Next up in our new 'Featuring...' series is a man who quickly endeared himself to supporters of Rotherham United, and he comes in the form of Daniel Nardiello. The former Millers striker opens up on his debut goal, scoring a phantom hat-trick and what it was like representing Manchester United in one of the club's greatest eras...
Rewind to 18th August 2012. The sun is shining in South Yorkshire and Rotherham United are in competitive action at AESSEAL New York Stadium for the first time as Burton Albion come to town. 11,441 are packed into the stands and the majority of them are desperate for it to be the perfect homecoming after a four-year exodus at Don Valley.
With less than five minutes on the clock, the Millers fans are off their seats as Zander Diamond brings down Daniel Nardiello inside the box. Penalty. Despite interest from other parties, the summer signing steps up take the spot kick himself on his debut. No presure.
As the ball beats Ross Atkins and nestles into the net, pandemonium ensues, and Rotherham are on their way. Despite that, the man who had just written his name into the club’s folklore breaths a sigh of relief before jetting off in celebration himself.
"You can't see it on the replays which is a good thing, but I shanked the penalty. It actually looks like an inch-perfect strike into the bottom corner on the video footage, but I promise you, I mishit it a little bit. Luckily, it trickled in and the 'keeper went the wrong way,” Nardiello revealed to www.themillers.co.uk, reminiscing on opening his Millers account.
"In all fairness, I didn't realise my goal was so early into the game, but to score after just five minutes of my debut was a special moment. I do remember winning the penalty and there was no way anyone else was going to take it, despite Michael O'Connor wanting it!
"People remind me quite often that I was the first goal scorer at AESSEAL New York Stadium. Rotherham are a great club with an excellent set of fans and I really enjoyed my time there, so it was a nice way to start my career as a Miller.”
It proved to be the sign of things to come as the Millers comfortably swept aside their opponents, with Kayode Odejayi and Ben Pringle also getting in on the act on what was a fairytale start to life in new horizons as a football club.
As the season progressed, goals from Nardiello continued to flow and he helped the Millers mount a push for promotion. When the striker’s former club Exeter City made the trip to AESSEAL New York Stadium on 9thApril 2013, he played a big part in denting the Grecians’ ambitions whilst putting the wheels in motion for an exciting finale for Rotherham.
The Coventry-born frontman rifled home the Millers’ second goal as they brushed their challengers aside, coming out as convincing 4-1 victors. Not only did that win lift Rotherham up to sixth and within three points of the automatic promotion spots, but it acted as a catalyst.
Four more wins then followed, and the 2-0 triumph over Aldershot Town proved to be enough to clinch a runners-up medal. Although it went down to the wire and a few nails were well and truly gnawed off, Nardiello now looks back on that period as one of the most enjoyable of his life.
"We were there or thereabouts all season, but we never in a position where we were pulling clear of other teams. We just flirted with promotion a little bit and then we hit form at exactly the right time, and that got us over the line in the end,” he enthused.
"Kieran Agard played a big part in that because he was on fire in front of goal during the last few weeks, and his career flourished after that. As a group we just had a real belief in our own ability, and we looked unbeatable in those final five fixtures.
"The lads all stuck together, and it was a really good changing room to be in. We had some proper characters in there like Lee Frecklington and David Noble, but it was a brilliant mixture of personalities that came together to fight for the cause.
"I managed to stay fit for the majority of the season too which was a relief as I had struggled with injuries over the years, I scored a decent number of goals and I won a couple of awards too, so on a personal level it was fantastic.
"Away from football, I then had my first daughter a couple of months later, so it was arguably the most special time of my life."
One other moment that springs to Nardiello’s mind was a routine visit to the doctors in September 2013. Whilst that may sound a tad strange, it was the circumstances of his visit that allow him to reel off a bizarre story that still makes him chuckle with laughter.
Just a few days prior to his visit, the Millers hosted Oldham Athletic, another of his former employers, at AESSEAL New York Stadium. Rotherham edged a five-goal thriller and the striker popped up with a late winner, and to those inside the ground, a goal that seemingly sealed his first hat-trick in senior football.
"I have vivid recollections of that day because I didn't actually score three, I only scored two! For some unknown reason I was credited with a hat-trick at the time, but it was actually Frecks who headed in the second goal,” Nardiello explained.
"People were tweeting me because they had him down to score at any time on their bets, so they actually lost money because the goal was initially credited to me. Ultimately, I can't claim it because I didn't even touch the ball.
"They said my name inside the stadium so press must have just gone with that, but it was clear as day that it was Frecks, so I can only profusely apologise to anyone who is still sore about losing a few quid that day.”
One man who also thought that the ex-Latics player had registered all three strikes was in fact, the very Oldham-supporting doctor who was about to give Nardiello’s daughter her injections. Don’t worry, everything went smoothly, but it is safe to say that there was some tension in the air.
"We won 3-2 and I did net a last-gasp winner so it was still a brilliant afternoon against one of my former clubs, but living in Manchester, there are quite a few of their fans around. It was a slight relief when people realised I hadn't bagged all three,” Nardiello said.
"I remember going to the doctors with the baby and the doctor was an Oldham supporter, so he wasn't happy with me as he thought I scored a hat-trick. When I told him that it was only a brace, he was slightly less aggrieved, but he still wasn't in the most joyful of moods."
Whilst the doctor had misdiagnosed the scoring habits on that occasion, one thing can’t be mistaken is the tough-tackling nature of former Manchester United captain, Roy Keane. Having seen some of the Irishman’s crunching challenges up close and personal during his time with the Red Devils as a youngster, Nardiello grew up in a footballing environment like no other.
