MICHAEL Ihiekwe spent the summer recovering from an injury, sweating through the grind of pre-season and not getting married.
Rotherham United’s 2019/20 Player of the Year damaged his knee in February and would have been ruled out of the Millers’ League One promotion run-in had coronavirus not shut down the season early.
Covid-19 also ruled out his lawful union with Rosie, his long-time partner and mother of their 19-month-old son, Abel.
“No, it didn’t happen,” he says. “We’ve had to put it back. It was annoying but it was the same for everyone. Anyone who had a wedding booked suffered the same thing.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to get on with it. We’re getting married in Wales and the venue were very good about it. They just put us down for the date we already had but for next summer.”
The centre-half has overcome the problem he suffered making a tackle at Coventry City and scored the last-gasp goal that saw Paul Warne’s men grab a 1-0 Championship-opening-day win at Wycombe Wanderers last Saturday.
He’s a certain starter at home to Millwall this weekend and goes into the clash against a side that came close to the second-tier play-offs last term buoyed by the result at Adams Park.
“The last time were in the Championship, two years ago, we only got one away win all season, at QPR,” he says. “We won’t take the Wycombe result for granted.
“To get an away win in the Championship, you have to do everything perfectly. It is a brilliant start for us but that’s all it is: a start.
“We can still improve in a lot of aspects of our game and that is what we’ll try to do.
“Millwall is going to be another physical, difficult game.”
The 27-year-old used the suspension of football productively after being diagnosed with a lateral collateral ligament tear.
“Over lockdown, I was in every day,” he says. “It felt like a long time. I was in a brace for seven or eight weeks. It was difficult for me.
“I knew I had to keep my head down and use the fact that there was no football to my advantage. While no-one was playing, I needed to get fit. I worked really hard so I could be back for when football restarted.”
While Ihiekwe was counting down the days to when he would be up and running again, Rosie had calendar issues of her own.
“I felt really bad for my missus,” he says. “She had one of those things on the wall that tells you how many days to go to the wedding.
“She’s had to put ‘365’ in and start again. We were both devastated. I tried to take my mind off it by focusing on my recovery.”
The defender’s 92nd-minute goal at Wycombe was a thing of a beauty: a towering header from a Joe Mattock corner following a perfectly-timed leap that no Wanderers defender could get near to matching.
But Ihiekwe knows he should have been celebrating a brace, having been teed up by another Mattock set-piece in the first half.
“The first one, I thought I’d done enough,” he says. “Yeah, I should have scored it. At least I made up for it with the winner!
“That was one of two corners we had in the second half. When you are getting loads of corners, you sometimes take them for granted. When you get only a couple late on, you know it’s business time and that you are going to win the game if the ball goes in.
Ihiekwe celebrates his 92nd-minute winner at Wycombe
“Joe’s corner was brilliant. It just had a message on it to go and attack it and that’s what I tried to do. Lucky enough, it went in.
“I felt that by then our fitness was showing and we were in the ascendancy.”
The Scouser was sidelined for four months but sat out just one game — the March 7 match at Rochdale before the Government ordered the country to go into lockdown.
“Coronavirus shut down football so I missed hardly anything,” he says. “It’s crazy to say that, isn’t it?”
Ihiekwe, selected by his fellow professionals in the PFA League One Team of the Season for last year, looked good at Wycombe but believes there is more to come.
“I want to get back to the physical shape I was in last year,” he says. “The only way to do that is to work as hard as you can every day.”
The Welsh nuptials weren’t the only casualty of Covid-19.
“I had to cancel the stag do as well,” he says. “I’d paid for it and everything. We were meant to be going to Las Vegas in June. I’ve never been there before and was made up at the thought of going. It was just going to be me, my close friends and family.
“We had to cancel the honeymoon as well. We were meant to be going to Greece. We haven’t been away together since the baby. That would have been our first little break.”
There was one vow he did make, though, leading Warne to praise his player’s dedication to his rehabilitation programme.
Do you promise to give everything in your quest for full fitness?
“I do,” swore Icky.
IHIEWKE SHARES PFA JOY WITH PAL CROOKS
MICHAEL Ihiekwe sent a message to teammate Matt Crooks as soon as he heard the pair had been selected for the PFA 2019/20 League One Team of the Season.
The side is voted for by fellow professionals and the Rotherham United centre-half was delighted and humbled to be chosen.
“I was made up,” he says. “I texted Tree (Crooks) straightaway and said ‘Congratulations’. He had a brilliant season.
“It’s nice to know that the players you’re playing against rate you. Of all the awards, the one given to you by your peers is the best.”
Despite his pride, Ihiekwe isn’t dwelling on the honour.
“I was happy with it, but it’s behind me now,” he says. “It’s important for me this year to try to better what I did last season. I want to keep improving. I’m 27. There’s a lot I can improve on.”
League One Team of the Year (4-3-3): Marko Marosi (Coventry); Fankaty Dabo (Coventry), Michael Ihiekwe (Rotherham), Rob Dickie (Oxford), Joe Jacobson (Wycombe); Cameron Brannagan (Oxford), Liam Walsh (Coventry), Matt Crooks (Rotherham); Armand Gnanduillet (Blackpool), Ivan Toney (Peterborough), Matt Godden (Coventry).
