The good, the mad and the ugly ... Paul Davis's behind-the-scenes look at Rotherham United's 2020/21 campaign

The good, the mad and the ugly ... Paul Davis's behind-the-scenes look at Rotherham United's 2020/21 campaign

By Paul Davis | 22/05/2021

The good, the mad and the ugly ... Paul Davis's behind-the-scenes look at Rotherham United's 2020/21 campaign
Freddie Ladapo scores at Hillsborough

Best goal:

“Go on, Son, mek a name for youself.” We all remember how iFollow commentator John Breckin urged on Freddie Ladapo in the dying seconds against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. What the centre-forward did next is now in Millers folklore. His similar effort against Watford in the game after might have been, technically, even better, but for what it meant — a first league double over the Owls since 1971 — the S6 super-strike can’t be topped.

Memorable quote 1:

“Let me send you a different photo for my column. Our Christmas tree looks too big in the first one.” Man of the people Richard Wood doesn’t want Millers fans thinking he’s showing off.

Cheers for talking, it doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated:

After every match Rotherham’s media team will put up a player for interview. It’s easy to talk to the press when the Millers have won and you’ve scored twice but not quite as pleasant after a defeat. Particular shout-outs to Angus MacDonald, Michael Ihiekwe and Richard Wood who were willing to do it more than anybody.

50:50 of the season 1:

Richard Wood’s bone-shuddering, second-half challenge on Brad Potts against Preston North End at AESSEAL New York Stadium in November. After the game, as his teammates celebrated a 2-1 win, the Millers skipper, who was one of the scorers, was rabbiting on about nothing but his tackle.

Memorable quote 2:

“Labradors eat fricking anything. Every time I pick up after Chief there’s a sock in it.” Rotherham’s manager reveals more than we need to know about walking the Red Fox Lab that became part of the Warne family last July.

Best thing about not being in the Championship:

Not having to look up how to spell ‘Jutkiewicz’ anymore.

Best outburst 1:

“Ref, you sh*thouse.” Coach Matt Hamshaw takes exception to Derby County’s Krystian Bielik not being sent off for a clear second yellow-card offence at Pride Park.

50:50 of the season 2:

Me against a steel barrier at Stoke City’s bet365 Stadium one Saturday in late October. Press rooms (inside warm places with free food and drinks) have been closed all season because of coronavirus, leaving reporters arriving two hours before kick-off to sit and freeze in press boxes (outside cold places where WiFi connections can be on the Roy Keane scale of temperamental). I stood up after the final whistle, discovered I could no longer feel any part of my body, over-balanced and careered, totally out of control, down a steep flight of steps straight into said barrier with my legs going faster than one of those cartoon characters that run over the edge of cliffs and just hang there in the air.

Memorable quote 3:

“There are certain parts of your life you remember for great reasons. I’ll never forget Freddie scoring that last-minute winner at Hillsborough. It wasn’t because it was against Sheffield Wednesday, although that was extra obviously, it was the fact that we were down to ten men and it was a breakaway goal when I thought there was a chance we could concede. It’s a moment that can never be taken away from me: standing at the side of the pitch and seeing everyone I respect and love jumping around like lunatics. It was the best six minutes of my year.” Boss Paul Warne enjoys Owls 1 Millers 2.

Player I’d be happy for my sister to date:

Wes Harding, apprentice nicest man in the world just behind official nicest man in the world Shaun MacDonald.

Player my sister would like to date:

Freddie Ladapo. Bit of a ‘bad boy’ vibe. I wasn’t allowing it when she chose him last season and it’s not happening this year either.

Friendliest welcome:

The good people of Everton, in the FA Cup. Lovely staff who couldn’t do enough to help you. Also, hot drinks were available for the media. That didn’t happen all that often in a Covid season. Thanks also to Nottingham Forest, Watford, Preston North End, Norwich City, Bristol City, Huddersfield Town, Barnsley and Brentford for similar catering service.

Viktor Johansson

Memorable quote 4:

“Shout sh*t if you have to, but shout something. It keeps them on their toes.” Goalkeeper Viktor Johansson on the art of communicating with his defenders.

Unfriendliest welcome:

The humourless steward at Brentford Community Stadium who made me stand outside the media entrance for 25 minutes before permitting access. Strictly speaking, written media were supposed to gain entry this season 75 minutes before kick-off, so she was within her rights, but Brentford, QPR and Swansea City were the only clubs to make that guideline a rule.

Quirkiest fact I picked up:

Everton have two club shops, the second of which is called Everton Two. It’s situated in the city-centre Liverpool One shopping complex, giving the Toffeemen a retail address to savour: Everton Two, Liverpool One.

Memorable quote 5:

“My Grandma Maureen gives me a £1 every time I score a goal. She’s been doing it since I was little.” Matt Crooks reveals how he supplements his Millers wages.