After signing for United’s Academy as a 14-year-old schoolboy, he quickly rose through the ranks and he was offered his first professional contract with one of the world’s heavyweights on 22nd October 1999, his 17th birthday. As presents go, you would have to go some way to top that, and it was proof that hard work pays off.
Two years later and Nardiello’s commitment culminated in something that he had always had his sights set on. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men travelled to Highbury to face rivals Arsenal in the League Cup, and after 71 minutes, the forward was thrust into the action as he replaced Bojan Djordjic.
"It was amazing making my debut for Manchester United, and I think I have more appreciation of it now than I did back then,” he gratefully insisted to www.themillers.co.uk.
“As a kid I was obviously a decent young player and I represented Wolves before United signed me at 14, plus I went to the National Football School, so things seemed to be going in that direction.
"Without trying to sound arrogant, I expected myself to be a footballer and being at Man United I was anticipating making my debut at some point. However, the fact that it was at Highbury was a bit special, playing against Arsenal.
"We got spanked so I won't speak too much about the game, but ultimately I probably have more gratitude about it now and I can look back on it as a really decent achievement. I'm just proud that I managed to play for the first team at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
"I have really fond memories of my time there. Training at The Cliff initially before moving over to the new facilities at Carrington, it was just brilliant being out there with the likes of Keane, Beckham, Scholes and all of those players who had great careers.
"As a young 16-year-old lad leaving school and going straight into it, you just take it in your stride really and it becomes normal. It's only later on in life when you can sit down and fully appreciate how lucky you were to be doing that on a daily basis, training with such talented players.
"The team spirit at youth level was phenomenal and it is very unlikely that I'd ever have that sort of camaraderie again in my life. I've been involved in some great teams with real spirit, but whilst you're a young lad you have no worries in the world. Getting paid to play football as a teenager at United was a dream come true.”
Despite being renowned as being a graceful striker during his career, Nardiello did learn a lot from the incredibly competitive group that had been assembled at Manchester United during that era.
Although you wouldn’t often see the former Wales international flying into full-blooded tackles, he admits that the grounding he got from Sir Alex Ferguson, the coaching staff and his teammates made him stronger mentally, allowing him to develop as both a footballer and a human being.
"Fortunately, I was never really on the end of their challenges in training, but I saw a few that's for sure. I couldn't believe how competitive they were, and they would literally kick the living daylights out of each other - everyone in that squad was a born winner, but Keane and Scholes epitomised it,” Nardiello said.
"I did get a rollocking every now and again from Keano, but he was a true captain. People always ask me what he was like, but I can honestly say that he is an absolute legend in my eyes. He helped us, gave us a kick up the backside when we needed it, and he would always try to do the best thing for others.
"Even when he was Sunderland manager and I played against them for Barnsley, he came over and we had a long chat about things. He didn't have to do that at all, but it just summed him up and he is a top guy, as was Scholes who was a bit quieter and more unassuming.
"It was quite unique that team at the time due to the fact that a lot of the youth players made transition through to the senior setup, and they were all amazing to learn from. They would give 100 per cent every day and they would often stay out and do extra training, setting high standards.
"Keano wanted simple passing drills done to perfection, and if they weren't, he would make his feelings known. That mentality used to drive the lads forward and it was incredible being a part of that, and there are no coincidences as to why they were so successful in that era.
"As I said, I'm just chuffed that I was able to make a few first team appearances. I travelled all over the country with them and I made the bench for a few Champions League games, so it was a surreal experience for such a young lad, and I will cherish it forever."
Now crunching numbers as opposed to witnessing feisty encounters on a football pitch, Nardiello is enjoying life as a financial advisor and wealth manager for St James’s Place Wealth Management, the largest company of his kind in the United Kingdom.
How did he go from a career in professional football to giving advice to others about how to look after their money? Well, it turns out that he had anticipated a move to the office long before he finally decided to hang his boots up back in 2017.
"I had always shown a keen interest in stocks and shares and I had somebody who looked after me during my playing career, so I saw the power of saving and investing over a long-term period,” he revealed to www.themillers.co.uk.
“Whether that is in the form of retirement planning, putting money into an ISA or whatever it may be, I gained knowledge of how compound interest could grow wealth.
"Towards the end of my footballing days I was asked to join the team, so I studied whilst I was still playing and then as soon as I hung my boots up, I walked straight into a job. My studies were done off my own back, so any spare time I had would be dedicated to getting a diploma in financial services.
"To be honest, that was probably the hardest part, just qualifying. You have to take a minimum of six exams and they were not easy at all, but that was expected with all of the regulations around financial advice. It's massively important to ensure that people know what they are doing.
"I did the exams in my own time and then I joined the company to do an intensive six-month course to finish off my qualification, and then it has just been growing ever since. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done, and although football wasn't a walk in the park, there was an element of natural talent to that as well.
"However, I hadn't studied since I left school at 16, so that was a bit of an eye opener for me. The tax exam that I did was a close call as you needed around a certain percentage to pass it, and I only just scraped it so that was a relief.“
Now well into his new venture and with the stress of those exams behind him, Nardiello is going from to strength to strength in the fresh surroundings, but he will always pay a sizeable sum of gratitude to the sport of football and the upbringing it gave him.
"The last four years have flown by and it's fantastic, although I have put on about two-and-a-half stone in weight since I stopped playing!” the now 37-year-old joked.
"I miss football immensely though and when I advise any players now, I just tell them to play for as long as they feasibly can. There is no better job in the world, as much as I love what I'm doing now, getting paid to play football is a privilege.
"The sport can be brutal at times, but it gives you a thick skin. You have to be mentally tough to thrive in a footballing environment, but it prepared me really well for life after that.”