The runners and riders for Rotherham United Player of the Year

Semi AjayiSemi Ajayi
Semi Ajayi
It's that time of year when votes start being cast for the Millers' stand-out performer this season. PAUL DAVIS assesses the options


SEMI Ajayi, with his six goals in five games even though he sees himself as a defender, or selfless Michael Smith who runs himself into the ground up front in every single game?

Joe Mattock, full of class and consistency at left-back this season, or cool, calm Clark Robertson who has added a sense of solid assurance to the heart of the Rotherham United rearguard?

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Will Vaulks, the midfielder born to compete, jump high and throw long, or Marek Rodak, the talented kid keeper who has come of age in the Championship with the Millers?

Will Vaulks

Or maybe you'd go for someone in manager Paul Warne's squad not on our suggested list of six.

Here are the runners and riders for the top individual award at AESSEAL New York Stadium in 2018/19.


Semi Ajayi

38 league appearances, seven goals

Ajayi has excelled at centre-half, done well at right-back and is taking the division by storm in his recent role as a holding midfielder who knows where the net is. Six goals in his last five games is a freakish return and one that could help Rotherham win their battle to stay in the Championship. Ajayi's injury record is also excellent — he's played in every league game.

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Warne quote: “Semi is on fire at the moment. He's growing into the sitting midfield role and has added to his game the goal threat that I always thought he had in him. He has the physicality to play at a higher level.”


Michael Smith

38 league appearances, five goals

Like Ajayi, 'Smudge' has featured in every league encounter. The 6ft 4in centre-forward never stops running and no defender gets an easy game against him. He's still going as hard in the last minute as he is in the first, while his deft feet give him the instant control to be a really effective link-up man. The only criticism of his game is that he doesn't score enough.

Warne quote: “The amount of work he gets through is unbelievable. If he was chipping in goals at a regular rate we would do very well to hang on to him. Opposing staff usually have nothing but praise for him. He gives the opposition a real game.”


Joe Mattock

37 league appearances, one goal

'Dopey Joe' has quietly gone about his business of being arguably Rotherham's most consistent performer of the campaign. The left-back has racked up one good game after another and was a Championship ever-present until a ban for ten yellow cards forced him to miss out against Norwich City a fortnight ago.

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Warne quote: “I do love him, but there is no way I would ever have him on my quiz team. Fortunately, he has a good football brain and has been outstanding for us.”


Clark Robertson

22 league appearances, two goals

The form of Richard Wood and then injury meant a frustrating start to his Millers career for Robertson. Since coming into the side in late October the Scot has looked as accomplished as any centre-half at this level. He does all the basics well and is comfortable in possession.

Warne quote: “He's barely put a foot wrong since he started playing for us. He can do everything defensively, his control is good and he has a good 'diag' (diagonal pass) on him. He should earn Scotland recognition if he carries on like this.”


Will Vaulks

35 league appearances, five goals

The man with the rocket shot and rocket throw-in has now rocketed into the Welsh reckoning following his call-up by Ryan Giggs. The heartbeat of the Millers team, the midfielder never shirks a challenge and leads by example.

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Warne quote: “Will just wants to play football. Along with Richard Wood, he is a leader in our dressing room. He lives his life the right way so that he can be the best he possibly can. He is really competitive and plays with his heart on his sleeve. I was delighted to see him called up by Wales.”


Marek Rodak

38 league appearances, no goals

Another league ever-present, goalkeeper Rodak started his season on loan from Fulham in stunning form, dropped off a little and is now looking close to his best again. He's still learning and there's a midjudgement in him from time to time, but he's saved Rotherham many, many more times than he's cost them.

Marek Rodak

Warne quote: “I like my goalkeepers to be a bit maverick so I have no issue with Marek punching the ball rather than catching it at times. People sometimes forget he's only just turned 22. He's been excellent for us.”


How Warne’s other men have fared ... a look at every player still on the Millers’ books who has made at least one league appearance this season.


Billy Jones

16 league appearance, no goals

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The right-back wasn't available enough earlier this term but has been a major contributor in recent weeks. He really knows his position, never looks ruffled on the ball and nearly always makes the right decision. His Premier League pedigree shines through.

Warne quote: “He's just  a great pro who has been there and done it. He had a stop-start beginning to the season because of injuries and illness but has been very consistent lately. He gives advice to Zak Vyner which is some measure of the man considering theyre rivals for the same spot.


Zak Vyner

27 league appearances, no goals

Athletic and willing, the youngster has played as a right-back or a wing-back during his loan spell from Bristol City even though his favoured position is centre-half. A fast, tricky winger can give him trouble, but he sticks to his task, gets forward well and is always looking to put the ball into the box.

Warne quote: “Zak is a brilliant lad. He's a great trainer. He listens and wants to learn and he's put in some good performances for us.”


Michael Ihiekwe

Eight league appearances, no goals

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The centre-half has done better than anyone expected after returning from a loan spell at Accrington Stanley. His game suits the Championship, where sharpness and pace are prized more than physicality, and he is now a first-choice pick.

Warne quote: “Michael went out on loan to Accrington and came back a more confident player. Since he got back in our team I've never even considered leaving him out. I'm really pleased with him.”


Richard Wood

23 league appearances, one goal

The two-goal warhorse of last season's Wembley promotion glory is still going strong, although his path to a regular starting role has been barred by Robertson's emergence. The captain  and centre-half (pictured) remains a big figure in the Millers camp.

