Rotherham United Season Preview: forgetting last year

Rotherham United finished their 16/17 Championship campaign 28 points adrift of safety – there hasn’t been a second-tier team in post-war history that has finished further away. Has a season like that damaged the pride the club had felt over the preceding years? Supporter Holly Hunt talks to The Football Lab ahead of the new season.

It does feel strange knowing that we were at one of our highest peaks a couple of years ago after back-to-back promotions and now we’re here. But that’s the way of the world – or the football world, at least. Everyone thought we would plummet straight back down from League One to League Two during the 13/14 campaign so we did well to get where we were. Maybe we’ll keep fluttering between the second and third tiers. That is one unwanted record, though, but if we have a good season then I think we can shift it to our unconscious minds for a few years!

Paul Warne shows limited confidence in his managerial ability and has a terrible record, yet has been given the job permanently. Clearly he is a nice man, but to me it seems questionable to stick with any part of a regime that has led to such extreme failure…

I wouldn’t say he has a terrible record, this is his first proper job as a first-team manager, after all. He was always confident in his ability as our first-team coach before. He was merely cleaning up the mess that Alan Stubbs had created before him, so I would say his was the extreme failure rather than Warne’s. Time will tell whether or not he’s suited to the dugout but he’s giving the fans the signings they want so we can only hope. You could say the fans like him because he’s a nice guy but put it this way, we’re in a better position this year than we were last season, in terms of pre-season progress.

Darren Potter was key to MK Dons’ promotion from this division in 14/15. With Richie Smallwood leaving, are you glad to have someone of his experience on board?

I would have liked more than anything if Smallwood had put pen to paper with a new contract. Again, we can’t really adjudge whether or not Potter is a suitable replacement because we haven’t seen him play enough just yet. Given there were a lot of clubs in pursuit of him, that’s always a good sign. Smallwood is arguably one of the best midfielders in the league and he’s joined a Blackburn side that seem to consist entirely of midfielders and good ones to, so we’ll have to see where he fits in there. But it’s good to have Darren Potter on board, we were lacking someone to give our midfield a bit of backbone for us last season and really run the show like there seemed to be in every other opposition we came up against.

Barnsley fans are complimentary of new winger Ryan Williams while forward David Ball has just had a good season at Fleetwood. Will they add some quality in attacking areas?

One of the journalists who reports on Rotherham United observed the other day that we have a real player in Ryan Williams. I think the only reason Barnsley didn’t make an attempt to re-sign him was his track record in the physio’s office. We have some young, talented wingers in Joe Newell, Anthony Forde, and Jon Taylor so he’ll just add to that quality and begin to build the kind of squad the fans were vying for. Plus, if he does get injured, we have lots of back up! As for David Ball, I’m very excited. Already he’s reigniting that partnership he had with Jamie Proctor a few years back at Fleetwood. It’s as if it was written in the stars that we’d face the Trawlermen in our first game back in the third tier! They have seven goals between them in three pre-season fixtures and although we’ve come up against the likes of ninth step Parkgate, as one of our fans rightly pointed out, you can only score against what’s in front of you.

Ball and fellow new striker Jamie Proctor play best with balls to feet, whereas Ipswich loanee Kieffer Moore is more of a target man. What do you expect the style of play to be this year?

I’m hoping the style of play will imitate that of the 13/14 promotion season (I keep banging on about it, I know, glory days and all that). Proctor is Alex Revell-esque and Moore is also scoring goals despite only being with us a matter of weeks. It’ll provide a good balance up front. We, as fans, asked for strikers and we’ve got them. I imagine Paul Warne might be looking to bring in another on a permanent basis, I know we were linked with Christian Doidge and Matt Godden and I’d welcome either one of them to the New York Stadium with open arms. Oh, and I’m hoping David Ball can conjure up another of those strikes like the one he saw nominated for the Puskas Goal of the Year!

Jonson Clarke-Harris’ decent displays from the bench over April earned him a one-year deal this summer. Do you hope to keep him fit?

