Like Sunderland, Rotherham have endured a difficult start to the season, losing 4-1 to Stoke and throwing away a two-goal lead with Blackburn - how would you summarise your start?
Will Daniels: Well, it’s certainly been eventful!
The Stoke game was a rude awakening to our Championship campaign. I rate Stoke highly and I think they’ll be in the playoff picture but for me we looked ill-prepared and some of the defending was laughable. We got everything we deserved. Didn’t really lay a glove on Stoke at any point.
We improved against Blackburn, although at 2-0 I didn’t feel we’d been at our sparkling best. It was a marked improvement from what we’d seen previously. The red card changed the game exponentially and in the end, taking a point from the game was probably a good result. Strange to admit after being two up but on another day, we could have lost it.
I saw online that Fred Onyedinma was controversially sent off, but Blackburn’s Sammie Szmodics escaped a second yellow for kicking the ball away, I’m guessing Rotherham fans aren’t too happy with this season’s new rules?
WD: I can confirm the fans were, and in some cases still are, absolutely raging about the new rules. I think it’s fair to say that the entire stadium went into meltdown, players, staff, fans alike, when Fred received the second yellow.
It’s a seismic change to the game never seen before in my lifetime. My personal issue is that the issue with refereeing previously was the lack of communication relating to decisions made, now it would seem you aren’t able to even ask a referee why they have made a decision without being yellow carded.
The lack of consistency seems to be the big irk for Rotherham fans, who saw their side punished for the same things Blackburn weren’t.
We were probably one of the teams that were going to struggle with the change the most. We’re one of the sides with the lowest ball-in-play time in the EFL. I predict the extra 15 minutes in a game (on average), will make games even harder for a team like Rotherham to manage. Against Stoke, they fetched Wesley off the bench, we fetched academy graduate Josh Kayode on. The quality is going to tell over a longer period of time. I also believe the quality of the games will be lower as a result of the time added, because players will conserve energy to try to get through the 105 minutes they’re being asked to play.
Either way, whether we like it or not, the game is changing and as a team, we need to adapt. Although I don’t agree with Fred Onyedinma’s red card from Saturday, that’s two red cards in two league games. If we don’t find a way to address this, we’re going to be left behind.
The club held positive talks with the PGMOL this week. Rotherham fan and head of the organisation Howard Webb, Kevin Friend and the referee from Saturday's game, Bobby Madley, came to Rotherham’s training ground this week to collaboratively discuss the weekend's events and what we all can do better. Hopefully, this can help us move forward positively.
Overall though, we’re two weeks into the season and football isn’t the main talking point, the referees are. And that has to change in order for this to be successful.
After a repetitive yo-yo styled promotion and relegation under Paul Warne, Matt Taylor kept Rotherham in the Championship last season - how would you describe his tenure so far?
WD: I would say he’s been a success thus far. It’s always difficult to keep a side such as Rotherham in this division given the sheer weight of the teams you’re competing with, the budget he had at his disposal. But a really strong January transfer window, coupled with an upturn in form towards the back end of the season meant we could go into the final day of the season with no worries. Strange feeling!
He averaged a point a game over his tenure last season, which I don’t think will be enough to keep us up this season. So we need him to step up. Last season we survived based on our strong start to the season, and of course the transfer window really helped revitalise a squad that at the start of January, looked like they were going down with a whimper after being the worst side in the division for eight games (injuries were horrific, I concede).
By the end of the window, he’ll have his own squad, all of his coaching staff. Now is the time we’ll get to see Taylor for what he is. I still have some reservations personally, but extremely happy to be proven wrong.
In terms of recruitment, the club have only brought in frees and loans so far, have fans been happy with your business this summer?
WD: We’ve seen a significant change in transfer strategy from the club. In previous years, we’ve looked to bring in players who at their best, are competent Championship players but require development to get to that level. As a reward, those players will then have decent resale value and move onto other clubs for a decent fee, ala the likes of Semi Ajayi, Will Vaulks to name a couple.
We’ve moved towards trying to recruit more Championship-ready personnel. In Tyler Blackett, Sean Morrison and Lee Peltier, the club recruited over 700 games of Championship experience. We have Fred Onyedinma through the door, another guy who knows the level but specifically has had success at clubs with similar profiles at this level to Rotherham. We’ve added star quality in Cafu, who has arrived from Nottingham Forest after not playing for over a year. Christ Tiehi, surely the longest-running EFL transfer saga this summer, will be announced before this game. Certainly, in terms of reputation, this is the best squad we’ve ever had at the club.
