Rotherham United's Hakeem Odoffin on dedication, *that* goal against Middlesbrough, boozy celebrations and his hopes for next season
SURVIVAL hero Hakeem Odoffin made a beeline for Conor Washington.
A few days on from guaranteeing their place in the Championship for a second season, Rotherham United’s players were gathering for training for the first time since their safety-securing afternoon of glory.
Odoffin had swept home the May Day goal against Middlesbrough that sparked a party at sold-out AESSEAL New York Stadium.
Injured Washington, on co-commentator duties for the club’s iFollow service, had revealed that practice had made perfect for the Millers match-winner.
“Fifty or 60 times every day,” was the estimate of the extra-curricular finishing drills done by the 25-year-old.
“I got to hear the commentary and I thanked Conor for it at the next training session,” Odoffin said. “Shooting like that doesn’t happen by accident.”
Washington had given an insight into the dedication of a player whose emergence was one of the most heartwarming developments of a stirring campaign.
The Londoner had become a forgotten man: on the fringes of the previous season’s League One promotion and then without a single second of Championship action until the October appointment of manager Matt Taylor changed everything.
The 6ft 3ins midfielder suddenly found himself in the side, thumped in an eye-catching goal from just outside the area to inspire a crucial 4-0 January win over Blackburn Rovers and remained at the heart of the new boss’s first-team thinking.
He made 24 league appearances, hit the target four times and earned a reputation as the fiercest shooter at the club.
“Playing gave me a real boost,” he said. “There was a progression through the season with game-time.
“When the season started I would never have put myself down as someone who would be scoring not just from set-pieces but in open play as well. I’ve learned new things about myself and there are more things to learn.
“After the Blackburn goal I realised I can get into those spaces near the edge of the box and finish things off. I practise it as much as I can so that when it comes around in a game I don’t have to think about it, it’s just instinctive. That’s when you’re at your best.
“Once training is done I try to get off as many shots as possible — receiving the ball and getting shots off, that’s what I do. It paid off against Middlesbrough!”
His 22-yard effort in the 1-0 victory was struck so well that Boro goalkeeper Zak Steffen never even moved.
“Hard and low,” I said, repeating the mantra hammered into him by Taylor and the rest of Rotherham’s coaching staff. “Exactly,” he grinned.
That match was the highlight of a memorable season for him, a sunny bank-holiday Monday made even brighter by the presence of his mother who makes her way to Rotherham matches all over the country in support of her son.
“Scoring was a great moment; not just for me but for my family as well,” he said. “It was the first game I’ve scored in where my mum’s been in attendance so that was nice. For it to be such an important goal ... it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Taylor had spotted untapped potential as soon as he’d arrived from Exeter City to take the hot-seat last autumn. In his view, Odoffin was the best trainer in the squad, a big, athletic specimen who hadn’t let his commitment levels drop despite his lack of playing opportunities.
He saw someone who could be a presence in the air and on the ground at both ends of the pitch, a competitor with the appetite and engine to hunt down opponents and stop them playing.
Now the former Barnet trainee is looking to deliver even more in 2023/24 as he enters the last 12 months of the three-year deal that brought him to New York from Scottish side Hamilton Academical.
“All you can ask for from a manager is trust,” he said. “He’s trusted in me and I hope I’ve repaid him. I’ve proved I’m able to play at this level.
“I want to keep getting better. I know I can get better. I want to continue that and be the best player that I can.
“I’ve enjoyed helping the team and that’s all I want to do: play week in, week out. It was a positive end to the season and I just want to take that into next year.”
Meanwhile, his words of gratitude to Washington came after a period of heavy team celebrating for which Taylor had granted his squad free rein to hit the booze .
There were many pairs of bleary eyes as the squad reported back to begin preparations for the final-day at Wigan Athletic where a draw saw Rotherham conclude proceedings three places and six points above the drop zone.
“We made the most of it at the beginning of the week and then left it there because we knew we had one game still to play,” Odoffin said. “We didn’t go too crazy but we definitely enjoyed ourselves!”
“How many beers?” I enquired. “Do you know what?” he said with a big laugh, “I’m not a beer guy. I like a spirit and a chaser.”
So too, in football terms, does his boss.
THE future of Hakeem Odoffin at New York Stadium lies in Rotherham United’s hands.
The midfield man is about to enter the third and final year of his contract and a decision on opening negotiations over a new deal rests with the Millers.
“It’s whether they feel they want to talk,” he said. “At the end of the day, I can’t control whether they want to do that.
“All I can do is the work I do on the pitch, then if they see something that makes them want to extend ... that’s down to them.”