Rotherham United: Millers and the summer striker pursuit
It was the player Rotherham United didn’t sign, not the 12 they did, who dominated the summer transfer window.
Fans were desperate to see the arrival of a new frontman after the June departures of Leon Best and Matt Derbyshire early in new boss Alan Stubbs’ reign.
Stubbs was just as keen. So was chairman Tony Stewart.
But when the bell tolled on the wheeling and dealing at 11pm last Wednesday, despite record bids and near-misses, a centre-forward was conspicuous only by his absence.
It didn’t help that one who nearly signed and another many supporters felt the Millers should have gone for were now residing at Oakwell, the scene of the 4-0 defeat against Championship neighbours Barnsley only four days earlier.
Tom Bradshaw (a scorer in that game) or Adam Armstrong - never on the radar, says Stubbs - would have gone a long way to appeasing followers’ frustration.
The main summer target, Lee Gregory, was still with League One Millwall, the South Londoners, under no pressure to sell, turning down a Rotherham offer of £1.4 million and asking for even sillier money than the agents who Stewart says are the reason why several other deals didn’t happen.
“Agents have had a dog’s dinner out of the window. They’re grinning like Cheshire cats,” said the Millers owner, mixing metaphor and simile but delivering a very clear message that no money man is going to hold his club to ransom.
Even so, Rotherham, accepting the difficulties of the market, were several times prepared to broker deals involving significantly bigger sums than they felt a player justified only to find the price being pushed ever higher.
They had wanted Christoffer Nyman, a 23-year-old international forward but unproven outside of his native country. He eventually left Sweden for the German second division, his agent having demanded more than £10,000 a week in wages for a move to South Yorkshire.
Stewart is right to make the Millers’ financial stability his overriding priority. It would be stupid to gamble too much of the club’s cash in the wrong areas, and Stewart is anything but a stupid man. His vision and drive created the post-Millmoor Rotherham and he runs a healthy Championship club that plays in a superb new stadium and carries no debt.
In a window where they have come in for heavy criticisim, they still broke their transfer record on Jon Taylor, spent more than they ever have before, with Anthony Forde, Will Vaulks, Dominic Ball and Darnell Fisher all costing fees, and were prepared to pay well into seven figures for a single player.
Against that, fans are entitled to feel that three months, whatever the obstacles, was enough time to deliver a striker of some description.
The Millers offered £500,000 for Bradshaw and thought they had a deal until Barnsley paid £650,000. Many wondered why they didn’t cough up the extra. Maybe if it had happened nearer the deadline they would have done. In truth, Gregory was always a player Rotherham coveted more.
The club are now looking at free agents to bolster a frontline heavily dependent on Danny Ward continuing his good form and his back condition being successfully managed as they look to lift themselves out of the bottom three when they return to action next Saturday at home to Bristol City after the international break.
Dexter Blackstock has severed his ties with Nottingham Forest and the Millers have made him a very good offer. He is a real possibility, depending on advances from other clubs, and Stewart expects more than one frontman to be added to the ranks.
A player no longer in those ranks is Richie Smallwood.
It would be wrong to say it was a surprise to see the 25-year-old depart for Scunthorpe United because the writing had been on the wall since Stubbs took him out of the starting 11 for the last two matches.
But it was no less sad to see the exit of a midfielder whose all-out commitment embodied the spirit of the Millers in the two and a bit seasons he was with them.
There is no fuss or frills about the 2014/15 Player of the Year, just an uncomplaining relish for the hard jobs and dirty work: stopping opponents, plugging gaps, tracking back and tackling above his weight.
He is an intelligent, combative figure who knows where he is needed and more often than not manages to put himself there.
Just as the window missed a striker, the Oakwell derby missed his presence in that second half when no-one stood as firm as he would have done in the face of the Red tide.
Stubbs, committed to a slick, attacking style of play, obviously believes two of the new boys, Tom Adeyemi or possibly the versatile Dominic Ball, can play that defensive midfield role to more fluent effect.
The frontman issue has clouded the window, but, while there is a pressing, short-term need for new recruits to gel, some of Stubbs’ business offers long-term encouragement.
Central defender Ball appears to be a player in the making, winger Taylor’s sharp, scampering threat should only increase as he adjusts to the demands of a higher division, right-back Fisher has pace and athleticism and winger Izzy Brown looks to have plenty to offer after his loan switch from Chelsea.
Vaulks was sensational in the first half of his opening-day debut against Wolves but has been less so since, and winger Forde and midfielders Jake Forster-Caskey and Scott Allan still have much to prove.
Some say the spirit of the last two survival campaigns is no longer there. It isn’t and it can’t be. Not yet.
The boss is new, many of his players are new, and true bonding is borne out of shared battles, out of highs and lows, team successes, collective disappointments.
Like spirit, Stubbs needs time. That’s always in short supply in professional football.
The chairman says he will be given it, but the manager will know that more heavy defeats in the manner of the Oakwell one could be damaging and that improvement must be evident.
A draw and a win represent a decent home league start, yet three successive away setbacks have seen 10 goals conceded, highlighting the size of the challenge now facing the manager in moulding, and moulding quickly, young, promising players of individual talent into a combined unit with the nous and steel required at this level.
Those away defeats have also seen the Millers fail to muster a solitary goal, which brings us back to where we were in June.
The need for a striker.