Pearce 70 O’Brien 79
Locadia 88 March 90+5
(Brighton win 5-4 on penalties)
BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT THE DEN
All goalkeepers make mistakes – you’ve just got to hope that they aren’t costly. Unfortunately for Millwall on Sunday, David Martin’s error was about as critical and torturous as they come.
Let’s get one thing right off the bat – the Lions have been superb entertainment in their FA Cup run. And it would be a real shame if their heroics in the competition were forgotten.
There were plenty of fun times in the Brighton game alone, before you add in the win over Everton at The Den.
For 18 minutes, Lions fans and players were in dreamland. Alex Pearce’s knee-pumping celebration after heading Millwall ahead had the stadium rocking.
When Aiden O’Brien made it 2-0 – clipping in after an excellent run and cross by Jed Wallace – it looked as if Millwall were heading to Wembley.
O’Brien’s chest slide across the rain-slicked surface – huge smiles plastered across everyone’s faces that had Lions affiliations – is what football is all about.
“Manchester City, we’re coming for you,” was the tongue-in-cheek chant from Millwall fans, a prescient touch. Manchester City did lie in wait for the winners – but the semi-final draw did not take place until immediately after this tie.
It looked as if the South Londoners were about to make it six straight home wins over Premier League opposition.
But no, the FA Cup was out of fairytales. James Meredith had been brought on to add an extra layer of defensive protection down the Lions left – the cramping O’Brien going off. The plan was clear, for the Australian international and Shane Ferguson to shut down Brighton sub Solly March.
Yet the Albion left winger drove too easily past Meredith. And although his pull-back was partially blocked, Jurgen Locadia spun before piledriving into the Lions net. The quality of the finish underlines why the South Coast club paid £14million for the Dutchman in January 2018.
The equaliser was agony. It was 21 seconds over the four allocated stoppage minutes when March’s free-kick was fumbled into his own net by Martin.
It seemed as if the former Milton Keynes man got caught in about three minds – leaving it, tipping over or catching it.
Without a touch, the ball looked as if it would have drifted past the right post. Instead, Martin’s right glove diverted it into the back of the net. His stunned reaction – hands covering his mouth – said it all.
It was the experienced goalkeeper’s one mistake in the contest – and the ramifications were huge.
Millwall had to recover from that sickening setback, and play another 30 minutes without Lee Gregory and Wallace. Both had been replaced after the match had clicked over into added-on time, with boss Neil Harris rightly looking to get over the line with fresh legs and know-how in the shape of Steve Morison and Shaun Hutchinson.
There are no doubts that some of the big calls in the tie went in favour of the Lions.
Brighton manager Chris Hughton had a valid point when he claimed that if VAR had been in operation then it would have impacted heavily.
Jake Cooper not only got away with holding Shane Duffy inside the penalty area, but also grabbed Glenn Murray around the waist – stopping the former Crystal Palace man from marking Pearce as he headed Shaun Williams’ corner in despite four Albion players being on the line.
And Locadia’s goal in extra-time was struck off incorrectly for offside – Martin Montoya being played on by Mahlon Romeo. But, what’s worth adding, is that the Lions defence had stopped playing as soon as assistant referee Sian Massey-Ellis’ flag went up earlier.
If it was a tale of two goalkeepers, Mat Ryan was the victor.
The Aussie stood strong to make three blocks in the second half, twice from Gregory and also from Williams. And he got his left hand to Meredith’s shot – in the fifth minute of extra time – with Romeo catching the follow-up with the outside of his right boot as the ball flew harmlessly into the unoccupied lower tier of the away end.
When it boiled down to penalties, the Brighton stopper showed no qualms about indulging in gamesmanship when it came to the kicks for Romeo and Cooper – who certainly would not have featured highly on a normal Millwall list of takers.
Gregory, O’Brien and Wallace would all have likely been ahead of them if they had been on the pitch. So too the cup-tied Bens – Thompson and Marshall.
And Shane Ferguson also should have been stepping up. But instead he had produced a totally out-of-character but petulant stamp on Lewis Dunk in the 119th minute – rightly seeing red from referee Chris Kavanagh.
The greater punishment for Millwall is losing such an influential performer – it was the Northern Ireland international’s double against Hull which decided the third round tie in SE16 – for the next three matches, starting with a trip to Leeds after the international break.
The spot-kick shootout started in ideal fashion for the hosts as Murray hit the bar.
Williams, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ryan Leonard – one of their best performers on the day – all converted.
But then Ryan produced some delaying tactics before Romeo’s attempt, and although he was diving away from the ball he stuck out his right boot to keep it out.
Dale Stephens and Steve Morison kept their nerve to push matters into sudden death.
Lewis Dunk found the bottom left corner. Pressure back on Millwall.
Ryan strayed forward from his line again, and on his return just added more seconds on to Cooper’s wait as he kicked turf off his boots against the left upright.
The Millwall centre-back sent his effort over the bar. The Lions had lost for just the second time in their last 16 home games in this competition – 11 of those victories.
It’s important not to lose sight of the Lions’ achievements. This was their third FA Cup quarter-final in seven years – a feat unmatched by any club outside the Premier League.
They’ve done it with a small squad and a fraction of the budget, in contrast to Brighton, and have had to cope with the adversity of losing Murray Wallace, the match-winner in the past two rounds, and Tom Bradshaw to long-term injuries.
Millwall have provided so much of the magic in the FA Cup this season. And their departure from it means the underdog romance has gone too in all top-flight last four.
Millwall (4-5-1): Martin 7, Romeo 8, Pearce 8, Cooper 8, Ferguson 8, Tunnicliffe 7, Williams 7, Leonard 9, O’Brien 7 (Meredith 85, 5), J Wallace 9 (Hutchinson 90+3, 6), Gregory 9 (Morison 90+1, 7). Not used: Amos, McLaughlin, Skalak, Elliott.
IMAGES BY BRIAN TONKS