The month that may have changed Rotherham United's season
MATT Taylor and I weren’t having a good time of it.
We were on a Zoom call together and our internet connection was on a yellow card and coming close to a red for how temperamental it was being.
The Rotherham United manager was trying his best to talk about the just-closed January transfer window and I was trying my best to listen.
We got there in the end but there were a few interruptions.
Happily, the window for the Millers had run much more smoothly than the interview was doing: seven signings, seven quality signings, and the sale of only one key man, all generating genuine optimism that this is the season when the club maintain their foothold in the Championship.
“We had to be bold and positive with our work and it was important that we got some bodies in the building early,” Taylor said. “When I say ‘early’ in the transfer window, that is always weeks two or three!
“I’m sure that that, on top of a couple of good results we had, persuaded a few other people who were our targets to sign.
“We had a plan to work towards. We knew what we wanted to bring in. (Head of recruitment) Rob Scott and his team have worked fantastically hard and well.”
This was Taylor’s first opportunity to do business as Rotherham boss but he had been an effective January operator before, albeit down in League Two, with former team Exeter City.
“There’s no real difference in the window between the divisions, it’s just that the numbers are a bit bigger at this level!” he said.
“Rob does most of the negotiations and then it comes to me at the end to speak to the chairman and the player. We’ve signed seven players but I must have spoken to two dozen if not more. That shows you the work we’ve put in.”
First through the door had been Sean Morrison, a seasoned campaigner in the Premier League and the higher echelons of the Championship, and his season-ending injury two games into his Millers career was a savage blow.
Recruiting a centre-half who hadn’t played for 11 months had been a risk worth taking as Rotherham would never have landed someone of his stature had he not undergone knee surgery while with Cardiff City and become a free agent.
The Millers moved quickly to identify a replacement and Bailey Wright was plucked from Sunderland on deadline day.
“The only blessing really was that the injury happened when the window was still open,” Taylor said. “If had happened afterwards, we would be in a lot worse position than we are right now.
“Bailey came in on the back of Sean’s absence. We felt we needed to do that. Positionally, character-wise and in terms of experience, they are very similar.”
Amid all the arrivals, wanted man Chiedozie Ogbene stayed, and don’t under-estimate how important that might turn out to be.
Taylor is glad January is behind him and that he can focus all his attention on the 17 remaining games that will decide his side’s fate.
“The window is an incredible time to go through as a manager or a head of recruitment,” he said. “It’s non-stop.
“Supporters see the end product: the actual names who’ve been signed. How close we’ve been to a whole host of other players at different stages of the window, it would take hours and hours to go through. You don’t always get your top, top targets.
“We’ve tried to build a squad with a slightly different balance and feel to it and I certainly feel we’ve achieved that. New faces bring freshness and energy, a bit of excitement. Other players have to up their game because they want to be on that pitch.”
The internet connection was sputtering in and out of life. The boss, good-naturedly, didn’t mind repeating himself when I pointed out now and then that I’d just missed a chunk of one of his answers.
Something had needed to be done in January because when the Millers had emerged from the World Cup break in December they’d frozen like my laptop. The good work done earlier in the season by Paul Warne and then Taylor had been in danger of unravelling.
Tony Stewart stepped up and was true to his word. The chairman had said lessons had been learned from previous mistakes in the second tier. Now, when it really mattered, he honoured his pledge to back his manager and the spending on wages rose to figures unprecedented in recent years.
“We have to think about where we are — and that is in a relegation battle,” Taylor said. “Staying up is our only thought and will be for the rest of the season until we’re safe.
“You need backing from the powers-that-be and they’ve certainly delivered. We’ve had a lot of good players come to us. We’ve pushed hard on the finances.”
The pragmatic approach of the new boss also had an effect.
Predecessor Warne had always admitted he didn’t like making signings. His whole ethos was about nurturing the integrity of his group, building step by step, protecting the brotherhood. Good players also had to be good people otherwise he didn’t want them, and long-term progress meant more to him than short-term gain.
Taylor’s only question was: ‘Will that target make us better now?’ If the answer was ‘yes’ he was prepared to ask Stewart to fund the deal.
Just as important as any new arrival was the Monday meeting on January 9, two days after a 4-1 FA Cup exit at League One Ipswich Town.
The Millers had lost, tamely, in five of their last six matches and had looked nothing like the team that had rattled some of the best sides in the division.
This was between Taylor and his players. Support staff were asked to make themselves scarce and what came next was of the ‘honest and frank’ variety. A new formation and the old Millers emerged.
Latest opponents Blackburn Rovers, Watford and Sheffield United will attest to that.
Dan Barlaser has gone and will be missed but Rotherham have choices and strength in depth and have also landed the proven Championship striker they craved in Jordan Hugill.
“There’s more balance to the squad, more options on the pitch and on the bench,” Taylor said. “There are players who offset each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We’re content right now but whether we mark it down as a successful window depends on where we are at the end of the season.”
The only thing fans had wanted to see in January was their club doing all they could to give themselves the optimum chance of survival. They got that.
In a squad sense, Rotherham are much stronger than when they went into the window; in a united sense, much stronger too.
“We have to drive each other to be the best version of ourselves,” Taylor said. “This group seem to be very hungry to do that.”
He went on to elaborate but I heard none of it as his image became immobilised on my screen again. No matter, January had already made his case for him.
The Millers, unlike the internet link, have no element of disconnect.
CLUB CHOOSE KEEPING CHIEO OVER CASH
CHIEDOZIE Ogbene will be able to leave Rotherham United for free in the summer after the club resisted the temptation to cash in on their flying winger last month.
The January transfer window represented the Millers’ final chance to make money on their 25-year-old Republic of Ireland international whose contract expires at the end of the campaign.
However, they chose to keep the 25-year-old for the remainder of their push to stay in the Championship.
Ogbene had been a coveted man during the window but increased deadline-day offers failed to materialise.
“There were no late bids,” manager Matt Taylor said. “There was a lot of interest and some bids in the middle of the window, which we spoke to Chieo about.”
The player, who has rejected a new contract at AESSEAL New York Stadium, has made no secret of his dream to play in the Premier League one day but has always been happy to see out his deal and hasn’t agitated for a move.
“I can’t compliment Chieo enough for how open and honest he’s been in terms of his expectations and where he wants his ultimate destination to be,” Taylor said.
The longer the window went on, the less likely Rotherham were to sell an attacker set to be a key figure in the rest of their survival mission.
“We were comfortable in the last couple of weeks that unless something dramatic changed in terms of the figures being put in front of us for a player of his ilk and calibre that he would be staying at the club,” Taylor said.
The Millers paid a nominal fee to sign Ogbene from Brentford when he was a relative unknown in 2019.
They have since seen him star in two League One promotions and score in the Papa Johns Trophy Final triumph at Wembley.
TAYLOR ON OGBENE STAYING
“I am looking forward to what he produces up to the end of the season.
“He has been excellent in the last few of games and he is focused. There’s a brightness about him.
“I think he’s been motivated and encouraged by the bodies we have brought in. Hopefully there is less pressure on him now.
“It won’t just be: ‘Is he our attacking outlet, is he our legs, is he our pace?’ We can offset that with some of our other personnel.”
TAYLOR ON NO JAN 31 EXITS
“There was no late interest in terms of any permanent deals. There were phone calls in relation to loans but nothing concrete enough to put in front of the players.
“I’ve spoken to the players and said: ‘This is the group we’re working with until the end of the season’.
“It’s a good group right now because we don’t have a whole host of injuries. I expect training to go up a level. Competition for places makes that happen.”