Warne quote: “Woody has been magnificent for me. He's an old-school centre-half warrior and, more than any other player, gives us an attacking edge at set-pieces. He puts his body on the line. Even when he's been on the bench, he's stayed positive. The lads look up to him.”


Jon Taylor

35 league appearances, four goals

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The scurrying winger, as usual, has delighted and dismayed in equal measure and nobody knows that better than he does. His pace and non-stop directness mean he is a nightmare to play against when he's on song. A little more thought and quality at key moments would make him a complete attacker.

Warne quote: “Tayls takes us up the pitch quickly and his pace and energy stretches the opposition. He just loves playing. He'll still be playing five-a-side with his mates when he's in his 40s.”


Anthony Forde

22 league appearances, one goal

A diligent worker in and out of possession, the winger can deliver a quality cross and set-piece. He has been a safe bet for Warne this term after initially being out of favour until December. Forde lacks the explosiveness of someone like Taylor but can generally be relied upon to give a certain level of performance. Of all the four wingers at Rotherham, he has put in the best defensive shifts.

Warne quote: “When he was out of the team earlier in the season, he always turned up for training with a smile on his face and gave 100 per cent. I like his attitude.”


Richie Towell

27 league appearances, four goals

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A key man in the League One promotion campaign, Towell has also had his moments in the Championship during his second season on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion. The midfielder is a hard worker and has a competitive edge to his game. He has stood out less often than he did last year but at times has really taken games to the opposition.

Warne quote: “We had talks in January about him signing a permanent deal. Unfortunately, we couldn't come to an agreement then, but we'll look at it again in the summer.”


Ben Wiles

15 league appearances, no goals

This has been the breakthrough season for the gifted teenager who Joe Newell and many other teammates are tipping to become a Millers legend if he stays at his home-town club. The Rawmarsh prospect can do a bit and a lot of everything in midfield. Confident not cocky, he's willing to back himself and he's already made his mark on the Championship. A star in the making.

Ben Wiles

Warne quote: “We asked Wilesy to come back last summer bigger and stronger and he did that. He's been outstanding in some games for us. He has the best legs at the club and always wants to go forward. Before he got into the side, we sometimes gave him an opposition role in training and the first team couldn't get near him.”


Matt Crooks

Ten league appearances, no goals

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Crooks is a big lad for a midfielder, covers the ground well and has a surprising turn of pace. He's still adjusting to the Championship after his January move from Northampton Town but most of the signs are encouraging.

Warne quote: “He's ideal for us. He is a box-to-box midfielder, he's a good size and he can play with the ball in tight areas. He will go on to be a goal threat for us.”


Matt Palmer

Ten league appearances, no goals

Palmer can certainly get and give a ball and he was given his chance early in the season but Warne decided he needed more power and the midfielder hasn't featured in the second tier since New Year's Day.

Warne quote: “He's obviously found it frustrating being out of the team but he's not out of our plans. He just has to keep working hard and take his chance if and when it comes.”


Joe Newell

24 league appearances, no goals

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Starts and substitute appearances in equal measure - 12 and 12 - probably say it all about the silky-skilled left winger. When he comes off the bench, he often does enough to merit a start in the next match. But sometimes what he does when he starts sees him back on the bench for the game after. Glides rather than runs when he's at his unplayable best. If only more of his 90-minute displays matched the 30-minute ones.

Warne quote: “Newelly is probably the most talented player with a ball at his feet that we've got. I don't think he plays badly when he starts a game. It is just that sometimes when he comes on as a sub and the game is stretched, he is unbelievable.”


Ryan Williams

31 league appearances, one goal

Mixing speed and trickery in equal measure, the Australian winger looked a player of genuine Championship quality, whether he was deployed out wide or just behind Smith, until a hamstring injury laid him low. He has yet to re-establish himself in the side.

Warne quote: “Willo has been close to getting into the Australian squad for a while. If he keeps improving, he can play higher in the Championship and also hopefully for his country.


Kyle Vassell

19 league appearances, no goals

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It's been a tough first year at New York for the centre-foward who found himself in an unfamiliar role out wide. He used his pace and power to good effect in some games, particularly in a 0-0 draw at Middlesbrough, before needing a groin operation in February. A return to the first-team fold isn't far away.

Warne quote:He's still learning but he's got two rocket feet and he can score with either. He's aggressive and strong and he adds a different dimension to our attack. His absence has been a blow to us.”


Jamie Proctor

16 league appearances, two goals

Proctor has suffered horribly with injuries since joining the club in the summer of 2017 and hip surgery ended the centre-forward's season just after Christmas. He made a contribution earlier in the campaign, mainly off the bench, particularly at home to Sheffield United when he scored an added-time equaliser with his first touch.

Warne quote: “He's at the stage in his rehab now where he's back at Roundwood and around the lads. That's great for him and us. It can be lonely for a player when he's injured and away from the training ground.”


Jerry Yates

Six league appearances, no goals

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The centre-forward returned a better player in January after his loan stay at Carlisle United. There hasn't been enough of a goal threat from him for Warne to consider regularly starting him up front with Smith, but the manager is a fan of his workrate and his running power.

Warne quote: “Jerry went out on loan to Carlisle and came back stronger and sharper. He has deserved to be in our squad.


David Ball

One league appearance, no goals

Warne decided against Ball's talents as a 'number 10' after a 5-1 opening-day defeat against Brentford and the payer is spending the season on loan at Bradford City.

Warne quote: “I love Bally. He is a great professional. I let him go out on loan because I couldn't guarantee him minutes on the pitch.”