How the new boys fared as an old boy dazzled a sell-out crowd … Rotherham United’s Parkgate friendly

Rotherham United's pre-season opener against Parkgate at Roundwood. Picture: Kerrie BeddowsRotherham United's pre-season opener against Parkgate at Roundwood. Picture: Kerrie Beddows
Rotherham United's pre-season opener against Parkgate at Roundwood. Picture: Kerrie Beddows
IN 23 eye-catching minutes, he scored more goals than he'd managed throughout last season.

Welcome to the Sam Nombe Show.

There was a pinpoint header, a stunning shot after a flash of trickery, plus two other smooth finishes.

This, finally, was the striker Rotherham United paid more than £1 million for nearly 12 months ago.

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Steve Evans watches the first-half action with Tony Stewart. Picture: Kerrie BeddowsSteve Evans watches the first-half action with Tony Stewart. Picture: Kerrie Beddows
Steve Evans watches the first-half action with Tony Stewart. Picture: Kerrie Beddows

Bang, 50 minutes. Bang, bang, bang, 57, 61, 68. He'd come on only at half-time.

The venue was Roundwood and the opposition for the first friendly ten days after the return to pre-season training were North Counties East League Parkgate. Men versus boys in a footballing sense, but goals are goals at any level.

The record signing has clearly shed the pounds after last season's Championship relegation campaign in which he hit the target just three times in 42 outings.

Some of that weight seems to have gone from his shoulders. He played with confidence, with freedom, with a licence to attack.He accelerated, he dribbled, he knocked opponents off the ball, he twisted and turned in and around the area rather than, like last season, coming deep or chasing lost causes.

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New boy Joe Powell makes his first Rotherham United appearance. Picture: Kerrie BeddowsNew boy Joe Powell makes his first Rotherham United appearance. Picture: Kerrie Beddows
New boy Joe Powell makes his first Rotherham United appearance. Picture: Kerrie Beddows

His manager, Steve Evans has high hopes for him in League One next term. So too, now, does any fan who was there last Friday evening.

“Sam's come back in really good shape,” the boss said. “He got the rewards here. He looked razor-sharp.”

The fixture between two clubs who share Roundwood as a base is an annual one and always attracts a bumper turnout.

For over an hour before the 7pm kick-off, a trail of new home and away shirts made their way along Green Lane, down the driveway and into the complex.

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Rotherham United's pre-season opener against Parkgate at Roundwood. Picture: Kerrie BeddowsRotherham United's pre-season opener against Parkgate at Roundwood. Picture: Kerrie Beddows
Rotherham United's pre-season opener against Parkgate at Roundwood. Picture: Kerrie Beddows

The match had sold out faster than a Cohen Bramall dash down the left flank and 1,000-plus supporters were in attendance, a fact appreciated by the Rotherham squad.

“It's a good turnout,” said centre-forward Tom Eaves. “I didn't realise the tickets had gone so quickly. It feels quite relaxed and that's good for the players. It helps them to ease into things after a long lay-off.”

It finished 7-0 to the pros, not that the scoreline mattered unduly to Evans.

“It's never about how many goals we score when we play Parkgate, it's about showing them the respect they deserve,” he said.

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Aghggh: Aghghg.Aghggh: Aghghg.
Aghggh: Aghghg.

“They're wonderful people. The performance was good. We started really brightly and moved the ball well. There were really good bits in the second half too. Some players came back with a really focused approach, some players take a little while to get there.”

Before kick-off, you could hear a few of Rotherham's first-half starters sneaking pre-match wees behind the hedge that separates the top pitch being used for the game and the two others reserved for Millers training.

It was that kind of warm, down-to-earth, homely evening.

The only elements of cold were the lager being consumed by the crowd and the gradual drop in temperature as proceedings wore on into a cloudy night.

Five of the ten summer signings were on show in the opening period. Right-back Joe Rafferty looked a player and an athlete, centre-half Sean Raggett was, well, Sean Raggett - hard, scary, uncompromising - left-back Reece James was neat, Liam Kelly was tidy and fellow midfielder Joe Powell displayed a left foot that was as deft as it was powerful.

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After the interval, three more made appearances. Goalkeeper Cameron Dawson had little to do, centre-back Zak Jules - an imposing physical specimen - was unruffled and winger Alex MacDonald was pleasingly nippy for a 34-year-old.

Watch out for academy lad James Clarke, by the way. The attacking midfielder didn't always take the right option but most times he did and his desire to go forward and the ease with which he could beat a man stood out.

