Six of his goals came after he’d emerged from the bench. He bristled at the ‘super-sub’ tag yet what he did as a sub was beyond super when Warne selected Smith and Kyle Vassell ahead of him.

The stats state his case: in League One only Peterborough’s Ivan Toney ended the campaign with a better goals-per-minute ratio than the Rotherham hot-shot.

Other players made a bigger, all-round impact. But for Ladapo it was all about goals.

And no-one could fire like Freddie.




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