Millwall had turned a corner before an afternoon where nearly everything went wrong in emphatic Preston North End defeat

Thompson 67
Hughes 4 Clarke 16 Maguire 27

If Millwall’s 1-0 victory at Derby County last Wednesday was one of their best performances and results during Neil Harris’ tenure at Lions boss, then Saturday’s match was most certainly one of his worst.

This was an afternoon where just about everything went wrong for the South Londoners.

Millwall appeared to have turned a corner in recent weeks, backing up their progression to the last eight of the FA Cup by collecting four points from their previous two Championship games.

So the fact they’d kept fourth clean sheets in their last five games in all competitions made their performance in the opening 45 minutes even more puzzling. It was unexplainable, and in stark contrast to that defensive masterclass that earned them three priceless and deserved points at Pride Park just four days earlier.

Everything that Millwall showed against the Rams went to waste as Preston ran riot and became the first visiting side to score three goals in a single half at The Den since Ipswich Town did so in a 4-3 victory back in August 2017.

Start as you mean to go on, someone once famously said – and the hosts did exactly that.

The clock had barely reached 120 seconds before Murray Wallace was required to produce some last-ditch defending to block Tom Barkhuizen’s goal-bound volley after neat work from Sean Maguire.

Millwall got away with it on that occasion, but their tame resistance was broken less than two minutes later.

Andrew Hughes was the beneficiary, coolly volleying home at the second attempt, with Jordan Archer left stranded. It felt like a soft goal – and the delayed reaction from 1,016 travelling fans echoed that. They could hardly believe their luck.

The Lions briefly got a foothold in the game, not before Harris summed up their calamitous first-half display by embarrassingly slipping onto his backside in an attempt at retrieving the ball. Such was his mood, the club’s all-time top goalscorer didn’t even crack a smile. The bulk of The Den saw the funny side, but not Harris.

And that’s maybe because the Lions boss could tell what was about to occur. His demeanour wouldn’t have improved on 16 minutes as the Lilywhites put themselves that step closer to recording their fourth consecutive away league victory.

Harris described Millwall’s defending as “embarrassing” and it’s hard to argue. Paul Gallagher – who was at the heart of everything good for Preston in the opening period – whipped over a corner that evaded everyone, apart from North End captain Tom Clarke, who was left with the simple task of heading home at the far post.

A chorus of boos rang out from an angry Den crowd by the time Sean Maguire put Preston 3-0 ahead – and it meant that Millwall had conceded more goals in the opening 27 minutes than the five-and-a-half matches before that. Gallagher was again the architect, neatly finding Maguire, who cutely dinked over Archer into the far corner.

It was about as bad of a half of football as you’re likely to see all season. So much so that the scoreline remarkably flattered Millwall. If the visitors had been slightly more clinical, they could have had six or seven.

The Lions would rally in the second-half, but only once Harris introduced Ben Thompson, who less than a minute after coming on, confidently slammed home his first ever Championship goal and first in Millwall colours since equalising against Rochdale in the FA Cup in January 2018.

“He’s one of our own, Ben Thompson, he’s one of our own” rang out around The Den – and the 23-year-old thought he had a second with 81 minutes gone, but the flag was raised moments before he swept the ball in.

But that would be as good as it got for the hosts, and despite some other late chances, including a glaring Lee Gregory miss from close-range, Preston never looked like making the 240-mile journey back to Lancashire without maximum points.

The one positive for Millwall was the fact that the other results at the bottom end of the Championship table went in their favour. Although they are a point closer to the dotted-line, victory against Hull City tonight will give them clear daylight in their battle to avoid relegation.

Millwall (4-4-2):  Archer 5, Romeo 5, Hutchinson 5, Cooper 5, M Wallace 4 (Ferguson 46, 7), J Wallace 5, Williams 4, Leonard 4 (Thompson 66, 8), Marshall 5, Elliott 4 (Morison 46, 6), Gregory 5. Not used: Martin, Pearce, O’Brien, Onyedinma.

Photos by Keith Gillard