Three of the four frontmen were on the scoresheet, with transfer-listed Josh Kayode looking really impressive as he struck twice in the first half and Eaves interrupting Nombe's blitz to pounce from close range.

“Big Josh, there's a player in there, for sure, a top player,” Evans said. “That's not to say he'll be here as we go through the summer. He was listed for a reason. It was great to see his purpose, his runs, his goals. It was good to see big Eavesy slip one in as well.”

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Something was missing from events. It was the Wing Wah Chinese takeaway, at the top of the Roundwood drive, that over the last few years has always defiantly kept its door shut on matchday.

It had good reason to be closed this time. It's not there anymore and has been replaced by a different kind of food establishment.

A couple of hundred yards or so from the (open) Claypit Sandwich Bar, Nombe was looking like the best thing since sliced bread.

“I told him at the end of the season that he needed to be in better condition, that he needed to go away and do some work,” Evans said.

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“The proof's in your eyes on the first day that you walk back in. I said to my staff straight away: ‘Look at Sam Nombe.’ He has to continue that, to develop that.”

The manager, locating himself on the touchline opposite the one where the majority of fans were gathered behind the dugouts, spent the first half with chairman Tony Stewart and the second in the company of yours truly.

He chatted freely while missing nothing, the conversation being constantly interrupted by directions and encouragement for his players.

“Good, Cohen, you didn't go too far.” “Zak, stay there, there's no need to move.”

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In his Ralph Lauren trainers, he hit a first-time pass straight to the feet of MacDonald when the ball had strayed out of play. “Better touch than you, Alex,” he grinned.

Eaves, who has suffered injuries in the last two pre-seasons, was pleased to have opened his account.

“I feel really good,” he said. “I kept myself ticking over in the off-season. We've been straight back into the running and I'm looking forward to getting going. I've been happy with the fitness tests I've done. I pride myself on being a mobile number 9.

“Fingers crossed I get through this one. What you do in pre-season has a huge effect on what you do when the real stuff begins.

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“Today is just about getting minutes and staying injury-free: get through the first week, the second week and then really kick on.”

Meanwhile, credit to the Parkgate lads, among the cream of the crop in local football. They refused to give up, stayed true to the end, put together a few good moves and threatened the net on a couple of occasions.

It might have finished 10-0 or 12-1. No-one would have argued with either scoreline.

Evans liked what he saw, four days before the Millers were due to head off for a week of training in St Andrews, Scotland, where the focus would be shifting from heart rates to honing skills.

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“We'll be doing a lot of football, a lot of technical work, a lot of video work,” he said. “The group have been fantastic. The amount of running they've done has been incredible.

“They said tonight that they felt really comfortable in terms of getting their second wind and in their recovery runs. It's really good to see. Defensively, we were strong throughout the game. We're in a positive place.”

Afterwards, fans and players came together on the pitch, a shared experience amid shared optimism for next season. There were smiles by the dozen, autographs by the hundred, selfies by the thousand.

The biggest beam of all was on the face of the four-goal man of the moment.

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Sam Nombe, new-look player. Parkgate friendly, same old lovely occasion.

Rotherham first half (4-3-1-2): Dillon Phillips; Joe Rafferty, Sean Raggett, Cameron Humphreys, Reece James; Ollie Rathbone, Liam Kelly, Joe Powell; Ben Hatton; Jordan Hugill, Josh Kayode. Second half: Cameron Dawson; Dean Gardner (academy), Hakeem Odoffin, Zak Jules, Cohen Bramall; James Clarke (academy), Christ Tiehi, Alex MacDonald; George Giwa (academy); Tom Eaves, Sam Nombe.

Parkgate starting 11: Jordan Greaves, Dominic Hart, Spencer Gordon, Ahmed Tahar, Robert Ludlam, Liam Tomlinson, Cian Guest, Brandon Potts, Alex Hardwick, Brandon Whitfield, Jack Haslam. Subs: Josh Womack, Harry Day, Jamie Austin, Carlton Carty, Joe Lumley, Jacob Pearson, Ethan Garbett, three trialists. Second half: Greaves, Hart, Trialist, Tomlinson, Trialist, Day, Lumley, Tahar, Guest, Carty, Austin. Subs: Womack for Greaves 57, Garbett for Guest 64, Pearson for Tahar 81, Trialist for Womack 84.

Referee: Josh Drake (Rotherham).