ROTHERHAM United office staff have been inundated with ticket requests for this afternoon’s clash – and Richie Smallwood knows how they feel.
The first league encounter between the two clubs in this quarter of South Yorkshire since October, 1986 when Bruce Rioch’s bottle-blond Boro babes, who included future English internationals Gary Pallister, Colin Cooper and Stuart Ripley, were starting out on the road to successive promotions, has captured the imagination of both participants.
Including one family in particular, a number of whom will be present at today’s game which is close to a sell-out, boosted by the presence of 2,600 Teessiders.
Namely the Smallwoods, with their boy Richie hoping to line up against the club he supported avidly as a child before realising every fan’s dream of playing for his boyhood team.
Smallwood homed in on today’s game instantly when the Championship fixtures were announced in June – even though he could not say with any certainty which team in red and white he would be representing in 2014-15.
Fresh from a successful loan spell at the New York Stadium and unsure of his future back at the Riverside, Smallwood was in limbo before the Millers received the necessary encouragement to sign him for £175,000 in August.
After three substitute appearances following a short spell out through injury, you could say the Redcar-born midfielder is desperate to feature today.
Regardless of professional platitudes about it just being another game, it clearly is not for Smallwood. It is not just him who says so. Try asking his manager, too.
Millers chief Steve Evans said: “Richie is a young man who loves that football club, there is no other way to describe it.
“But I am sure if selected, he will want to beat them more than he’ll want to win any other game.
“When you are in football, you do want to beat your previous club more than you want to beat any one because it is almost a case of pride.”
Smallwood, 23, professes that lining up against Boro would represent a special, if slightly surreal experience.
But as the cliche goes, once the whistle goes, taking care of business takes over, with sentiment put to one side and the midfield grafter is determined not to get overly side-tracked.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “I am looking forward to it and have done since the fixtures came out.
“I always need a lot of tickets because the games are still pretty close (to Middlesbrough). But especially for this game, quite a lot want to come down to watch me.
“Everyone has enjoyed the games and my family come up when they can and when my dad is not working, they drive or get the train. They will all be down for this one for sure.
“I don’t quite know how it will feel. But it will feel strange; hopefully we can come out on the right side of the result.
“You have to treat is as just another game really and you have to get your head switched on once the referee blows the whistle and if you are selected.
“One you start thinking of other stuff, it can distract you and I want to be keeping my focus on the game and my team which is Rotherham. I am sure we can give them a few problems and get the win.
“We need the points and they are looking up as well and playing well. It should be a good game.”
Nicknamed the ‘Dormanstown Destroyer’ in homage to his industrious tough-tackling qualities in the midfield, Smallwood, who made 43 starts for Boro, is likely to receive a great reception from the travelling fans today.
Despite his time at Boro now being over, he is still able to reflect on a number of highs with his home-town club – with the Millers chapter in his footballing scrapbook also filling up nicely.
Over the years, several players with Middlesbrough and Teesside connections have proved hits with the Millers, with Stockton’s Gerry Forrest topping the list and another notable being Saltburn-born goalkeeper Kelham O’Hanlon.
Smallwood, who showed nerves of steel to sink a key penalty in the shoot-out victory over Leyton Orient in the League One play-off final in May, is aiming to prove another choice addition.
He said: “I had many highs at Middlesbrough including my debut and goal at Cardiff (a 3-0 away win in May, 2011) and a goal on my birthday at home – to Blackpool in December, 2012.
“I had that many really. Every time I played I was proud. But I am enjoying my time at Rotherham and I have had some highs here as well.
“I did not know what was happening in the summer. But I am at Rotherham now and happy here.
“It’s been good. I picked up a little injury and am back from that now and getting that fitness back all the time.
“This season has been decent and the results are starting to turn for us.
“At the start of the season, I don’t think our performances were getting the results they deserved. But it has picked up and things are looking up at the minute and we are five unbeaten now and are full of confidence.
“We are in tough run of games and no game is easy in this league and you can see how tight this league is. But we have done very well and are looking to push on.”