The Advertiser's Rotherham United Team of the Decade

The Advertiser's Rotherham United Team of the Decade

By Paul Davis | 31/12/2019

The Advertiser's Rotherham United Team of the Decade
First name on the teamsheet Lee Frecklington

THE two heroes of Wembley can’t get in the side.

Picking Rotherham United’s top 11 players of the last ten years was no easy task.

Apologies to centre-forward Alex Revell, scorer of two goals in the 2014 League One Play-off Final, one of them arguably the most memorable strike in the Millers’ history.

Sorry, too, to Richard Wood, the Wrecking Ball who repeated Revell’s two-goal feat four seasons later to take the club into the Championship.

At least Woody and Revs make it on to the bench.

It’s been a wonderful, rollercoaster decade for the Millers. They began it in League Two playing outside of the town. They ended it in League One and back where they belong, inside the town’s boundaries at the magnificent AESSEAL New York Stadium.

Between 2010 and the onset for 2020, there have been 11 managers, three promotions, two relegations, one survival miracle, highs, lows, ups, downs, joy, tears, ecstasy, agony.

It’s the good times that linger most.

To ease the process of selecting the players that best represent the era, we didn’t consider those who shone but only briefly. That ruled out loanees like Nouha Dicko and Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe.

So here you have it: in a 4-4-2 formation, the Advertiser’s Millers Team of the Decade.

 

Goalkeeper: LEE CAMP

David De Gea, Allison, Edersen ... not even those Premier League goalkeepers could have bettered one particular save Camp made during his time at Rotherham United.

Injury wrecked his second year at New York Stadium but it’s his first season, 2015/16, with the Millers that earns him his place in the Team of the Decade.

His shot-stopping was as good as any in the Championship — and he was tested plenty as Rotherham slipped towards the foot of the table under Steve Evans and then Neil Redfearn.

Neil Warnock took the hot-seat — and we all know what he inspired in the last three months of the campaign — and the veteran boss liked what he saw so much that he later signed Camp for Cardiff City.

Camp, who been stuck in AFC Bournemouth’s reserves before Evans brought him to South Yorkshire, played as big a part as anybody in the club’s amazing safety mission and his post-victory celebrations with fans became almost as big a part of his cult as his saves.

His performance in the 1-1 draw against Bristol City at heaving, hostile Ashton Gate when Robins boss Lee Johnston had whipped up the crowd with his pre-match comments was the best by a Rotherham keeper I have ever witnessed.

Camp himself rated one unbelievable first-half stop, when he somehow changed direction in mid-air to divert a close-range Aden Flint header away from goal, as the best of his career.

Quote: “I don’t know when it started, but I am getting a bit of stick from the lads. It’s become one of my superstitions.” On his after-match fist-pumps to supporters.

Sep 2015 to Jun 2017, 60 appearances.

 

Right-back: JAMES TAVERNIER

He couldn’t really defend, you know, but who cared?

Tavernier had just turned 22 when Evans brought him in on loan from Newcastle United.

Going forward, he was unstoppable, with lovely control and a silky change of direction that left opponents tackling thin air.

And, boy, could he shoot and take a set-piece! Two stunning long-range strikes, one from a free-kick, saw Rotherham beat Bristol City 2-1 in March 2014 as Evans’ side marched towards League One promotion.

He frustrated members of the Millers’ coaching staff, in training and in games, with his reluctance to embrace his defensive responsibilities but they all bowed to his attacking prowess.

Supporters were desperate for the club to sign him permanently but Wigan Athletic’s spending power told in the end.

Tavernier was class on the pitch and he showed a touch of quality off it when Rotherham played at the DW Stadium the following season.

Even though he was disappointed to have been only an unused Latics substitute, he made a point after the match of seeking out the Millers media officers to renew old acquaintance and shake hands.

Quote: “The fans have been terrific. I’d love to move to Rotherham.” Before Wigan made their move.