Best outburst 2:

“You sh*thouse. That’s twice now.” Matt Hamshaw’s Tourette’s is back as Darren Bond, having wrongly sent off Michael Smith in the Hillsborough derby seven weeks earlier, dismisses Matt Crooks for an unintentional clash of heads with Middlesbrough’s Grant Hall.

50:50 of the season 2 (continued):

I lay groaning at the foot of the barrier and a concerned steward insisted I saw the matchday doctor and his medical team to assess the damage to my legs, chest, back and jaw. After a while, we were all tired of my jeans being round my ankles and my Calvin Kleins being on show to all and sundry at the bet365 and I was allowed to hobble, weeping quiet, internal tears, to my pool car.

Most urgent text:

Michael Ihiekwe, having scored a stoppage-time winner, was doing press at Wycombe on opening day and talking me through his summer recovery from a knee problem. Covid had forced the postponement of his wedding but, crackers though he is on his missus, he’d been more focused on his rehabilitation than feeling bad about the delay in his nuptials. I duly tweeted what he’d said and 60 seconds later my phone pinged: “Please, Mate, can you take that down asap? If she sees that there might never be a wedding.”

Moment of the season:

I’m with Paul Warne on this one. Thank you, Freddie.

Championship Select 11 (based solely on performances against the Millers):

4-1-4-1: Asmir Begovic (Bournemouth); Adam Smith (Bournemouth), Marc Roberts (Birmingham City), Ethan Pinnock (Brentford), Harry Toffolo (Huddersfield Town); Conor Hourihane (Swansea City ); Osayi Bright-Samuel (QPR), Emi Buendia (Norwich), Todd Cantwell (Norwich), Jed Wallace (Millwall); Teemu Pukki (Norwich).

Memorable quote 6:

“How have I been. Er ... it’s been difficult, Mate, very difficult. Er ... yeah ... the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me. You hear the stories all the time and mental health is an issue that is becoming more prevalent in the news. You just think: ‘That’s not something that happens to my family.’ It was the biggest shock of my life. To get over it, I don’t know how long that’s going to take.” Assistant manager Richie Barker more than a year after the suicide of younger brother Chris.

The ‘not what it seems’ moment:

Dan Barlaser wandered into a room at AESSEAL New York Stadium to be interviewed after a game carrying a Louis Vuitton man-bag under his arm. Manager Paul Warne is notoriously against shows of ostentation from his players and I joked with the midfielder: “Don’t let the Gaffer catch you with that.” “Nay worries, Man,” piped up the Geordie. “It’s a fake from Turkey.”

50:50 of the season 2 (continued):

Everything was stiffening up and I was in a bit of trouble. It had taken a long time to reach the car and now it was taking even longer to gingerly wedge myself into the driving seat for the journey home. Finally, I was in place and ready to depart, feeling sick with pain, wracked with self-pity, worried that I’d never be able to move again. That’s when I sat on the key fob by accident and the boot lid sprang open.

Six-foot-seven-inch loanee who should be braver than he is:

Jamal Blackman.

Six-foot-seven-inch loanee who looked less likely than my mum to save a penalty:

Jamal Blackman.

Six-foot-seven-inch loanee who, fair play to him, was much better towards the end of the season:

Jamal Blackman.

Memorable quote 7:

“I am going to be judged on goals. As a striker, scoring is what I pride myself on. If I can help with that by scoring goals week in week out then that is brilliant.” The intention was there from George Hirst.

Best outburst 3:

“Well done, Ref. What a sh*thouse.” Matt Hamshaw fumes at Gavin Ward for missing the elbow in the eye of goalkeeper Viktor Johansson as Carlton Morris scores Barnsley’s winner at Oakwell.

Dan Barlaser

Talk to me, Dan:

Away from the cameras, mics and voice recorders, you can’t shut up Dan Barlaser, a lovely, engaging young man who has something to say — often ridiculous — about any topic. It’s a different story when the media spotlight falls on him. Not long after his move from Newcastle United, he was answering questions for the first time about becoming a permanent Miller and I was looking for a line about his heartache at leaving his boyhood club. “Gutted,” he said. End of quote. “Could you elaborate on that?” I asked. “You’d been there since you were nine.” Pause for considered reflection from the player. “Really gutted.”

Memorable quote 8:

“I think it went in off his shin, which is fine because his feet are horrendous.” Paul Warne congratulates Richard Wood on his goal against Preston North End.

Things I won’t miss about 2020/21:

Empty grounds, temperature checks, Covid forms asking if I’ve had diarrhoea (interesting fact: I never had), masks that steam up your glasses so it seems like every game is being played in fog, Covid running rife though the Millers camp, Darren Bond, Gavin Ward, injuries and 12-games-in-37-days run-ins.

