Rotherham United: Richard Wood column ... Millers defender Woody on how an elbow from an old pro welcomed him to men’s football

Steve Stone
Steve Stone

The Millers reserves were in action on Tuesday against Hartlepool, and it was good for me to get some match fitness along with four other senior pros who made the journey up to the North-east.

A lot of players criticise reserve games and say that they are nothing like first-team games and that the tempo is slow and laboured. For me, however, it has more of an edge than training, and if I haven’t played many minutes in the first team then I’d always welcome any sort of competitive football game.

Reserve-team football gives the chance for the academy lads to play a part, which happened at Hartlepool.

Rotherham’s academy don’t train at our training ground so it was the first time I’d seen some of the new first-year scholars. It’s a great experience for them to be around the senior pros because at the end of the day they are aspiring to be like them and make a career in the game.

Being with the young lads brought back memories for me. It seems ages ago now, talking about my academy days, but I benefitted massively from playing reserve football at the start of my career.

To play with and against some very good senior professionals was very rewarding as a young player trying to forge a career. I tried to learn as much as I could when I was involved and I could see the level I had to reach to make it in the game.

Academy football is okay but the real test is when you come up against proper men who know the game and then you can see if young players have got what it takes.

I had just turned 16 when I played for Sheffield Wednesday reserves in a game against Aston Villa. I was a substitute and came on at left-back with 30 minutes to go.

Playing on the wing for Villa that night was Steve Stone. A cross came into the box and I went up for a header at the far post with Stone. He caught me late and gave me a nasty elbow to the eye, and I’ll never forget his words: “Welcome to men’s football, Son!”

The following year or so playing for the reserves was a steep learning curve and gave me a great platform to play my football. Playing alongside senior pros certainly got me up to speed and I quickly realised I had to step up my game, compared to academy football.

Young players need to be integrated into the first team/reserve set up as quickly as possible. I’ve seen so many players do well throughout their academy years, look good every Saturday morning and when they eventually become a pro they look all at sea when it comes to playing with the senior lads.

It was good to see the new academy players on Tuesday and hopefully Millers fans will see more products of the academy in the first team soon.

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