Rotherham United: No airs, no graces, but a big heart ... farewell, Richie Smallwood

Richie Smallwood celebrates at Wembley
Richie Smallwood celebrates at Wembley

On the train departing Brentford Rail Station sat an ageing Bees fan deep in conversation with an inconspicuous figure in a Rotherham United tracksuit top.

The Millers had just been beaten 4-2 and, less than an hours after the final whistle, the pair were earnestly going through events at Griffin Park.

As the carriages rattled and creaked towards central London, little did the old fella realise who his companion was.

Richie Smallwood.

Millers midfielder. Man of the people. Working-class kid. Richie Smallwood.

The pensioner jumped off around Vauxhall, bidding cheery farewells, his Brentford FC scarf flailing in the February wind, still not knowing who he’d just encountered. It had never occured to Smallwood, heading off to spend a night in the capital with a pal, to tell him.

A scorer at MK Dons

A scorer at MK Dons

Smallwood lives like he plays. No fuss, no airs, no graces. A professional footballer with the same outlook as the folk he knows in the old ICI factory dominating the bleak area of Teesside where he grew up.

Rotherham have benefited from his contribution for more than three seasons, but the player who scored in the 2014 Wembley League One Play-off Final penalty shoot-out success against Leyton Orient and went on to prove himself in the Championship is heading out of New York Stadium.

The offer of a new deal has been refused and the Millers, relegated from the second tier, will compete in a lower division next season without a player who made 133 appearances after arriving, initially on loan, from Boro in January of the play-off year.

As a defensive midfielder, he was as good as anyone in League One and a match for many in the second tier. He could read a game, anticipate problems, stop the threats. If there was opposition danger, he would be somewhere near it, doing his best to snuff it out.

With regular midfield partner Lee Frecklington

With regular midfield partner Lee Frecklington

His stocky legs weren’t quick, but they could tackle, intercept and give a pass. He was criticised in some quarters for going sideways too much and forwards not often enough. Sometimes, too much was made of what he couldn’t do in attack rather than what he could in defence.

He was an effective, honest, wholehearted Rotherham player who stood up for himself when the heat was on. The Millers may miss him next year.

Kenny Jackett didn’t stick around long enough to say very much as Millers manager last season but he did find time to mention how tough his old Wolves side had found Smallwood and partner in crime Lee Frecklington to come up against.

Strange, he added, that his predecessor, Alan Stubbs, should have allowed the midfield man to go out on loan to Scunthorpe United in a relegation campaign when the club were crying out for battlers of the 26-year-old’s calibre.

Remember the carnage at Oakwell in August, when Stubbs went with Scott Allan and Jake Forster-Caskey in central midfield and Barnsley ran riot in the second half to win 4-0?

Smallwood watched from the bench, as bemused and horrified as the rest of us, before heading off to Glanford Park a few days later.

Paul Warne, in his stint in caretaker charge, wasted no time in bringing him back and was immediately rewarded with a man-of-the-match performance as the Millers stunned Norwich City in a 2-1 win at New York on January 14.

Smallwood was a virtual ever-present as the season drew to a close. But Warne, now at the helm permanently, obviously feels he can bring in better. There was enough money in the budget to keep Smallwood but the boss has decided it could be more wisely spent elsewhere.

The midfield man was brought to the club by Steve Evans and, after a slowish start, became a huge presence as the club marched into the second tier.

His first match was a 2-2 home draw against Crawley Town. Evans, contorted in red-faced anger, screamed at him from the sideline when a short pass out of defence was intercepted.

The surprise on the player’s face was evident. He wasn’t used to that from the composed Aitor Karanka at the Riverside. But he adapted quickly. There would be no more b*llockings. Evans made the deal a full one the following August and would never have let him leave on loan.

In the Championship, Evans, Neil Redfearn and Neil Warnock never wavered in their admiration for him.

He was a quiet lad but confident in his ability, with a strong sense of his own worth. Fellow Millers players liked and respected a genuine character and a 100 per cent grafter.

He left with a touch of class. After politely turning down the chance to be interviewed, he posted on his Twitter page a touching message in which he thanked fans and everyone in the Millers camp for an “eventful and fantastic” three years.

Wembley, he said, was the obvious highlight, but he’d also been moved by the warmth of the supporters’ reception when he ran out to face the Canaries on his homecoming from Scunthorpe.

He was a regular and popular visitor to the New York media suite, although getting a soundbite out of him was tougher than facing him in a 50:50.

He had the same answer for most things. Brexit? World peace? Three losses in a row? There was nothing, according to Richie, that couldn’t be sorted by getting back on the training ground and working hard.

There weren’t many goals, just four if you include the play-off-final shoot-out. But one of them was that 20-yard corker in front of 3,000 away fans in the 4-0 survival romp at MK Dons during Warnock’s reign. His teammates of the time still claim he shinned it!

Wembley provided me with one of my favourite memories of him. Adam Collin saved the last shoot-out spot-kick and the delirious Millers raced en masse towards their goalkeeper from the halfway line. Except Smallwood. Always his own man, and for reasons known only to himself, he shot off in the opposite direction.

It’s sad to see him leave, but no-one will handle his farewell with more equanimity than him. He knows it’s part of the job. Life moves on. So will he. The working-class kid. No fuss, no airs, no graces.

He is settled in the area and said he wanted to stay. But, just as Warne had a price he wouldn’t go beyond, Smallwood had a figure he wouldn’t drop below.

He goes, with everyone’s best wishes, because he was made an offer he could refuse.

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