Jordan Archer has declared himself fully fit for Millwall’s date with destiny at Wembley on Saturday – admitting it was a battle to recover from a quad injury.
Last season’s Player of the Year picked up a muscle tear during February’s FA Cup win over Leicester City – pulling off a couple of vital saves as the reigning Premier League champions were dumped out at The Den.
Archer missed the next five League One fixtures before replacing Tom King in the starting line-up the following month, only to suffer a reoccurence soon after in defeat at Sheffield United.
The former Tottenham goalkeeper was sidelined for the following three matches before returning to the bench, boss Neil Harris once again opting for the 24-year-old’s experience as the club’s play-off hopes went to the wire.
“It was a niggling injury,” said Archer. “I had a 19cm tear in the quad, which is not something you come across often.
“It was hard to recover from, especially the way we play. I do take a lot of long goal-kicks. It’s been a long road to get fully fit but I am now – I’m confident in my body and being able to perform.
“Coming off the back of winning the Player of the Year award last season I thought I started a bit slowly. Not just me, but a few of the boys. After Christmas we started to hit our groove and just as I started to keep a few clean sheets I tore my quad and was out for seven or eight weeks.
“I pushed my fitness to try and return to the team and struggled to find form a bit. I feel in the last couple of games I’ve started to pick it up. I’ll be ready for the final.”
Archer has kept 15 clean sheets in his 44 games, compared to 20 in 49 matches in the 2015-16 campaign, where he nailed down the number one spot ahead of veteran David Forde.
But the fact it has not been so smooth for many of the individuals in the Millwall squad does not matter now that they could be just 90 minutes away from securing a Championship place.
Eleven of the matchday 18 that lost at the same stage to Barnsley 12 months ago are still part of Neil Harris’ squad.
“That was something that will stay with me for a long, long time,” said Archer. “I was absolutely devastated. That season we were one of the best teams in the league. We had a few unfortunate injuries before the game, like Byron Webster [in the warm-up]. To lose in the manner we did was very, very hard to take.
“We’ve used that this year to push us on. The disappointment we felt has helped get us back to the final.
“It’s a contrast to last year. Last year we were cruising through to the play-offs – this time we just about scraped it on the final day. The boys did well in the two legs and we got our place in the final on merit.
“We’ve had 11 days between that last game against Scunthorpe to get our heads down, work hard and prepare ourselves.
“It’s been an up and down season. We had good spells and bad spells as well. But it doesn’t matter how we got into the play-offs – just as long as we did.
“We’ve got the characters in the dressing room that when the big games are there they will step up, for example [Steve] Morison in the second leg at Scunthorpe. They are the type we can lean on. We had that at Bristol and in the FA Cup against Premier League teams as well.”
Archer can often be the first line of attack – as well as the last line of defence. Millwall’s second goal at Glanford Park almost a fortnight ago is proof of that. It was his lofted boot forward which Morison pulled inside of Murray Wallace and dinked over for Lee Gregory to head past Joe Anyon.
“We’ve had a few of those this year. I know Steve will read the bounce. He knows where the ball is going to go. I’ll look out for Steve and Greggs most times I get the ball in my hands – let them do the rest.”
The Lions have kept 15 clean sheets since Boxing Day.
“We work really hard as a team and that is down to the whole side – not just the defence,” said Archer. “Everyone comes off the pitch shattered and that reflects the commitment while we are out there.
“The manager says it all the time, that if we can keep a clean sheet or concede only one then we have got the players who will go out and score goals for us.”
Morison was a standout performer as Scunthorpe saw their promotion hopes ended. It could come down to a goalkeeper being a hero if the play-off decider against the Bantams ends in a penalty shootout. With both previous meetings this season ending 1-1, there is a distinct possibility it could go all the way to a nerve-jangling finish.
The last to be a hero in that way for a South London club was Sasa Ilic as Charlton beat Sunderland in 1998 at the old Wembley.
“You’ve always got to prepare for that but we want to get the job done way before that,” said Archer. “I’m sure I’ll be clued up on the day and be looking at penalties – we’ll be doing them in training. But it is the least of our concerns. We need to train hard and work on our shape to be able to put in a good performance.
“Both matches against Bradford have been tough but in the second half at Scunthorpe – their home record is one of the best – we went there and scored three times to get the win.
“It shows on our day we can take any team. We’ll always back ourselves. I’m confident we will be lifting up that trophy.”