Nov 2013 to May 2014, 31 appearances, five goals.

 

 

Centre-half (right): SEMI AJAYI

Manager Paul Warne still smiles when he recalls how Ajayi acted when he first moved to Rotherham.

“He’s a lovely, shy, respectful kid,” the boss said at the time. “When I’m talking to him, he stands with his hands behind his back like he’s a kid at school.”

Ajayi has come a long way since arriving at New York as an unknown from Cardiff City at the start of 2017. He looked good in League One, proved himself in the Championship and now looks to be heading to the Premier League with new club West Bromwich Albion.

Warne has no doubt that the athletic 26-year-old he signed for free is good enough to play in the top flight.

The 6ft 5in centre-half has pace to burn and was a thrilling sight when he hit the accelerator as opponents tried and always failed to go past him on the right flank.

After ironing out the goal-costing ricks that blighted his early Millers career, he was always likely to hit the target himself.

The last sight of Semi Ajayi in Millers colours, at Bradford Park Avenue before his switch to West Brom

His scoring exploits when he moved into a central-midfield role in 2018 won him the Sky Bet Player of the Month Award and almost kept Warne’s side in the second tier.

At £1.4 million potentially rising beyond £2m, the fee he went for in the summer was decent. But not enough.

Quote: Yeah, I’ve heard it. Yeah, I like it.” On the fans’ ‘We’ve got a Semi on’ chant.

Jan 2017 to Jul 2019, 108 appearances, 13 goals.

 

Centre-half (left): KARI ARNASON

He was a prince on the field and a pauper off it.

Amid all the BMWs and Audis of his teammates, and the Porsches of Danny Ward and Kirk Broadfoot, King Kari would happily remove his kit from the boot of his old, battered Volvo in the car-park at Rotherham’s Roundwood training ground.

He had the physical presence required of a central defender yet the touch and vision of a ‘number 10’ and, like Ajayi, he could also do a job as a midfielder.

In fact, he could do more than a job in midfield. The Millers played at Premier League Swansea City in the League Cup in 2014 and ‘Arni’ was so good in that role that he would have fitted seamlessly into the Swans’ side.

He was another player brought in by Evans, from Aberdeen, and was a key man in the successive promotions from League Two and League One before establishing himself as a truly worthy Championship operator.

He finally left for Malmo FF and, at the age of 37, is still playing in his homeland, Iceland, having won more than 80 caps for his country and represented them at the World Cup and European Championships.

On international duty Arnason had to pit his wits against the likes of Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player he rated his toughest ever opponent.

No wonder he once described League Two as “carnage”.

Quote: “Let’s just say he had a unique way of doing things.” On Evans’ methods of managing.

Jun 2012 to Jun 2015, 130 appearances, five goals.

 

Left-back: JOE MATTOCK

Signed by Evans from Sheffield Wednesday in 2015, Mattock is now the club’s second-longest-serving player after Wood and has been a first-choice pick under every Rotherham boss he’s worked for.

He’s notoriously and engagingly absent-minded but his demeanour masks a sharp football brain. In team debriefs, his hand is one of the first to go up when the players are shown match footage and asked to comment on what’s right and what’s wrong.

“He just gets it,” says Warne.

Now, 29, Mattock has been a solid defender for the Millers over the years and has been comfortable in the Championship and in League One.

He is at his best going forward and more than once his manager has described him as the best crosser of a ball in the squad.

Joe Mattock

Warne has also famously said he would never have Dopey Joe in his quiz team, but here’s a question: can you name a better left-back in the third tier? No, me neither.

Quote: “I think it’s Painting by Numbers.” Head of player performance Ross Burbeary when Mattock couldn’t remember the name of the self-help book Warne had bought him for Christmas.

Jun 2015 to present, 177 appearances, three goals.

 

Right midfield: KIERAN AGARD

Agard was the winger who never put a cross in yet it didn’t matter.