We’re still short in a lot of key areas. Up top we’re in need of a goalscorer. Andre Green rejoins the Championship with a point to prove and will be an excellent squad addition due to his versatility. We need a couple of wingers to allow us to move to a wingers based system, such as 4-3-3. The back line is filled with leaders, but I’d like to see another center back in the door for mobility.
So in summary, we’ve done some decent business in areas, but with 13 days of the window to go, there is still a lot more to do, both getting players into the building, but also getting clubs for some of our own players to go out and get minutes too.
In terms of outgoings, the club have lost the likes of Chiedozie Ogbene, Richard Wood and Conor Washington, do you think they’ve been adequately replaced or is there more business to do?
WD: In terms of Woody, it was always going to be hard to lose a player who has been fundamental to our success, both when he has and hasn’t played, for nine years. But for most of last season, there was an air of inevitability in his departure and the new leadership group was already being formed by Matt Taylor pre his departure.
Chiedozie Ogbene’s talent hasn’t, and probably won’t be, replaced. He was incredibly important to us, not only the goals he scored which are largely forgotten now by some Millers fans, but his pace and ability to get us up the pitch and win fouls to kill the opposition's momentum. My only regret for Ogbene, is that we did not get the transfer fee we deserved for his development during his time here. To go out and get another player like him, on our finances is virtually impossible. I’m sure the club does have targets identified to fill the Ogbene shaped void.
Aside from the above-mentioned players, who should Sunderland be wary of during the match?
WD: Well in order to get three points, you’re going to have to breach the net of Viktor Johansson, one of the Championship’s best goalkeepers last season. He’ll need much better protection than he’s had at the start of this season, but on his day he’s simply unbeatable (ask Stoke about his performance at their place last year).
And as always, I back Ben Wiles to come up good. He’s one of our own, we’ve seen him grow from a boy to a man during his time here and he can make things happen. He’s a ball carrier, can strike a ball, great interpretation of space and an intelligent footballer.
Finally, you’ve gotta watch out for Hakeem Odoffin. Boy, can that man hit a ball. If the ball drops to him 25 yards from goal and no one closes him down, you can guarantee he’s having a go. He only scores screamers.
On the road last season Rotherham won just two matches, what are the main factors behind your away struggles?
WD: Our form on the road in the Champ has been a problem regressing far beyond last season. It’s worth mentioning that our away performances did improve somewhat last season and we should have seen out a couple more of those - Burnley away, Luton away to name a couple. We seemed to draw a lot more games than we lost, and for us that is progress.
Even in the games that we won, we averaged 35% possession and only averaged more than 1 xG in 5 of the 24 away games. So we need to control the play a little more, and create more meaningful chances to be successful at this level. And of course, when the chances come, take them. Whilst our shot conversion rate was one of the best last term, we only averaged 2.9 shots on target, only Wigan were worse in that regard. We do have players that aren’t afraid to have a go, such as Cafu and Hakeem Odoffin encouraged to get forward and pull the trigger so hopefully this will change this season.
In terms of tactics, what style can Tony Mowbray’s team expect to encounter?
WD: Pretty tough to predict the setup, given we’ve now played three different formations in 200 minutes of football!
I suspect we will look to go back to three at the back for this one, with Grant Hall back in the fold following injury. The system will rely on the athleticism of the wing backs, in this case Cohen Bramall and Dexter Lembikisa to get up and down the pitch and provide the width to the play.
We’ll have a double pivot in front of Ollie Rathbone and Cafu, with Rotherham lad Ben WIles and Hakeem Odoffin operating further forward in the half spaces, attacking the box wherever possible.
Jordan Hugill will once again lead the line for the Millers, likely being the outball. I suspect you’ll have the lionshare of possession and we’ll be looking to hit you on the counter.
Which eleven players do you think Taylor will select?
WD: GK: Viktor Johansson, LWB: Cohen Bramall, CB: Tyler Blackett, CB: Grant Hall, CB: Cam Humphreys, RWB: Dexter Lembikisa, CM: Ollie Rathbone, CM Cafu, CAM: Ben Wiles, CAM: Hakeem Odoffin, ST: Jordan Hugill.
Sunderland defeated Rotherham 3-0 at the Stadium of Light last season, but we did have Ross Stewart then - what is your score prediction for this time around?
WD: My heart says we could knick a point from a set piece, my head says that Sunderland will have a little bit too much for us. I’ll go for a 3-1 Sunderland win.