SADLIER GOAL MISSION
KIERAN Sadlier is gunning for his first goal in Rotherham United colours when Millwall are the first visitors of the Championship campaign to AESSEAL New York Stadium this week.
The winger was a prolific scorer in League One with Doncaster Rovers last season and is ready to open his account for his new club.
He came close to marking his second-tier debut with a strike during the 1-0 opening-day win at Wycombe Wanderers last Saturday, forcing Chairboys goalkeeper Ryan Allsop into a scrambling save with a long-range free-kick.
“I’ve always been one to shoot from distance,” he said. “A few might fly into the stand but that one that goes in is the one that counts, the one that people remember.
“I’m not afraid to have a go. I’ll always take on shots with both feet, although obviously there are times to pass as well.”
Sadlier shared set-plays at Adams Park with left-back Joe Mattock and is used to taking on dead-ball responsibilities.
“I’ve always taken set-pieces at the other clubs I’ve been at,” he said. “I’ve got the licence here to take free-kicks and corners and get assists by doing that.”
OPPOSITION TEAM NEWS
PREMIER League loanee Troy Parrott is a doubt for Rotherham United's opponents, Millwall, this weekend.
The Tottenham Hotspur prospect has joined the Lions on a season-long loan but has been sidelined and has yet to make his debut.
“Troy is progressing well but we’re trying to hold him back a bit because it was a quad injury,” said manager Gary Rowett.
“He’s desperate to be back training and be involved. He’s trying to stamp his mark on first-team football and has not been able to do that. As you can imagine, he’s champing at the bit to get started.”
Centre-forward Parrott, aged 18, has made four appearances for Spurs and is a Republic of Ireland youth international.
Another Millwall loanee, midfielder Ryan Jones, missed the opening-day 0-0 draw with Stoke City because he wasn't allowed to face his parent club but is available for Saturday's Championship clash at AESSEAL New York Stadium.
Bart Bialkowski looks set to continue in goal for the visitors, with long-term injury absentee Frank Fielding not quite ready yet for a first-team return.
Fielding hasn't played since the opening day of last season after damaging a quad muscle.
“Frank is back in what the medical team class as modified training,” said Rowett. “He is in first-team training but it’s in a controlled fashion where he won’t give absolutely everything.
“Until we’re up to the point where he has had some under-23 game-time or a good week’s training he won’t be considered just yet.
“It will be nice to have him back and add a little bit of calm to the squad.”
One to watch
Attacking midfielder Jed Wallace scored ten goals and provided 13 assists last season as Millwall finished eighth in the Championship. The Reading-born 26-year-old had two loan spells with the Lions before joining permanently in 2017, having previously played for Portsmouth and Wolves. He has hit the target 26 times in 176 Millwall appearances.
Millwall opened their 2020/21 campaign with a 3-1 win at Crawley Town in the League Cup before drawing 0-0 at the Den with Stoke City on Championship opening day. They beat Cheltenham 3-1 at home in the second round of the cup on Tuesday.
February 2 2019, Championship:
Millwall 0 Millers 0
August 26 2018, Championship:
Millers 1 (Sean Raggett), Millwall 0
February 28 2015, Championship:
Millers 2 (Danny Ward, Kari Arnason) Millwall 1
August 23 2014, Championship:
Millwall 0 Millers 1 (Ben Pringle)
January 20 2007, League One:
Millwall 4 Millers 0
September 30 2006, League One:
Millers 2 (Will Hoskins, Ian Sharps) Millwall 3
In 36 meetings since 1963, both clubs have 13 wins and there have been ten draws.
Last time out
Rotherham survived a late scare when Lee Gregory missed an open net in the dying seconds at the Den but were well worth their 0-0 Championship draw in February 2019. New signing Matt Crooks made his debut for the Millers.
Former defender Gary Rowett has been in charge at the Den since last October. The 46-year-old began his managerial career at Burton Albion and was the man in the hot-seat when the Brewers lost 3-0 in the first-ever competitive match at New York Stadium in August 2012. He went on to impress at Birmingham City and Derby County before finding life hard at Stoke City. He turned Millwall into play-off contenders last term.
Man in the middle
Blackpool’s Leigh Doughty is the official in charge on Saturday. He refereed Rotherham’s 3-0 win over Bristol Rovers and 1-1 MK Dons draw last season.
The bookmakers are slightly favouring Millwall over the Millers for Saturday’s New York clash, offering a home win at 9/5, an away triumph at 17/10 and a draw at 21/10.
Coventry City v Queens Park Rangers
Nottingham Forest v Cardiff City
Blackburn Rovers v Wycombe Wanderers
Brentford v Huddersfield Town
Luton Town v Derby County
Middlesbrough v AFC Bournemouth
Norwich City v Preston North End
Reading v Barnsley
Rotherham United v Millwall
Sheffield Wednesday v Watford
Swansea City v Birmingham City
Stoke City v Bristol City