League football returns this weekend following the October international break, as Norwich City take on Rotherham United on Saturday (3pm KO).
Ahead of the game, canaries.co.uk spoke to journalist Paul Davis, who covers the Millers fortunes for the Rotherham Advertiser, to discuss United’s approach, Paul Warne’s absence and more.
canaries.co.uk: Having come up from League One last season, how do you assess Rotherham’s start to the 2020/21 Championship campaign?
PD: There’s two sides to this really. One is, it’s five points from four games which, for a team that’s been relegated from the Championship in its last two attempts to stay up, is a fairly reasonable start. Twelfth place is excellent.
Perhaps more importantly at this stage is that Rotherham look a really competitive side this time, having gone toe to toe with established Championship sides like Birmingham and done really well against them.
They’re a big, physical, powerful outfit and have caused probably more problems than they’ve been given by the opposition, so that’s really encouraging.
Four years ago, we had a disaster when Alan Stubbs was in charge at the start of the Championship season and we were basically relegated by October. Paul Warne came in at the end of November, but by then there was no way of saving us.
We got promoted the year after and did a year in the Championship two years ago, but Rotherham were really brave. They didn’t have the talent some of the better teams had, but they had great team spirit and athleticism and had a really good go at staying up.
They still went down on the penultimate weekend of the season, but it was always like a losing battle - you always felt like the odds were stacked against you - but this time it just feels different; another promotion, another year of good recruitment and management.
It’s very early days so I don’t want to get too carried away but the signs are that Rotherham will be more competitive this time round than they were in their last two attempts.
canaries.co.uk: Presumably the only frustration so far this season is the conceding of late goals. It could have been an even better start to the campaign!
PD: Yeah, they could be four points better off because there have been two goals in stoppage time, but they were turning 1-0 wins into 1-1 draws.
In the last game, Huddersfield were excellent in the second half and Rotherham defended brilliantly to still be leading 1-0. You could look at it and say they were lucky to get away with a 1-1 that day.
Perhaps two more points would have been more reflective of how we’ve been this season, but I think at the start of the season if you’d said they’d be going into the international break with five points and a mid-table position, that would be fine by everyone here.
canaries.co.uk: What are the expectations for this season then, beyond fighting to stay in the league first and foremost?
PD: Surviving in the Championship on Rotherham’s budget would be a bigger achievement than promotion. Warne is an ambitious man, the chairman is an ambitious man and they’ve got an ambitious set of players, so they won’t think of just surviving, although most fans would take that.
With the start they’ve made, if you push for mid-table and finish just below that, that's not a failure. It’s better than aiming to finish fifth from bottom and finishing fourth from bottom.
I think they’ll be looking to finish comfortably clear of the relegation spots. I think that’s a fair way of saying where we are at the moment.
canaries.co.uk: Freddie Ladapo was the top scorer last season with 17 goals - do you think he can repeat that in the Championship?
PD: I think the Championship will suit him better. He’s one of those players who’s good when he’s running towards goal and there’s a bit more space in the Championship for him to play, so I think he might do well.
He’s worked really hard in pre-season on his left foot and Warne has been really pleased with how sharp he is. You have to remember last season he got 17 goals without being a regular starter - most of them came off the bench in the second half.
In terms of goals per minute on the pitch, he was second only to Ivan Toney in League One. His work with his back to goal wasn’t the greatest, but going for goal he’s dangerous and I expect him to start on Saturday.
canaries.co.uk: Who are the other key players we should be keeping an eye out for?
PD: Defensively, Rotherham have been really strong this season. Wes Harding has come in at right-back and done really well. Maybe the signing of the summer so far has been Angus McDonald - a centre-half with good Championship pedigree at Barnsley.
We’ve lost Chiedozie Ogbene through knee surgery and he’s out until the new year, so we’ve signed Florian Jozefzoon from Derby on loan, which is pretty much a direct replacement and I’d expect him to start.
The other one to really watch out for is Daniel Barlaser who was on loan from Newcastle last year. He’s kind of a midfield playmaker and has been signed permanently, so that was the signing of the summer that all the fans wanted.
We’ve got him on a three year deal and he was on the bench against Huddersfield and I’d expect him to get his first start as a permanent Miller this Saturday.
canaries.co.uk: What kind of style of play do you think we can expect to come up against on the weekend?
PD: Rotherham are nowhere near as talented a side as Norwich, so they’re not daft and they won’t out-football a side as good as the Canaries are, but Rotherham play to their strengths. They’ve a limited budget but know exactly what they’re good at and what they want to be.
Everyone works really hard, it’s a high press and everyone’s in it together. It’s a big, physical side. There’s never an easy minute against Rotherham. Where they really love to shine is from set-pieces.
They’ve got loads of six-foot plus players and Barlaser coming back is quite crucial here because last year every one of his deliveries from corners and free-kicks were on the money.
Rotherham scored more goals from set-pieces than any team in professional football in England. That’s the route they’ve got to go down when they’re not as good as the opposition - they’ve got to find ways of hurting them.
It’s set-pieces and balls out wide to be put into the box. They can play a bit more than people sometimes give them credit for and there are some good players there, but they know that a physical, powerful approach is the way they’re going to do well.
canaries.co.uk: Paul Warne, a Norwich fan, won’t be at the game due to a member of his family testing positive for COVID-19. How much of a difference do you think that could make?
PD: I’ve spoken to him about this quite a bit. He always says the Norwich game is the big one for him. He says managing at Carrow Road, where he watched his first football game with his dad, was a more surreal experience than managing at Wembley in a League One play-off final.
He was desperately hoping fans would be in the stadium because his family and friends would come up from Norwich for the game, stay at his house and go to the game together.
He was robbed of that anyway, and then he’s got a Coronavirus case in his family so he can’t even go to the game himself, so it’s a real double blow for him.
He’s got every faith in his management team in handling match-days, but he’ll still play a part with a Zoom call before the game and then he’ll be in touch with the management at half-time to give his thoughts.
You can follow Paul on Twitter @paulm_davis.