Rotherham United v Bristol Rovers – Millers’ fitness will be key in the end
Michael Ihiekwe is not becoming preoccupied by Rotherham United’s league position, admitting that there are eight teams – and potentially more – who could be lifting the League One title in May.
The Millers head into this afternoon’s game with Bristol Rovers at the New York Stadium in unfamiliar territory.
The club have never been in first place under Paul Warne and it is the first time United have sat top of any table since the early rounds of the 2011-12 campaign.
Rotherham have won their last four league games but are still just six points ahead of eighth-placed Portsmouth.
“When you get higher in the table you can slip into looking at how other teams are doing,” said Ihiekwe.
“But there is so long in the season to go. Anyone in that top eight could go and win the league, it is one of those seasons. I am not looking down the table or around but just taking it game by game.
“We just need to keep doing our job and, hopefully, stay in those automatic positions.”
The Liverpool-born player, who signed an extended deal with the Millers in October to keep him at the club until the summer of 2022, admits that the competitive nature of League One is helping keep Rotherham grounded.
He said: “It is the first time we have been top this season and it is so tight up there.
“It is not something we are really talking or thinking about.
“We are just looking to the next game and wanting to keep our standards high and good form going. It is one of those divisions where you can go to anyone, even bottom of the table, and drop points.
“We are just focussing on our game on Saturday against Bristol and producing the best possible performance.”
Bristol lost manager Graham Coughlan to League Two Mansfield Town in mid-December and are without a league win since appointing Ben Garner as the Irishman’s successor.
Their last league outing saw them defeated 2-0 by the Millers’ South Yorkshire rivals Doncaster Rovers.
Garner won’t be in the dugout for this afternoon’s fixture due a family illness, with Kevin Maher, Lee Mansell and Adrian Tucker set to take temporary charge.
But despite their poor run of form Bristol are just three points from the play-off spots and beat Rotherham 1-0 in the reverse fixture at the end of September.
“They started off really well, they had a change of manager and that can be hard,” said Ihiekwe.
“As we saw when we went there, they are quite a tough, physical team. We will be looking to improve on our performance from that game.
“We are in a better place now as a team and it is just about putting that into fruition on Saturday.”
With 19 games still to play, Ihiekwe feels that United have plenty of technical aspects of their game to work on.
However, the 27-year-old believes that fitness levels could prove a decisive factor, something which manager Paul Warne has put extra emphasis on.
“We have been a bit up and down but we are starting to hit form now,” continued Ihiekwe.
“I still think we can improve on certain aspects but we have got a very fit bunch of lads.
“Hopefully, that will show as the season goes on. I would back us to be fitter than most teams.
“That is something that shows throughout the season.”
Rotherham were knocked out of the FA Cup by Hull City two weeks ago and although there was disappointment for Ihiekwe and his team-mates, the defender admits that nothing can now distract from their bid to make an immediate return to the Championship.
“It was really frustrating at the time because all the lads wanted to go on a cup run,” added the defender, who scored two of his three goals this campaign in the FA Cup.
“I feel like we put in a really good performance that day as well.
“We feel like we should’ve got something out of the game but it wasn’t to be. But we can focus on the league now and it could be a bit of a blessing in disguise.
“The Championship is the standard we want to play at. You need to stay positive and set that as the benchmark of where you want to be. But we have got a long way to go. There are still loads of games and points to play for.”