Michael Ihiekwe and Ollie Rathbone ... the Rotherham United mileage men

Michael IhiekweMichael Ihiekwe
Michael Ihiekwe
MICHAEL Ihiekwe is no stranger to life on the motorway.

With teammate Ollie Rathbone for company, the centre-half negotiates the heavy traffic several times a week as he makes the eastbound commute for Rotherham United training.

Life was easier when the Scouser was living in nearby Chesterfield with partner Rosie but the couple moved back to his home city for the sake of their young son.

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“I’m In Liverpool now,” he says. “Abel has got loads of cousins and other family there. Because of Covid, they couldn’t visit.

“He wasn’t getting to see them, so we made the switch over there. Me and Ollie have a car school now. That helps a little bit. He’s based Manchester way so we meet on the M62.”

The 29-year-old has racked up the mileage as the Millers have accelerated into the leading pack in League One and become most people’s favourites to win automatic promotion.

Paul Warne’s men are the second-top scorers in the division. More importantly for a player who earns his wages by stopping goals going in at the other end, they also have the meanest backline.

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“Yeah, the number of clean sheets is brilliant,” Ihiekwe says. “Your first focus as a defender is to try to keep out the opposition.

“It sounds like a cliché, but it’s not down just to the defenders in the team. The wing-backs work unbelievably hard, the front lads set off the press and lock on. That helps us a lot at the back.

“We’ve got two brilliant goalkeepers as well and there’s not much difference between them at all. Long may it continue.”

The former Tranmere Rovers man, in his fifth season at AESSEAL New York Stadium, is a veteran of two past promotion campaigns and reckons this Rotherham side, who have just gone 21 matches unbeaten, top the lot.

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“The biggest difference is the squad strength,” he says. “Previously, we’ve had a strong starting 11 in League One. Now the whole squad is strong.

“There’s a hunger there as well. Everyone wants to play and training is probably the best it’s been since I came here.”

As much as he’s enjoying being back in the bosom of the extended Ihiekwe clan, the player is prepared to sacrifice precious time with Rosie and Abel to keep the Millers in the fast lane.

“I stay over in Rotherham some nights, particularly before games,” he says. “On a Monday when I know it’s going to be a tough Tuesday training session, I stay over then as well. It’s good to get home but, of course, football comes first.”

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The M62 is the highest motorway in the country and the Millers have hit their own peaks this season, destroying some of their biggest rivals during that club-record undefeated sequence that stretched from the middle of September to Boxing Day.

The defender stops short of describing Warne’s class of 2021/22 as the best team in League One but stats that show they have produced more crosses and goal attempts than any other side and top the xG (expected goals) chart by a distance speak for themselves.

“We have the ability individually but it’s not just that, it’s the work ethic,” he says. “We must be really difficult to play against when we’re fully at it.

“What’s been brilliant this season is the consistency of performances. Even at the start of the season when not every result was what we were looking for, the performances were there.

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“That gave us confidence and we’ve just kept it going. We’ve got better at managing games and seeing them through when we’re in front. To go up, you have to have a good mentality, do the right things and be solid as a team.”

The two-hour journey is worth it to be part of something special happening this season at the Millers’ Roundwood base.

“The atmosphere at training is fantastic,” he  says. “One of the best parts of football is winning on a Saturday and then coming in on a Monday.

“I’ve been here when it’s been the other way and it’s hard to get yourself going. We need to keep doing what we’re doing.

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“On a day-to-day basis, everyone is up for it and no-one is slacking. That brings levels up. It’s a side of things fans don’t get to see. Training hard throughout the week gives you a chance to go out and perform well at the weekend.”

He and midfielder Rathbone, signed in the summer from Rochdale, are key figures in a team motoring along at the business end of the table.

The notorious congestion on the M62 is a price well worth paying. “You have to time it right,” Ihiekwe grins. “It’s a busy motorway!”

Final destination: Championship.