Rotherham United: The man to bring out the Best in Millers

Leon Best

Leon Best

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He’s a striker who hasn’t scored a goal in competitive action for 20 months, yet Rotherham United are pinning much of their survival hope on new boy Leon Best.

Despite the prolonged dry spell, there’s little doubt the former top-flight marksman will improve the Millers when he returns from a three-match ban at Huddersfield Town on Tuesday.

The centre-forward was sent off on his debut in the 1-0 win at Leeds United last month but had shown in the 73 minutes he was on the pitch how much he can bring to a Rotherham side fighting to escape the Championship drop zone.

Best last registered on April 18 2014 in a 4-2 win at AFC Bournemouth for Sheffield Wednesday during a loan spell with the Owls.

Perhaps a more pertinent statistic for everyone in the Millers camp is the 10 goals he scored in 31 Premier League starts for Newcastle United.

He is a tough, wily, experienced campaigner and just what Rotherham need right now after suffering two narrow defeats to stall the momentum built by successive victories against Leeds and Bristol City.

Grant Ward against Blackburn

Grant Ward against Blackburn

The 29-year-old was a real handful for the home defence at Elland Road with his pace, power and know-how and, crucially, striker partner Jonson Clarke-Harris, freed of the responsibility of leading the line at the tender age of 21, had one of his most effective games in a Millers shirt.

Best lost his way during three frustrating seasons at Blackburn Rovers following a £3 million switch from the Magpies, but how Rotherham could have done with him when they slipped to a 1-0 reverse they didn’t deserve against his old club at Ewood Park on Friday.

“We were the better side, particularly in the second half,” said Rotherham boss Neil Redfearn after watching loan midfielder Luke Hyam head past his own goalkeeper 30 minutes into his first start for the club

“We have got to stay upbeat. That’s four performances on the trot now which have been good. We played well and made them look ordinary at times. The performance was heartening, as was the application of the lads, which was first-class.

Jonson Clarke-Harris

Jonson Clarke-Harris

“For me, although the result was not right, it was a step forward, not back. The performance was really good, but we have to take points from performances like that. We can’t play well and not get something. It’s something we have got to work on.

“If we’d had their striker, Jordan Rhodes, in our side, we’d have probably won 3 or 4-1, and that’s the difference between the sides. But we are playing a lot better and must turn these margins in our favour.”

In a poor game where defences were on top, the visitors restricted a side now unbeaten in seven matches to just two clear sights of goal, both set up by former AESSEAL New York Stadium loan favourite Tom Lawrence.

But Hyam, so impressive in two previous appearances off the bench, missed an early chance, was denied by a timely block in the second half as he tried to turn in Grant Ward’s cross and inadvertently scored the game’s only goal in between.

Luke Hyam

Luke Hyam

Lee Frecklington and Clarke-Harris were also thwarted by last-ditch interventions and Joe Newell had a shot saved as the Millers threatened the Rovers goal but, just like in the 2-1 loss to Wolves, were unable to convert pressure into clear-cut chances.

“Luke put a real shift in,” Redfearn said. “The kid was trying his best to clear danger, got on the wrong side of it and it ended up in our net. But I will never criticise players who work hard, roll their sleeves up and have a go. We win and lose together and stick together as a team.”

Right midfielder Ward, with his probing runs and desire to make something happen, was Rotherham’s main attacking threat, and Paul Lambert, who has three wins and a draw from his four games as Blackburn’s new manager, accepted his side were fortunate to take all three points.

“Performance wise, we are so much better than that, but you also have to give credit to Rotherham,” he said. “They went up to Middlesbrough not too long ago and just got beat 1-0 - and Middlesbrough are flying.

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“It wasn’t a great game and Rotherham made it difficult, as I knew they would. They’re a hard team to play against.”

Joe Newell runs at the Rovers defence

Joe Newell runs at the Rovers defence

Tuesday’s clash at the John Smith’s Stadium, against a team close to them in the table, now assumes even more significance for the second-bottom Millers who passed up the chance in Lancashire to climb out of the bottom three.

Redfearn, who plans to add to his options in attack and defence in the January transfer window, knows the importance of staying in contention with the sides just above them until he can bring in reinforcements.

“At the moment, we’re quite strong in midfield. We’ve got the legs and aggression. There’s enough in there to get hold of games,” the Rotherham boss said.

“Football, in the cold light of day, is about both penalty boxes - that’s where we’ve got to strengthen.”

Joe Mattock, who made a solid return at left-back against Rovers after his hamstring injury, reckoned: “We’ve got to dig in and grind out results because, no doubt about it, we’ve got the players to do it. There’s definitely enough quality in the squad already to keep us up. I see it day in, day out in training.”

And, much as he thought the Millers deserved something from their trip across the Pennines two days ago, he added: “If I had to choose, I’d take three points at Huddersfield rather than at Blackburn, definitely.

“We’ve had some good performances. I think, if we just keep digging in, we can get a result there, and that will be good for us.

“Leon Best will be up for selection. He’s a good, strong player who offers a lot. If he’s back in the side, I’m sure we’ll see some positive outcomes.”

The Terriers, beaten at home 2-1 by Bristol City on Saturday, are 20th in the table and have lost their last four matches on their own patch. A win by two goals or more would see Rotherham go above a side now managed by David Wagner after the sacking of Chris Powell five games ago.

Defender Stephen Kelly and attacker Danny Ward are both making good progress after injuries and are on course to be available on Tuesday, but there’s no question that Best is the man the Millers are looking to to make things happen.

“I am hoping Best, Kelly and Danny Ward will be available,” Redfearn said, “The signs are good and looking that way, and that will be a big plus.

“If you look at where we are at the moment, we have got to have our best 11 out there and be at full tilt to get results.”

Best is almost certain to start in West Yorkshire, finally feeling at home at a club which appreciates his presence after those 36 months at Rovers where he started only nine league matches and was sent out on loan to Wednesday, Derby County and Brighton.

He bagged five goals in 13 starts for the Owls, but last season drew blanks at the Rams, where he made 15 league appearances, all from the bench, and the Seagulls, where he started six games and was used seven times as a substitute.

It may be a long time since that spring day on the south coast when Best was last able to put his name on a Championship scoresheet, but the recent omens are good.

The Millers played a behind-closed-doors friendly last week against Doncaster Rovers.

Result: 3-2 to the Millers. Among the scorers: L Best.