Twenty-six goals in the 2013/14 League One promotion season under Evans saw to that.

Agard was actually a centre-forward but looked much more at home when he was switched out wide where his pace and work rate were an asset and his lack of touch wasn’t as much of an issue.

That muscular, pocket-sized figure bustling in on a diagonal run from the right and scuffing a scruffy shot into the net became a compelling, familiar sight as Rotherham went up via the play-offs.

Most of his goals weren’t things of beauty but they all counted

Evans had taken him from Yeovil Town and two years later the player opted to depart for Bristol City before he had had chance to discover whether he could cope at a higher level with the Millers.

From the Robins he went to MK Dons but has never enjoyed another season like his 26-goal coming of age at New York.

Quote: “I can’t understand why he hasn’t gone to Leeds. You could go to the deepest part of Africa and the people there would have heard of Leeds.” Evans when Agard chose to join Bristol City rather than move to Leeds United.

Jul 2012 to Aug 2014, 91 appearances, 32 goals.

 

Centre midfield: LEE FRECKLINGTON

Saturday April 27 2013, the day I genuinely feared for Frecklington’s life.

Rotherham were at home to Aldershot Town, leading 1-0 and seconds away from the victory that would guarantee promotion to League One.

Up popped the midfielder, scampering into the penalty area to latch on to Ben Pringle’s pass and coolly beat the Aldershot keeper.

2-0. Bedlam.

Frecks was engulfed, disappearing under the sheer weight of pitch-invading supporters on one of the best afternoons New York has ever witnessed.

Eventually, he emerged, sporting the red cheeks, tousled hair and cheeky grin that supporters loved in their midfielder who combined effort and ability in equal measure.

Promotion would follow again a season later when Frecklington, scandalously, was omitted from the League One Team of the Year. He ran the division, bossed it, scored 13 goals, made good opponents look foolish.

There would be many memorable outings in the Championship, more memorable strikes as well, before he left the club he loved for home-town team Lincoln City.

The second goal against Reading that kept Rotherham in the second tier under Evans in 2015, the winner against Middlesbrough as Neil Warnock led a survival miracle the season after ... moments that are forever in Millers folklore.

Frecklington. Legend. The first name on the teamsheet.

Quote: “I should be back on Saturday or, if not, for the match after that. Two weeks max.” The answer from a player who loathed missing games every time he was sidelined by injury. It was always ‘two weeks max’.

Oct 2012 to Jan 2018, 186 appearances, 34 goals.

 

Centre midfield: WILL VAULKS

That’s Captain Vaulks to you.

He and Frecklington have been bickering over the armband and it’s gone to Vaulks because he was prepared to argue for longer and wanted it that little bit more.

Vaulks’ first season at New York was a disaster. By the time he left for Cardiff two years later, his standing among fans was up there in the Frecks category.

He won the crowd by sheer dint of application, of will, of a desire to get the absolute best out of him and his team.

His huge throw, a bagful of goals in seasons two and three and his somersault celebration also helped.

Skipper Will Vaulks

Relegation from the Championship was followed by promotion to the Championship which was followed by a failed but heroic attempt to stay up.

Vaulks fought every battle, won every midfield header, gave no ground, scored with screamers and sent one long pass a game straight into the stand whichever division he was in.

There was more to him than just football. He’d played for nothing while making his way in the game, done the hard yards, learned about sacrifice, developed an understanding of life.

His association with children’s hospice Bluebell Wood earned him acclaim he never asked for.

He was a credit to himself, a credit to his profession, a credit to his club.

A leader. The skipper. That’s Captain Vaulks to you.

Quote: “The Rotherham United lads link arms and I picture it’s all of us going to war. Like the old Pals Brigades, mates all joining up together. In my head, it’s me and my teammates doing that.” On the minute’s silence before Remembrance Day fixtures.

Jul 2016 to Jun 2019, 137 appearances, 17 goals.

