Matt Crooks is proving one of the surprise stars of the Championship season but what he is achieving off the pitch is just as impressive as anything he can do on it.
The Rotherham midfielder has just been named the second tier’s player of the month thanks to an outstanding campaign for Paul Warne’s team. Operating recently as a No 10 – where he has rarely played in his career – Crooks has scored seven times this season, including four in his last six, and is a key man in the Millers’ attempt to preserve their second tier status.
Crooks’ work is all the more impressive when you consider what happened a year ago. His best friend, Jordan Sinnott, died aged 25 on January 25 last year after a serious assault in Retford, Nottinghamshire.
Matt Crooks points to the sky after scoring in Rotherham’s win at Middlesbrough last month
Sinnott and Crooks had played together in the youth team at Huddersfield. Alongside his career, Crooks is raising awareness of the Jordan Sinnott Foundation Trust, established in the months after his death.
‘Football has been my release,’ he said. ‘Just to go and play and focus on the 90 minutes rather than constantly focusing on what had happened.
‘We played Ipswich two days after it happened and I wasn’t going to play, but I spoke to his family and they said “Go and play for him”. I’d have regretted it if I hadn’t.
‘It was tough but I want to make him proud, both in football and life. He was my best friend and we enjoyed football from 14-21 at Huddersfield.
‘That is why we have started the charity. Jon Stead said at his funeral that Jordan had made him want to become a better friend, a better husband, a better dad and a better man and that’s perfect really.
The midfielder is leading Rotherham’s Championship survival bid and in the form of his life
‘He was the best person all of us knew. There were more than 1,000 people at his funeral and that summed up what he meant.
‘With the charity we want to inspire people and help them through his joy for sport and life. If we can help people through his legacy it will mean a lot to me and his family.
‘I didn’t want his name to be forgotten, I don’t want his smile to be forgotten. We collected 900 shirts which will be sent all over the world. It put a smile on our faces at such a tough time.’
Crooks’ mental strength has served him well during such a traumatic time. When he has had setbacks in his career, the 27-year-old has always managed to overcome them.
He helped set up a charity in Jordan Sinnott’s name, who was his best friend and former team-mate at Huddersfield, after he was tragically killed last year
He was released by Manchester United – where he trained with, among others, Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison – without making a first-team appearance. A spell at Rangers, in 2016-17, was damaged by injury, and then Crooks was told during a holiday that the club no longer needed him, even though the manager at the time, Pedro Caixinha, had little knowledge of what he could do on the pitch.
After spells at Scunthorpe and Northampton, Crooks joined Rotherham in 2019 and this season he has flourished. Bournemouth will be hugely wary of him when they take on Warne’s men on Wednesday and it is clear Crooks’ career is moving in the right direction. He was named in the League Two team of the year while at Accrington and was in the League One selection last term. At this rate, he will make it an EFL clean sweep.
‘In recent weeks I’ve been a No10 and it’s enabled me to get forward more without worrying too much about defensive duties,’ explained Crooks, whose contract expires in summer 2022. ‘It’s worked well for us, so we’re looking to secure our Championship status and build from there.
Crooks began his career at Manchester United and recalls being wowed by Ravel Morrison
‘I’m a big man, 6ft 5ins and 97 kg, and I’ve read that I’m sometimes not the easiest on the eye, which makes me chuckle. But being at United, I have a good football background. I had to work hard on my skills and technique and I’d like to think I’ve got more to my game than just running around.
‘United was an interesting time. Ravel Morrison was in the year above so I played in some tournaments and trained with him, and he was on a different level to everyone else. You could tell he was special.
‘When I was released by United at 14 I cried my eyes out. It felt like my dreams had come crashing down but I just had to work even harder to try to prove people wrong.
‘I’ve got an inner belief in myself and when someone tells me I’m not good enough it spurs me on a little bit more. It’s working very well for me at the moment and hopefully that can continue for the rest of the season.’
Click here to visit the Jordan Sinnott Foundation’s webpage.