When Rotherham thrashed Doncaster 6-0 in their opening Papa John’s Trophy fixture on September 7, 2021, Paul Warne’s men were, unknowingly, on the way to making club history.
Over the course of the next three months, the Millers embarked on a mammoth 21-game club-record unbeaten run that took them to the top of Sky Bet League One, into the FA Cup third round and saw them advance past the group stages of the Papa John’s Trophy.
It makes for good reading, doesn’t it?
Pulling the strings in the Rotherham midfield and playing a pivotal role is deep-lying playmaker Dan Barlaser.
The 25-year-old is in his third season at the New York Stadium, having spent the 2019/20 season on loan from Newcastle and then joining permanently in October 2020 when he was deemed surplus to requirements by his boyhood club.
With one promotion and one relegation already during his time at the club, there has been no shortage of drama, and he has been central to it all – quite literally. Warne has previously described Barlaser as a “quarterback”, while Rotherham fans have even adopted the ‘Geordie Pirlo’ chant, which is high praise indeed.
“I will take that all day!” he says in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports’ Dan Long. “It is a great role for me, especially with how we play and how quick we are on the counter-attack. I just pick up the ball and try to feed the players who will get the goals at the top end of the pitch.
Dan Barlaser’s career to date
“Every year, I try and set myself a target of getting over 10 assists and 10 goals; I’m going to work on that and hopefully I can do it this year. If I stick to my goals and play my best for the team, I think I’ve got a good chance of doing that.
“But I don’t think people understand how physical it is in League One. You don’t really get time on the ball, which is what you see in some of the FA Cup games in the earlier rounds, too.
“When you play higher up, you get more time on the ball, but the players are better, so if you lose the ball, you are likely to get punished. It is still a very physical and quick-paced league, so you need to be quick and good on the ball.”
Largely unaffected by Covid during December, the unbeaten run saw Rotherham lead the way at the summit throughout the month. With so many opponents also in red-hot form, however, maintaining such a level was always going to be difficult.
“That unbeaten run was unbelievable for us,” Barlaser adds.
“It just gives you that confidence in every game that you can go and win it – and we did for 21 games. It was going to come to an end at some point, but it was all about the way we reacted.”
An acrobatic Boxing Day winner from Accrington’s Sean McConville prevented the run from going any further, but the Millers reacted well and started 2022 with a 2-1 win over Bolton on New Year’s Day, courtesy of a double from Michael Smith.
In spite of that defeat, they would have continued to lead the pack, were it not for a narrow 1-0 loss to Fleetwood last Saturday. But with a handful of teams ready and waiting to pounce, they dropped to third, with Wycombe and Wigan taking advantage to move into first and second respectively.
The latter have four games in hand on many of their promotion rivals, but Barlaser does not envy the position the Latics find themselves in ahead of the second half of the campaign.
“It sounds good on paper and it looks good in the table when you have got games in hand, but you have got to go and win them and League One is very tough,” he says.
“When we were in the Champ last year, we played four games in 10 days, so I’m assuming, that if they are going to do something like that, it is going to be really tough for them. I’d rather have the points on the board.
“I said at the start of the season, that I think this is the best League One table I’ve seen for many years. There are some massive clubs here that really want to go up, including about half of the league at the start. It is really competitive.
“But you can’t really afford to draw games if you are at the top. You need to win because if you draw you are going to keep dropping and dropping – everyone seems to be winning at the top. Three points are always vital.”
Based on current goals and points-per-game figures, Rotherham are on course to score 83 and collect 100 points, which certainly points towards a successful end to the season. Particularly so given that they have only broken the 80-goal mark once since 1963/64 and such a points total would break the record of 91 set when they were promoted from Division Two in 2000/01.
They are, of course, best-case scenario numbers, but numbers that provide encouragement for Barlaser and his team-mates in their pursuit of a Championship return.
“The majority of the lads were here when we went up from League One previously, so we have all got experience in this league and we know how to win games scrappily, which is what you need. Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty but if you can see out games and win games, it is vital.
“That was our goal at the start of the season, to get promoted back to the Championship. In the Cardiff game on the last day of last season [after which Rotherham were relegated], we should have been two or three up, but that’s football and if you don’t take your chances, you are not going to win games.
“I think a lot of lads enjoyed playing at that level and they want to be back there. If we do that with a couple of games to spare it would be brilliant, but we’ll just keep going and hopefully we will go up straight away. But I think it is going to have to be 90+ points this year. It is really competitive at the top and we’ll have to be on it until the end of the season.”
Given his paternal Turkish heritage and youth caps for both Turkey and England, it is easy to draw a comparison between Barlaser and Blackburn’s Ben Brereton Diaz, who hit headlines when he made his debut for Chile last year.
“I’ve not really thought about international hopes, I’ve always wanted to concentrate on my club career. But you can’t really look away from that, can you?
“He was fairly similar to me having been in the England set-up and gone on to play for his mum’s country. It’s a thing I’ll look for further down the line, maybe, I just think that, to be playing on the international stage, you’ve got to be playing in the Champ or higher, so I’ll think about it when we hopefully get back there.”
So if there was not enough already, there is further impetus for Rotherham to target automatic promotion for themselves and international stardom for their man in the middle.