 

Left midfield: BEN PRINGLE

“Wow, what a noise this is. Kari Arnason with a throw just by the corner flag, right-hand side. He spears the ball towards the head of Craig Morgan. Now Pringle. Oh, what a goal! What a goal for Ben Pringle!”

Pringle was lighting up the 2-1 League Cup derby win over Sheffield Wednesday in 2013 and radio commentator Paul Walker was capturing it perfectly.

That was arguably the best moment for Pringle in his four-year stay with the Millers during which time he won back-to-back promotions from League Two to the Championship.

The 2013/14 League One Team of the Year selection process may have missed out Frecklington but it didn’t ignore Prings whose deadly delivery from the left played a huge part in Rotherham going up.

If you wanted a winger who could beat an opponent on the outside then Pringle wasn’t your man, but his accuracy when the ball was at his feet was something else. There can be few, if any, Millers who have ever crossed a ball so well.

Pringle hadn’t been a first-team regular after his switch from Derby County. New boss Evans spotted that wand of a left foot the first time he watched training and the rest is history.

Sadly, the player’s time at Rotherham ended sourly, with him feeling he was being forced out when the club tried to broker a deal with Millwall. Soon after, he moved, of his own accord, to Fulham.

That August 6 strike against the Owls was voted Millers Goal of the Season. As Walker shouted into his microphone at the time: “You don’t stop those.”

Quote: “Andy Scott signed me. He sold me the dream but my for some reason I wasn’t his cup of tea and it was the worst time in my career. I played virtually every match when Steve Evans was the manager.” On his turnaround in his fortunes when boss Scott was sacked.

Jun 2011 to Jun 2015, 168 appearances, 22 goals.

 

Striker: ADAM LE FONDRE

One-hundred-and-five games, 58 goals. End of the argument.

Forty-one came from 2010 onwards, after he’d struck 17 times in 24 games in 2009 after his August arrival from Rochdale.

There were 30 in 52 appearances in his first season. Tewnty four in 49 outings followed in the campaign after. He bagged four in six in 2011/12 before Reading paid £300,000 to sign maybe the most natural finisher in the Millers’ history.

If the ball reached Le Fondre in the box it usually found its way into the net.

He went on to be a regular scorer for Reading in the Championship and memorably scored 14 goals in 37 appearances in 2012/13 when they were in the Premier League even though he started many of his games on the bench.

Now 33, he’s playing in Australia and showing he’s lost none of his old knack: ten goals in nine games for Sydney FC.

Rotherham fans took his initials and affectionately nicknamed him Alf, which soon became Alfie. For years after his departure there were calls on social media for the Millers to bring Alfie back.

Quote: “Alfie? I taught him everything he knows. He’d have been nothing without me.” Warne, scorer of 67 goals in 540 games in his career as an attacker, who was a Millers teammate of Le Fondre.

Aug 2009 to Aug 2011, 105 appearances, 58 goals.

 

Striker: MICHAEL SMITH

It took Warne 34 minutes to decide he wanted to sign the big frontman playing for the other side.

Smith came on as a substitute for Bury in the 60th minute at AESSEAL New York Stadium in September 2017 and in the half-hour plus four minutes of stoppage time that followed he gave the Rotherham defence a right old going-over even though his team lost 3-2.

Four months later, the Geordie was a Miller.

He did nothing on his January 13 2018 debut in a 1-1 draw at Oldham Athletic after his transfer from Bury. After that, he was a sensation as Warne’s men marched into the Championship.

He was even better the next season in the second tier even though he couldn’t buy a foul. You don’t get many decisions at that level when you play for little Rotherham.

Michael Smith ... brought in on a free!

Referees appeared to dislike him almost as much as opposition defenders being taken to their physical limits hated playing against him.

This term, he hasn’t always been in favour with Warne back in League One but no-one forgets what has gone before.

If you want goals you turn to Alfie. If you want a targetman with a great touch, strength and mobility who will run all game then Smith’s your man.

