Jake Sanders’ verdict on Millwall’s start to the Championship season – as Lions roar back from setback at Hawthorns

WEST BROM 1
Bartley 57
MILLWALL 1
Smith 75
BY JAKE SANDERS AT THE HAWTHORNS

Let’s not get carried away after just two Championship matches – but we can say that Millwall’s start to the campaign has gone as well as could be expected after a summer of transition in SE16.

Victory against table-toppers Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday could move the Lions into the Championship’s top-six at this early stage – whilst also marking their best start to a league season under Neil Harris, topping the five points they collected from their opening three matches last term.

But the Millwall team that finished the game at The Hawthorns was almost unrecognisable from the one that flirted with relegation in 2018-2019.

No less than five new signings were on the pitch by the time Matt Smith was in the right place to slam home his first Lions goal – in a game where Harris’ men gave as good as they got against a West Brom side that found the net more often on home soil than any other in the Championship last season.

Two of those goals came in a 2-0 success against Millwall in September. Remarkably, only 10 of the travelling party that were in the squad that day remain at The Den.

One of those, Tom Bradshaw, was making his first league start since that defeat and his performance here was strangely reminiscent of that miserable outing in 2018.

The former Barnsley striker touched the ball a mere 19 times during the 74 minutes he was on the pitch, which is just four more than Smith managed as a 64th-minute substitute.

Bradshaw’s work-rate is second to none – similar to Lee Gregory’s at times – but after more than eight months out with a serious knee injury, he is still finding his feet and another hour-plus under his belt will have benefited him massively. However, 13 appearances into his Millwall career without a goal will no doubt be bothering him. Especially a man that bagged nine goals in his last full season at Championship level.

Bradshaw could be given another opportunity to prove his fitness levels are up scratch and grab his first Lions goal when the South London outfit travel back to Birmingham Road this evening for their League Cup first round tie against the Baggies.

The likes of Luke Steele, Jason McCarthy, Shaun Hutchinson, Shane Ferguson, Jiri Skalak and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson are likely to be given minutes. There could be a potential debut for Jayson Molumby, who is yet to feature after joining on a season-long loan from Brighton & Hove Albion last month.

Smith might also start. But after his efforts here, the former QPR striker could be rested given he now looks a certainty to start against the Owls this weekend. With another midweek game to come against his former club Fulham the following Wednesday, Harris will no doubt be rotating.

Before Smith’s impressive 26-minute cameo came a rather uneventful first hour of play.

Ben Thompson glanced wide from a Murray Wallace delivery from the left, while full debutant Bartosz Bialkowski spared Jake Cooper’s blushes after the Lions defender was caught napping by Matt Phillips before the West Brom winger picked out Kenneth Zohore, but Millwall’s Polish goalkeeper proved his worth by somehow blocking the former Cardiff City striker’s goal-bound strike off the line.

Unfortunately for Bialkowski, he could do little about Kyle Bartley’s early second-half header, agonisingly palming the ball into the net after Shaun Williams needlessly conceded a free-kick in a dangerous position on the right that Phillips swung over with venom.

Millwall looked down, but they were certainly not out. And unlike on their last trip here, when they conceded twice in quick succession, they stayed in the game.

From the moment Smith entered the fray, an equaliser always looked a genuine possibility.

His first meaningful involvement was to rocket a header towards goal, and although Sam Johnstone appeared to get nothing on it, a corner was awarded.

And from that resulting corner, the Baggies shotshopper could do nothing as Jed Wallace picked out Alex Pearce and the Lions skipper cushioned perfectly back for Smith, who arrived on cue to pick out the roof of the net with a thumping finish. The scenes that followed from the 1,500 travelling fans weren’t bad, either.

Clearly oozing with confidence, Smith then tried to acrobatically put Millwall in front, but this time his effort lacked precision and although Thompson tried his luck twice in the closing stages, with the second whistling past the post, the Lions had to settle for a point, a result they would have been more than happy to settle for at 3pm.

It might be early days but four points from two extremely difficult fixtures is an impressive return and one that will leave Harris more than satisfied.

Millwall (4-3-3): Bialkowski 7, Romeo 7 (Ferguson 53, 6), Cooper 6, Pearce 7, M Wallace 7 (Smith 64, 9), J Wallace 6, Leonard 6, Williams 6, Thompson 7, Mahoney 6, Bradshaw 6 (Bodvarrson 74). Not used:  Steele, Hutchinson, Skalak, O’Brien.

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