IT may not quite be the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ and the red seats might belong to Rotherham United as opposed to Manchester United, but Matt Crooks is at least thankful for being part of the fixtures and fittings again at the AESSEAL New York Stadium.
After admitting to crying his eyes out following rejection at Old Trafford at 15 and being on the periphery during a fraught spell at another footballing ‘giant’ in Glasgow Rangers – a time which he described as ‘carnage’ – the lifelong Red Devils fan can reflect on a journey which has not been without its difficulties.
We would like to have a few more points on the board, but we have had a massive turnover of players and, hopefully, we can gel more as a team and collectively move forward and get a bit of momentum.Striker Matt Crooks
It also saw him diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 18. Then there was his professional debut for first club Huddersfield Town on the opening day of the 2014-15 season when – in his own words – he was ‘torn to shreds’ by future England striker Callum Wilson.
It is to his credit that Huddersfield-raised Crooks – from a family of Manchester United supporters who hail from Ashton-upon-Lyne – has not been affected by some tough experiences.
A likeable lad, the 25-year-old’s shoulders are clearly broad with admirable perspective to match.
His manager, Paul Warne, has always placed great stock in only signing ‘good people’ in his transfer dealings with Rotherham and he has definitely found one of them in Crooks – a talented player as well.
On some hard times in his professional career, Crooks, who scored twice in last weekend’s 4-0 win over Coventry City, said: “It is what happens in football. People take setbacks differently and it is up to you to take it positively and use it as a force to drive you on.
“I am a massive United fan and my brother and my grandad were season-ticket holders and I used to go with them and my dad whenever he could on Saturday’s.
“Tom Lawrence and Tyler Blackett were in my age group. The bigger stars were in the age group above.
“When they released me at 15, I cried my eyes out and was devastated, to be fair. It is one of those, you have to move on.
“I guess it did develop some mental toughness, although I did not recognise it at the time.
“Rangers was a bit different and so much went on and happened. It was just carnage.
“I went to Scunthorpe on loan and I came back injured and the new gaffer (Pedro Caixinha) just put me in the (under) 21s and he didn’t like me...”
After lining up against a side led by a former manager in Mark Robins last weekend, Crooks will do similar at Bloomfield Road this afternoon when he and his Millers’ team-mates face Simon Grayson’s Blackpool.
Grayson was manager for a spell at Huddersfield when Crooks was a young professional, but it was Robins who handed him his Town debut in an infamous season opener against Bournemouth at the John Smith’s Stadium in August, 2014.
The visitors ran riot in a 4-0 victory and Robins left the Terriers in its immediate aftermath, the first managerial casualty of the 2014-15 season.
Crooks added: “I was not massively in his (Grayson’s) first-team plans, but I did have quite a lot of training sessions under him as manager.
“I made my debut under Mark Robins and I started the first home game as a right-sided centre-half in a ‘three’ and that was a bit different back then.
“Callum Wilson tore me to shreds and that was a ‘welcome to the Championship.’
“He (Robins) left the next day and last weekend was the first time I have seen him since then.
“You have to learn from your bad experiences and I have done with most of them. Everything happens for a reason and you have to crack on.”
Crooks did just that after his United heartbreak and his chaotic time north of the border.
After making a name for himself back in lower-division circles at Northampton Town, Crooks headed back up to the M1 to Rotherham in January and acclimatised well enough to Championship life, scoring successive goals in three games in April.
Unfortunately, it was a season which was to end in an instant return to League One for United.
But having been given his first crack at the second-tier since that fateful day with Huddersfield, Crooks is determined to get back there in double-quick time.
Should the Millers replicate performance levels in last Saturday’s fine win over the Sky Blues, when Crooks got his season up and running from a personal perspective, on a regular basis, then expect Warne’s side to be among the League One movers and shakers come the Spring.
Crooks continued: “I came from League Two, but I felt like I wanted to give it a real go in the Championship.
“Coming down is not what I or the club wanted, but we have got to get back now. Hopefully, we can do it at the first time of asking.
“The whole reason in coming here was to test myself at that level and I thought I was capable.
“It took me a while to get in properly, but once I got my foot in, I thought I did all right and it suited me. It was a good challenge.
“I was disappointed not to carry on that form at the start of the season and I don’t think I started at my best, but, hopefully, after Saturday I can kick on.
“We would like to have a few more points on the board, but we have had a massive turnover of players and, hopefully, we can gel more as a team and collectively move forward and get a bit of momentum.
“The manager always wants us to never waste a second and enjoy it as you don’t know what is around the corner.
“I think that is the same with all the staff here and the message is ‘don’t waste your time’.
“We had a great set of lads last season and the manager has done the same this year and there are no bad eggs. It is a good group.”