And the Millers got him on a free!

The bargain of the decade.

Quote: “It is really difficult to keep performing week in and week out, but he’s doing it. He wants to do well for everybody. I’m not saying he is selfless because everyone has to look after themselves to a degree but he is really unselfish.” Warne marvels at the striker’s Championship form last season.

Jan 2018 to present, 95 appearances, 20 goals.

* Stats for Mattock and Smith up to and including the match with Fleetwood Town.

 

Substitutes: Marek Rodak, Craig Morgan, Richard Wood, Richie Smallwood, Jon Taylor, Danny Ward, Alex Revell.

 

Manager: PAUL WARNE

Evans won two promotions and kept Rotherham in the Championship in his final full season. If his behaviour was questionable at times, his achievements certainly weren’t.

Warnock was the 12-week survival messiah — ‘the knackered messiah’ he dubbed himself after too many trips from his Devon farmhouse.

But it is Warne who gets the vote for the way he has transformed the club’s playing structure since he became boss three years ago.

Championship relegation in his first half-season wasn’t his fault and he took the Millers back up at the first attempt.

His side came agonisingly close to surviving last year despite the second tier’s smallest budget and they are among the League One play-off contenders as they head into the new decade.

Planning and preparation is meticulous and any visitor to the Roundwood training complex sees evidence of good standards everywhere.

Gone are the days of a signing every other week. Under Warne, the Millers have created a deeply-ingrained identity marked by decency, desire and respect.

They know who they are, what they are, what they want to become.

Quote: “Paul knows his chairman is happy with what he’s doing and the relationship works for both of us. There is transparency both ways. I don’t think I could ever fall out with him. We work very well together. Having had nine managers before, I can say that Paul is the most intelligent, the most attentive and has the best way of getting information over to me.”  Rotherham owner Tony Stewart has no complaints.



TEN GREAT MOMENTS

(In chronological order)

1: Aug 2012 ... Returning to Rotherham and the newly-built New York Stadium after a four-year exile from the town at Don Valley Stadium.

2: Apr 2013 ... Lee Frecklington is buried by a fans avalanche as he secures promotion to League One against Aldershot Town at New York.

3: May 2014 ... The Millers beat Preston North End in the League One play-off semi-final second leg. Many supporters still say it is the best New York atmosphere they have ever experienced.

4: May 2014 ... Alex Revell is ambitious but brilliant as his wonder-goal helps Rotherham win the League One Play-off Final at Wembley.

5: Apr 2015 ... The Millers secure their Championship safety with a 2-1 home victory over Reading. Manager Steve Evans taunts striker Lee Gregory of rivals Millwall who are heading for the drop. ‘Rotherham have no bottle,’ Gregory had said. ‘I’ll be drinking bottles of pink champagne,’ responds Evans, his face far pinker than the bubbly as he wears his tie round his head on the West Stand balcony.

6: Mar 2016 ... Millers 3 Derby 3. From 3-0 down. In the last few minutes. Leon Best at the back post. After Rams head coach Darren Wassall is seen laughing and joking with a Derby contingent in the West Stand during the second half.

7: Apr 2016 ... MK Dons 0 Millers 4. Rotherham’s second-tier survival is all but assured at Stadium MK. Even Kirk Broadfoot scores and 3,000 travelling supporters are having a party where Neil Warnock is the main guest.

8: Feb 2018 ... Joe Newell goes sliding into the arms of a pitch-invading fan as he wins the New York derby against Doncaster Rovers 2-1 with a 102nd-minute penalty.

9: May 2018 ... Richard Wood is magic as he notches twice at Wembley and the Millers win promotion in the League One Play-off Final for the second time in four years.

10: December 2019 ... Solihull Moors 3 Millers 4. Rotherham are staring FA Cup humiliation in the face when they’re 3-0 down in the 76th minute at a non-league ground. Fifteen minutes and four goals later they’re in the third round.