Ben Wiles has a shorter commute than most from his Rawmarsh home to his place of work.
Just a five-minute journey from Rotherham United’s training facility, and around a further 10 minutes from the Club’s AESSEAL New York Stadium home, by weekend, the midfielder is somewhat of a Millers cult hero but by any other day in the week, he’s just a regular, local lad.
Humble beginnings gave the 22-year-old – who explained how playing football plugged a gap in his weekends in the first instance – a good grounding within the Club.
And although his two hometown friends fell out of love with the sport and eventually pursued careers outside of football and Rotherham United, he still looks back fondly upon his time coming through the Millers’ academy.
“At that point in my life, I had my best memories with my mates,” he recalled. “We’d travel to work every day together, get on the bus and spend all of our money at Tesco on meal deals.
“As much as football is serious, it takes away from your whole life. It was basically somewhere me and my friends would go on a Saturday morning. We’d just train and have the odd game. It was a real good laugh.”
It was development coach Matt Hamshaw who flagged Wiles’ potential to Millers manager Paul Warne, with whom the youngster has formed a bond after making the step up to the senior first-team fold.
“I remember watching him play for the Under-8s and saying, ‘wow! Who’s that?’” Hamshaw said. “It was the way he moved fluidly with the ball. He wasn’t doing tricks or scoring goals, but he was just a really good mover.”
It was only when he reached the Under-15s that he began to question whether he could make a career out of it. On the receiving end of plaudits from his peers and coaches, he was invited to play up an age group due to his progress.
Three years his senior, his older brother Alex was offered a scholarship with the South Yorkshire side, but failed to make the grade after falling on hard times and suffering an injury. The fellow midfielder dropped into the non-League pyramid, going on to play for the likes of Stocksbridge Park Steels, Gainsborough Trinity, and Buxton.
But he didn’t let it dampen his spirits and, if anything, used it as an extra incentive to succeed.
“I wanted to do what he did, so I had somebody to aspire to and to follow,” Wiles explained. “At the time, I wanted to have the same pathway as him.
“It knocks your confidence a bit and it’s not nice to see. Alex is a really good player and seeing that knocks you a bit because you think, ‘what’s the point? If he’s not, then I’m not’. That’s when it became more serious. I wanted to do it for both of us, not just me."
Shock was the word he used to describe being offered professional terms with Rotherham in 2017 – a contract which he very gratefully accepted.
“People went in and came out, and they were saying, ‘I didn’t get anything’ and ‘I didn’t get anything’. I was towards the end, so I was expecting not to get anything. It was a massive relief, and I was buzzing, to be fair.
“I went to the shop and got my mum some flowers just to thank her for everything and all the time she gave up for me by taking me to training and supporting me with everything I need. That’s what John Breckin told me to do!”
Handed his debut in an EFL Trophy Group Stage tie at home to Chesterfield in November 2017, his breakthrough season came in 2018/19. The Millers starlet turned out 20 times in the League, along with two further EFL Trophy appearances, as Rotherham suffered relegation from the Sky Bet Championship.
And Hamshaw, who is responsible for forging a clear pathway for youngsters to the first-team, stressed the importance of taking each player on a case-by-case basis, catering to their individual needs, which was essential for Ben Wiles.
“Ben went to Frickley and, hand on heart, it wasn’t a hugely successful loan,” Hamshaw explained. “He struggled a little bit. He saw the other side of the game and where he may end up if the Club weren’t to renew his contract. However, from the point of view of what he had at the Football Club, he understood then.
“Sometimes it falls on deaf ears but not in Paul Warne’s instance. Ben was the first one where I said, ‘look, I think this kid’s got a real chance’. I told the chief executive when he was 13 or 14 that he’ll end up playing 100 games for the Club.”
As foretold, he reached the milestone earlier this year, but not before he added a promotion to his CV the following year, aged just 21, during a season like no other, with Covid-19 delays. And he was able to overlook playing out of position whist Wiles – who was offered the number eight shirt in 2019 – got his feet under the table.
“You can look at it from both angles,” Wiles said. “Lots of Clubs have different stepping stones to get up to the first-team, but I went straight into it. It can have its advantages and disadvantages. I had to learn quickly. I didn’t have that stepping stone of maturity – I just got chucked in there. Not many people get that at bigger Clubs that have Under-23s and reserves.”
He continued: “It’s such a big jump from scholar level to the first-team. You have to mature so quickly, not just physically but mentally. Both are massive components to mould you into a footballer and a professional. There’s stuff that can break you, but you’ve just got to be strong. I feel like I had enough ability to prove to people that I can play. Hopefully, I do that now.”
Wiles, who has four goals to his name this season as his side flew out of the blocks, still seeks advice from the current crop but hopes that one day in the near future the roles will be reversed.
“The manager knows me really well and it’s such a good group of players. It’s going to be tough and the gaffer’s got really high expectations, but if you pass all of them, you get into the team and that’s people’s dreams.
“I’ve been here all my life. I’ve never gone to a different Club, so I don’t know how it is, but from my experience with the players at the Football Club now, it’s a great set of lads. You can ask questions and they’ll answer them. They’ve got so much time for you and it’s so good for your development asking questions. It’s so good to have people around to give you direction.
“I want to be in a position where the young lads can come to me. It’s not just on age, it’s on playing time and I can help them with different things if they want to ask me questions. I’ve been in the game and racked up some good appearances now.”
Wiles, who made his debut in the EFL Trophy and later earned his first senior starts against Wigan Athletic and Everton in the Carabao Cup the following year, highlighted the importance of EFL competitions in shaping young players’ futures.
The Millers championed Northern Group E in the Papa John’s Trophy to book their place in Round Two, with a number of up-and-coming talent on show, including boss Warne’s own son, MacKenzie, who made his bow against Manchester City Under-21s in the competition last month.
“It’s a massive area for young players to plant a foot in the game,” Wiles noted. “They train every week with us, but they’ve got to show the gaffer that they’re listening. It’s a platform to work off and it introduces them to the fans. It’s growing up time. Sometimes, that’s all it needs is a little click in your head that you’re surrounded by other footballers that have been playing for longer, it’s a little switch in your mind.
“We’ve got some real competition coming through and that’s the gaffer’s effect rubbing off on them. Hopefully, they can keep up their work and be in the first-team one day.”
And, according to mentor Hamshaw, if they have the character that Wiles shows – even when he doesn’t show it – Rotherham United have got a bright future to look to.
“He’s quite dry,” Hamshaw laughed. “His face sometimes doesn’t match up with how he’s feeling so he can have a straight, grim face, but he is happy! He always kept encouraging, always a team player and always looking out for other people; he epitomises everything we stand for really.
“There are a couple of players we’ve got high hopes. If they get anywhere near Ben, they’ll have done extremely well.”