THE Milk Marketing Board’s iconic late Eighties TV slogan of ‘Accrington Stanley, Who are they’? is a phrase that Rotherham United defender Michael Ihiekwe is never likely to utter.
Nor his meticulous manager either.
Ihiekwe has a great deal for which to thank the League One outfit having used a half-season loan spell in Lancashire to propel himself back into the Millers’ Championship starting line-up.
The Liverpool-born centre-half, whose renaissance recently culminated in him signing a new, extended deal, admits that he also owes a debt of gratitude to United manager Paul Warne.
Warne maintained constant lines of communication with Ihiekwe rather than gain second-hand reports on his progress at Accrington, very much in keeping with his famed man-management style, and regularly appraised his performances.
The personal touch is something appreciated by Ihiekwe and the support of Warne is now being rewarded by way of some sound performances in the Millers’ rearguard.
Ihiekwe, who played 23 times for Accrington before returning to Rotherham in January, said: “The gaffer could not guarantee me playing time at the start of the season and while I could have sat on the bench and been around the squad I wanted to play.
“It was a tough decision to make to go to Accrington and I backed myself. Accrington have done well in the past couple of years and it was a decent brand of football. I did not know what to expect, but it was great there and it was the same at Rotherham, with the harmony around it.
“I always thought that the door was open back at Rotherham and, to be fair to the manager, he always texted me and called after games and watched all my clips.
“To be fair that kept me motivated, knowing that he had watched everything.
“A lot of managers would say that they would and they do not and would get someone else to watch it and you would get feedback from them.
“But with the feedback he (Warne) was telling me from games I knew he had watched it. That is credit to him.
“I always thought if I got my head down and tried to impress him he would give me a chance and he has stuck to his word.
“Since I have been at Rotherham he has always stuck to his word and that is rare in football, really.”
A regular in the Millers’ line-up since early February, Ihiekwe has sampled defeat just twice in eight matches and believes that he and his team-mates’ esprit de corps, strong mentality and proficiency on the pitch can see them retain their cherished second-tier status.
Ups and downs in his fluctuating career have seen Ihiekwe sample the highs of promotion with the Millers and the lows of relegation – dropping out of the Football League with Tranmere in 2014-15 – and the agony of a play-off final defeat with the Wirral club in 2016-17.
Having experienced the pain of those latter two events, Ihiekwe is keen to avoid a repeat.
He added: “It is not a good feeling at all and then I had the opposite feeling last season. If we stay up it will be a similar feeling, of doing something that few people expected us to do.
“We have tough fixtures, but we will work as hard as possible and hopefully we will be all right.
“You have to be like that in any walk of life. It is not plain sailing, especially in football.
“Everyone will give 100 per cent for each other at this club and that is quite rare considering some of the teams I have been at in the past.”