Sheffield Wednesday have Rotherham United figures to thank for big hand in remarkable defensive turnaround

Michael Smith, Michael Ihiekwe, Will Vaulks. To a lesser extent see Jack Hunt and David Stockdale.
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Sheffield Wednesday have Rotherham United to thank for the growth of several key players to have made an impact on their title effort this season so far.

The two clubs, set only seven miles apart, were set at loggerheads in the summer over the Owls’ stealing of the former pair on free transfer terms from Paul Warne’s promotion-sealing side.

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Months later the gristle formed between the two fan bases seems to have relented thanks in part to their divisional separation and the forming of two successful seasons, with Wednesday pushing for a record League One points total and the Millers happily dancing away from the Championship relegation spots thanks to a new year bump in fortune.

Wednesday keeper Cameron Dawson has been a revelation between the sticks this season. Pic: Steve Ellis.Wednesday keeper Cameron Dawson has been a revelation between the sticks this season. Pic: Steve Ellis.
Wednesday keeper Cameron Dawson has been a revelation between the sticks this season. Pic: Steve Ellis.

But there is more Wednesday should thank Rotherham figures for as they eye up something remarkable – the coaching staff who stepped in after Warne’s Derby departure having played such a hand in rescuing the stuttering career of Cameron Dawson while on loan with them at Exeter City last season.

The Millhouses-raised 27-year-old had been shunted down the pecking order at S6 thanks in no small part to a knee injury that ended his 2020/21 season long before Darren Moore even touched down in the Hillsborough hotseat.

A decision to send him to Devon last time out proved inspired and since his surprise usurping of summer signing David Stockdale in December, he has collected a frankly remarkable nine clean sheets in 12 League One matches.

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As per Wyscout’s xG-powered metric of goals prevented per 90 minutes, only Morecambe’s Connor Ripley, Wycombe’s Max Stryjek and Michael Cooper of Plymouth tally higher than Dawson’s 0.31 in the entire division.

Speaking to The Star, the Owls keeper hides nothing when describing his admiration of the work done by new Millers boss Matt Taylor and his coaching team of Wayne Carlisle and goalkeeper coach Scott Brown, who also doubled-up as Dawson’s deputy at times last season.

“He was incredible,” Dawson said on Taylor’s influence on his goalkeeping renaissance. “I don’t have the words for not only Matt but Wayne and Scott. They picked me up from nowhere, I went down there with 24 hours notice, filled the tank up and off I went.

“They were fantastic with me, gave me everything I needed and pushed me. They wanted more and more. I was playing well and they kept pushing me for more and more.

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“It was never a case of me going down there, keeping a few clean sheets and cruising. They wanted to maximise everything they possibly could out of me and that’s the type of people they are, they want to maximise every little thing they have at their disposal.

“That’s the reason Exeter City have been so successful, down to their hunger to maximise everything they have.”

Dawson jumped into his time on the south coast whole-heartedly, spending time learning to surf and taking time out for the sort of mindfulness and self-reflection that has seen him arrive back at Wednesday a far more consistent and well-rounded goalkeeper.

In media engagements he seems to be confident and jovial, the proud owner of shoulders that have taken the brunt of occasional supporter angst and the in-out nature of a past life on the keeper carousel with Kieren Westwood and his great pal Joe Wildsmith.

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Once clouded by questions around his concentration, Dawson has so far risen beyond them, making vital saves in matches he was otherwise rendered a spectator by growling and dominant Owls defensive efforts.

The spot for now at least looks his for keeps despite competition from a goalkeeper far more experienced and a decade his senior in Stockdale, who himself had rode high in the EFL clean sheet charts prior to his stepping aside. Stockdale has since been a champion of Dawson’s success.

Spot kick saves in Sheffield derbies aside perhaps, last season’s promotion from League Two surely ranks as the highlight of a burgeoning career – a turning point of a tale that threatened to throw Dawson into a busy room of once-fancied youth internationals who for whatever reason failed to make a sustained impact on the senior game.

His last outing in front of supporters coming in a 5-0 thrashing at Brentford in which he was sarcastically jeered by a small section of the brow-beaten Wednesday support, the lifelong Wednesdayite is getting used to having his name sung in far more glowing terms from the terraces this time around.

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And though not full-circle just yet, it’s a pleasant curve he credits the now-Rotherham coaching trio for facilitating having asked his agent to ‘Find me a home where I am going to be taken in and loved.’ That he got.

“I speak to them now from time to time,” Dawson said. “Scott Brown I speak to regularly.

“I dropped Matt a text when they got the job and I’ve spoken to the others more recently. We had a fantastic time and you build relationships with people, not just with those guys but I have fantastic relationships with a lot of players and staff at that club.

“That often happens when you have success together. That success comes from where the camp is in a good and spirited place and there are similarities with what we have here [at Wednesday]. Hopefully that stands us in good stead for the run-in.

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“They’re doing good things and starting to put their own stamp on things at Rotherham now so I wish them all the best and hopefully we can get the job done this year, they can stay up and we can do battle next year.”

With Wednesday 21 unbeaten and the Millers eight clear of the drop zone, you wouldn’t bet against it.