Things I will miss:

Nothing really. A season without fans isn’t a real season. AESSEAL New York Stadium needs seats with RUFC people in them not just RUFC lettering on them.

50:50 of the season 2 (continued):

Forcing myself out of the car, closing the boot lid and collapsing back into the driver’s seat must have taken 20 minutes. I looked at the key fob, called it a ‘f*cking b*stard’ and felt a little bit better. I knew what was coming when I parked outside my home. No part of my body was volunteering for movement. It’s all a bit sketchy from then on but I think I fell through my front door some time just after midnight.

Best and worst of the managers in their post-match interviews at AESSEAL New York Stadium:

Dean Holden (Bristol City), honest and dignified; Thomas Frank (Brentford), fair and incisive; Mark Warburton (QPR), disappointed but prepared to give credit to Rotherham for their win; Xisco Munoz (Watford), gracious in his support of the Millers and their Covid problems; Jason Tindall (Bournemouth), talked in cliches; Tony Mowbray (Blackburn Rovers), sourness personified; Michael O’Neill (Stoke City), didn’t want to be there and it showed.

Best individual display by a Miller:

Jamie Lindsay in the 2-2 home draw with promotion-chasing Bournemouth in November, the season’s only 10/10 Advertiser rating.

Lowest Advertiser rating while we’re on the subject:

The big, fat zero awarded to Darren Bond for his big, fat Matt Crooks error.

Memorable quote 9:

“Some days I’m all right talking about stuff but some days I’m useless and just crumble. I’ve definitely changed since it happened. My outlook on life is a lot different. That’s a daily thing as well. It depends what mood I’m in. If I’m being really positive it’s, like, live every day as your last. But I’ll have the odd day when all I think is how fragile life is and what’s the point of it when it can be just taken away from you like that and you’re gone.” Matt Crooks on coping after the death of best friend Jordan Sinnott.

Most oft-repeated phrase:

“C’mon, Rotherham.”

Player tweet of the season:

Freddie Ladapo’s four-picture sequence of his Hillsborough winner accompanied by the words: ‘All these years I spent on my craft.’ I must have missed the tweets after the fresh-air shots against Nottingham Forest and Barnsley.

Best team performance:

The 3-0 win at Middlesbrough in January: Matt Crooks on fire, Michael Smith on fire, everyone on fire, Ryan Giles scoring seconds into his debut. Boro boss Neil Warnock affected geniality afterwards but was fuming at the way his team had been dismantled.

Worst team display:

Coventry City away, 3-1 defeat. No-one on fire.

I wonder if he actually went through with it:

The fan who promised on Twitter to have Dan Barlaser’s name tattooed on his genitals if the signing went through. Maybe there was room only for ‘Dan’ and not ‘Barlaser’ and he has been too embarrassed to go public with it.

Matt Olosunde at Everton

Best individual display by a Miller 2:

Matt Olosunde tearing it up on the right flank against Everton at Goodison Park and French international full-back Lucas Digne not being able to do a thing about it. ‘Digne hadn’t been given a chasing like that in a month of Olosundes,’ I wrote. One of my better lines.

Best individual display against the Millers:

Osayi Bright-Samuel, QPR 3 Rotherham 2. Even the hyphen played well. Todd Cantwell, Norwich 1 Rotherham 0, was different class as well.

Memorable quote 10:

“As an epileptic footballer, of course my thought process on the field of play is to run around at maximum velocity using my head as a bayonet.” Matt Crooks used his Twitter account to question Darren Bond’s decision.

Millers person most likely to call a referee a sh*thouse:

Matt Hamshaw.

Best team display against Rotherham:

Norwich City in the first half at Carrow Road, closely followed by Swansea City at AESSEAL City New York Stadium in a 3-1 away win.

Toughest moment:

Watching Paul Warne suffer after the final whistle when the Millers had been six minutes from sealing survival on the Championship’s last day at Cardiff City. He’d been close to tears in his TV interviews but it was in front of his local lads — me, Radio Sheffield’s Adam Oxley and the Yorkshire Post’s Leon Wobschall — that he really broke down. “We know what you do and we know what kind of man you are. Don’t lose sight of that,” I told him. I never planned to say it but I’m glad I did.

Memorable quote 11:

“We’ve got a guy who is still a young man and still learning. Let’s not forget that we’ve done Wembley with this guy, that we’ve got two promotions with this guy. I am happy with Paul Warne to carry on into next season and beyond.” Chairman Tony Stewart is happy with his man in the hot-seat.

Memorable quote 12:

“I can’t see myself not being manager when pre-season starts.” The last-day relegation hit Paul Warne hard but a few days later he delivers the news most of us want to hear.

50:50 of the season 2 (the conclusion):

It was a month before I walked properly again and I still hate that key fob.

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