Suddenly, the walking wounded are up and running again to give Rotherham United a major lift ahead of tomorrow night’s derby showdown with Sheffield Wednesday.
After his injury-hit side drew 1-1 with Reading in the Championship on Tuesday, Millers manager Neil Redfearn had talked about “patching up and putting back together” his squad in readiness for the test against the Owls, believing some of his key men would be unavailable.
But midfielder Joe Newell returned to training yesterday, attacker Danny Ward’s back spasm has cleared and left-back Joe Mattock returns to the fold today after a shoulder problem.
“The situation easing has come at a good time,” Redfearn said, “The other day, it was a bit worrying. We have 23/24 in the squad and we’d lost five main first-team players. We got a result and a performance out of the Reading game, and it’s given me chance to think.
“What it did do was reduce the average age of the side by quite a bit. It was a young side out there, which bodes well.”
Five of the starting 11 against the second-placed Royals were 22 or under. One of them, Tom Thorpe, who wasn’t making the matchday squad before Redfearn’s arrival, excelled in a defensive midfield role while 20-year-old left-back Harry Toffolo, on loan from Norwich City, enjoyed a debut to remember,
“Thorpe was superb. He’s comfortable in possession is Tom and he sees a pass. He’s a footballing centre-half but I think that defensive midfield role suits him,” Redfearn said.
“It give us a bit of physical presence in front of the back four and makes it that little bit easier for our centre-halves. I thought he picked his passes and worked the ball between the lines really well. I tell you what he did do well, he cat-and-moused - he pinched the ball in front of the back four, then he broke stuff up, then he pushed into midfield.
“He’s a good size. When things drop loose, he wins headers and tackles and breaks things up. He gives you a catalyst to go an break off. He’s a footballer. He can deal with the ball.”
England under-20 international Toffolo has joined Rotherham for a month and fits in with Redfearn’s philosophy, now pervading the Millers camp, of developing young potential.
“Harry’s an outstanding talent. We’re really fortunate to have him. He’s going to have a great career,” the manager said, “He’s got a maturity and composure about his game that belies his years.
“We gave hime a tough ask, up against Nick Blackman, but I thought he stuck to it really well. Second half, he started coming out on top. He read the play well and intercepted. He stood up. His quality going forward makes a real difference.”
The Millers also have last seasons’s Player of the Year, midfielder Richie Smallwood, ready to play again after a one-match ban, with skipper Lee Frecklington the only definite absentee tomorrow night at a sold-out AESSEAL New York Stadium as he recovers from a calf complaint.
Despite his focus on youth, Redfearn, who played until he was nearly 40, appreciates the value of old heads in the heat of the battle for South Yorkshire bragging right.
“I think you have to concentrate on the key points in the game. There will be mistakes. That’s the nature of it, because the tempo will be high and the atmosphere will be white hot,” he said.
“It’s important that the experienced players in your side come to the fore in these occasions because they’re a different sort of game.”