The breaking of the bond ... how and why Michael Smith and Michael Ihiekwe gave up their Rotherham United reputations to join Sheffield Wednesday

The breaking of the bond ... how and why Michael Smith and Michael Ihiekwe gave up their Rotherham United reputations to join Sheffield Wednesday

By Paul Davis | 01/07/2022

The breaking of the bond ... how and why Michael Smith and Michael Ihiekwe gave up their Rotherham United reputations to join Sheffield Wednesday
Michael Smith

THE blue-and-white shirts really grated.

The smiles hurt too.

Striker Michael Smith and centre-half Michael Ihiekwe, the winners of three promotions in red and white with Rotherham United, were signing for Sheffield Wednesday.

Back to back they stood together at Hillsborough, their grins stage-managed for an Owls audience yet unintentionally almost seeming to mock the Millers faithful for whom the pair had performed so well for so long.

It wasn’t the departing that was the issue for Rotherham fans, it was who Smith and Ihiekwe were departing for.

Both men were perfectly entitled to seek new and lucrative employment at the end of their contracts at AESSEAL New York Stadium. However, no-one can move to S6 directly from S60 and leave their Millers reputation intact.

Their Parkway flits to derby rivals last week brought to a close nearly two months of intense negotiations. Rotherham had done all they could to tempt them to stay for a new assault on the Championship, raising their offers several times until the figures were at an unprecedented level.

At one stage, it looked like Smith would be heading to Hull City and Ihiekwe’s new home would be Derby County’s Pride Park, but the Millers, fresh from their latest League One promotion and Wembley success in the Papa John’s Trophy, had hung in there.

Boss Paul Warne feared the worst and hoped for the best. “I’m optimistic when the sun is out, less optimistic when it goes in,” he said.

With the onset of pre-season approaching, Rotherham appeared to be gaining the upper hand and last Tuesday the manager went on the record to say he was confident at least one of the duo would put their signature to new terms. The day after, both were gone.

Did either player intimate they would stay and then go back on their word when Wednesday swooped? It appears one did. Warne, who’d treated them like sons, deserved better if that was the case.

Social media ran thick with Owls crowing and Millers anger as fans reacted to the double deal.

The response from Rotherham was good and swift: three signings rattled out in three days with the chance of more to come before Warne and his group head off to Croatia this weekend for a week-long bonding trip and boot camp.

Michael Ihiekwe

The last time I saw Smith in person the shirt was black and white. We were at New York on a Tuesday evening in early May for the handover of the signed Alan Shearer jersey bought for the Newcastle United fanatic by grateful Millers followers grateful for services rendered.

No decisions had been made, he said in our interview on the windswept walkway outside the reception area. Talks were continuing, several clubs were interested. He was equally non-committal when we chatted privately but I sensed an exit might be blowing in.

The Geordie doesn’t really do emotion yet it was evident how much the Shearer top and the fact that supporters had raised well over £2,000 meant to him. Warne chipped in 50 quid. All the leftover money went to Rotherham Hospice.

Rotherham’s offers to Smith and Ihiekwe were good; more than good: the best ever made to an attacker and a defender during chairman Tony Stewart’s tenure. If there’s any consolation in this unhappy affair it’s the knowledge that the chairman is being true to his word and ready to spend more than previously in a bid to establish the club in the second tier.

Smith came from Bury on a free transfer in January 2018, Scouser Ihiekwe had arrived at the end of his time with non-league Tranmere Rovers six months earlier.

The contributions of both were colossal. The former played more than 200 times, ran blood to water right across the frontline and hit 25 goals last season in the Millers’ promotion push, the latter made close to 200 appearances and was twice selected for the PFA League One Team of the Year.

I know, I know. You don’t want to read this positive stuff, do you? Now’s not the moment. Too soon.

Maybe the scale of their achievements, the unceasing application of their effort, the quality of their performances will one day outweigh events last week, maybe not.

Not long before his switch to New York, Smith had been due to start for Bury at Gigg Lane but was ruled out when his car broke down as he drove to the ground.

He never broke down with Rotherham, playing through injuries and missing only one league game —through suspension — during his four-and-a-half-year stay.

The Hillsborough signing shot. Picture: swfc.co.uk

Both are really likeable men, committed partners and dads, willing to go out of their way to help you. Whoever misled Warne demonstrated distasteful but out-of-character behaviour.

The Owls were offering them a bit more and the duo have been lured by the lolly, there’s no getting away from that. ‘Family reasons’ is a polite synonym for ‘money’.

One is 30, the other 29 and this was possibly their final chance to secure the financial future of those closest to them. It meant they were willing to forsake Championship football and remain in the division below.

Smith — he isn’t aware I know this — has offered to donate the cost of the Shearer jersey to the hospice.

That shirt was a symbol of the bond between fans and player. That bond has been broken and the vitriol continues to swirl around on Twitter and Facebook.

Red and white, yes. Black and white, fine. Blue and white, never.

*****************************

TIMELINE OF EVENTS LAST WEEK

MONDAY

Not for the first time, Smith and Ihiekwe are offered improved figures as Rotherham fight to keep them.

TUESDAY

One of the players verbally agrees to the terms on the table.

WEDNESDAY MORNING

Boss Paul Warne expects the player to come in and sign. The manager tries to speak to both men but can’t make contact.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON

Smith and Ihiekwe tell Warne they are leaving he club. The Advertiser breaks the story.

WEDNESDAY EVENING

Official announcements come from Sheffield Wednesday that the duo are joining the Owls.

*****************************

WARNE’S VIEW

“The club they have chosen makes no difference to me.

“The fans are ‘Rotherham’, these players aren’t, but I understand why the supporters will be upset. It’s like leaving Norwich in the Premier League to join Ipswich in the Championship.

“Once they have left and they are not playing for us, where they choose to play is completely up to them."

*****************************

PAST MOVES

PREVIOUS Rotherham United players have made a direct switch to Sheffield Wednesday — but not many.

Much against his will, Jack Shaw signed for the Owls in the summer of 1953 and that one cut deep because he had been a prolific scorer in the red and white.

Another attacker, Steve Downes, blossomed in his time at Millmoor, enough for the Owls to pay £40,000 to take him in 1969 to Hillsborough, although he never really shone there.

Around that time, Wednesday also tried to sign Dave Watson but had a couple of  bids turned down.

The feeling was that a third would have been successful because the Millers board had a figure in mind and expected Wednesday to come back again. They never did.

In more recent times,  Mark Robins made the trip from Rotherham to S6 at the end of 2003 and Deon Burton took the same journey, for a fee of £110,000, in January 2006.