By Richard Partington at the Crown Oil Arena
Millwall’s FA Cup ambitions were dashed after a forgettable fourth-round replay went the way of home side Rochdale.
The omens appeared ominous for the travelling contingent when social media images of the Crown Oil Arena playing surface appeared in the hours before kick off, the boggy pitch having undergone a ‘drill and fill’ procedure just to get the game on.
The operation entailed volunteers digging holes in the pitch every few inches and filling in with kiln-dried sand. If it sounded agricultural in its simplicity, it produced a playing surface that lent itself to agricultural football.
In fairness, Rochdale do not employ the kind of up-and-under tactics associated with poor pitches. But on the night they got to grips with the conditions much better than Neil Harris’ men, who simply never got going.
The Millwall boss refused to blame the pitch – though he did say it was the worst he had ever seen – but the sand-filled surface offered no scope for quality and negated the South Londoners’ superior individual talent.
There was the odd glimmer of hope – a couple of strikes from outside the area by Ryan Tunnicliffe and an eye-catching piece of skill from Conor McLaughlin which left three Rochdale opponents trailing in his wake. But ultimately the Lions were unable to hurt Keith Hill’s side in dangerous areas of the field, Harris alluded to the fact that neither goalkeeper had much to do.
There was little to choose between the teams in the first 45 minutes, Rochdale making most of the early running with Millwall growing stronger as the half wore on.
In the opening minute, Matt Done’s deflected shot from the edge of the area ran into the path of Andy Cannon but the pace on the ball just too much for the latter, who was unable to guide it inside David Martin’s near post.
After that early scare there was little to trouble Martin and the backline. Unfortunately, there was little being created at the other end with Fred Onyedinma and Tom Elliott struggling to make the ball stick.
The visitors’ best effort of the half came from Tunnicliffe in the 36th minute, a stinging volley from the edge of the area that saw Dale midfielder Callum Camps put his body on the line to protect Josh Lillis’ goal.
In the opening minutes of the second half, Cannon’s deflected cross almost crept inside Martin’s post and a goalmouth scramble ended with Mark Kitching’s effort being excellently blocked by Jason Shackell.
At the other end Tunnicliffe forced a save out of Lillis with a rising drive from range. But hopes of the game opening up were quickly dashed as the fare lapsed back into the scrappy, incident-free contest of the opening period.
The exception to that came 10 minutes into the second period when Rochdale scored the breakthrough goal.
Calvin Andrew, who always seems to be a nuisance when he faces the club he once had a spell on loan with, bustled his way past Shackell on the left of the penalty area and teed up Ian Henderson, whose run towards the near post had not been tracked. He slotted a neat finish wide of Martin from six yards.
Millwall’s attempts to garner a reaction to falling behind saw the cavalry called upon in the form of a 63rd-minute double substitution which saw Lee Gregory and Steve Morison enter the fray.
But apart from a dangerous delivery across the face of goal from Morison which eluded Onyedinma at the back post, not even their combined threat could rouse the Lions into the rallying finale the occasion demanded.
The scenes at the final whistle, when around 100 home supporters invaded the pitch and a large portion goaded Millwall fans, players and staff alike, put the stamp on a thoroughly frustrating night.