Clarke-Harris will provide more options. I have to admit, when we’ve sent him out on various loan spells to League One clubs in the past such as Doncaster Rovers or MK Dons, he’s not come back with overly glowing reports. He seems to have turned a corner and time will tell but at least Paul Warne isn’t afraid to send him out on a temporary deal again if he doesn’t deliver.

Eight players have been released this summer. Considering that five of those players almost never featured last season, are you surprised more haven’t gone?

I can see more going. To be honest, some I’d even forgotten about such as the likes of Dominic Ball. He reminds me very much of Tom Thorpe who we signed from Manchester United with great expectations but didn’t get much of a look in. I think we can all agree that the one we really wanted off the wage bill (Dexter Blackstock, needless to say) has parted company so that’s the main thing. Any others that are surplus to requirements will just free up more space.

Two of the players leaving are Player of the Year Tom Adeyemi and top scorer Danny Ward. Are they the two players you’d want to have kept?

I think it was always unlikely that Tom Adeyemi was going to return. He never was our player to keep. At least by him going to Ipswich it made room for them to loan out a couple of lads to us. Tom Adeyemi would have challenged Smallwood for the best midfielder in the league in the third tier but that’s partly the reason why we couldn’t entice him back! He spoke highly of us, nonetheless, and said we were the only League One club he would have been signed for so we wish him all the luck. Danny Ward would have bagged 20 goals-or-so I would have hoped in League One but I’d rather have around £2million for him than see him leave for nothing at the end of the season. The new signings are already rendering him a distant memory and let’s be honest, multimillion pounds for someone who scored something like 11 goals is what I’d call cracking business!

Michael Ihiekwe did well in the National League with Tranmere last season. Do you think he will step up two divisions?

Ihiekwe (don’t make my type that again) is the blueprint of the kind of player the fans crave so much. We’d rather sign upcoming prospects from non-league than has-beens or performers of the Scottish leagues. It’s a big step up but alongside Semi Ajayi, I think he could do well. Saying that, Ajayi and Aimen Belaid looked a good fit for the central defence last season so it’s disappointing hearing reports of the latter being linked with Luton Town. He never really did too much wrong, in my eyes.

Joe Mattock should be a solid left-back for League One level. Are you pleased he has signed a new deal?

Joe Mattock and Ben Purrington will likely battle it out for the number three shirt and again, it’s a good balance of stalwarts and starlets (not that Mattock is that old!). Mattock is reliable and sometimes can look more like a winger than a full-back! He can put in a mean cross. I think the left-flank is covered now and I’m a Mattock fan so I’m pleased, personally, that he’s remaining with us.

After shipping 98 goals last year, most clubs would want to sign a goalkeeper. Is Lewis Price or Richard O’Donnell good enough to be number one?

We’re going to have to re-evaluate our expectations after having Lee Camp between the sticks for a couple of years! Both have made their mistakes but both should be more than capable in League One. I think Warne may choose O’Donnell as our number one next season but we’ll wait and see. There’s likely to be some chopping and changing within the first few fixtures.

What are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I think it will be tougher than when we last went up. There always seems to be a team you expect to languish somewhere in mid-table that shine unexpectedly and it’s hard to say who that might be. I didn’t see Scunthorpe coming last season, for example. All of the teams that went down will be looking to bounce straight back up and have the potential to do so (i.e. Blackburn) and the ones that came up will be looking to build on that momentum (i.e. Portsmouth). Doncaster Rovers will always be a main rivalry for us and they have a good squad ready for what’s to come.

Where will you finish?

For us it has to be play-offs. Somewhere between third and sixth place is my prediction, despite being tipped to take a nose-dive back down to League Two.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

The quality of player Rotherham have signed – Ball a positive addition – should not be underestimated, but nor should the scale of the slump they look to arrest. 17 players remain from last year, as does Warne, who is yet to prove his leadership skills. The pain of 33 defeats in one season cannot be overcome without major structural change. 17th

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