STOKE CITY 1
BY JAKE SANDERS AT BET365 STADIUM
Millwall’s season is beginning to sound like a broken record.
Or, to put it another way, this was just another episode of what feels like an increasingly repetitive TV programme that you want to stop watching, but you’d feel guilty missing.
In truth, Stoke City are not the calibre of team that the Lions are expected to be competing with. The Potters had the luxury of having former Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher and ex-England striker Peter Crouch on the bench. Those two alone have knocked up almost 800 Premier League appearances between them, not to mention the numerous major trophies they have won.
Ironically, Millwall more than competed against their recently relegated opponents. They looked a far more organised outfit than in previous weeks and Stoke required a moment of top-flight quality from Tom Ince to break down their stubborn backline midway through the second-half.
Despite the result, away form and all else, the 1,400 or so travelling Lions fans appreciated their side’s efforts and treated them to a standing ovation as they left the pitch. A Millwall side being clapped off after a defeat is a rare sight, which echoed their spirited display.
Stoke manager Gary Rowett even had the luxury of criticising his team despite the victory – what Neil Harris would give to be in that kind of position.
Rowett said: “It’s a win, isn’t it?” That’s exactly what Harris is craving right now. A victory – three points, however it comes.
Despite their eighth Championship outing without a victory, Harris was pleased with his team, although he knows they must start turning performances into results.
With three extremely winnable games from now until New Year’s Day, Millwall are reaching a potentially season-defining stage in their season.
“Winning games is the business we are in,” Harris said. “But it is my job to make sure the players realise when they play well, and when they don’t. And I have said to them downstairs, that is an excellent away performance that deserved more than it got. That is the level of performance that we have to put in next week, because we have got three games that are going to make or break our season.”
There were positives, though. Mahlon Romeo has returned to form in the last couple of games, Shaun Hutchinson is growing in confidence after a wobbly period after his injury, and Millwall pushed a team that will most likely be challenging for the play-offs all the way.
And unlike recent weeks, Harris’ men came firing out of the blocks, and should have been celebrating the opener before the majority of the 25,351 inside a windy and chilly bet365 Stadium had taken their seats.
Jed Wallace – who always looks the most likely to create a moment of magic – skipped past his man and sent over a dangerous cross that forced Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross to almost divert past Jack Butland. Fortunately for him, the England goalkeeper was alert to the danger and made an instinctive save down low down to his left. Lee Gregory attempted to slide the ball home from the follow-up but failed to convert before Ryan Tunnicliffe fired wide. One minute into the game and you could already feel how this one was going to end up.
Stoke had got away with murder. Shane Ferguson and Ryan Tunnicliffe turned away in disbelief, they knew the magnitude of chance that had just gone begging.
The home side were predictably dominating the football, but whenever they came forward, they bumped into a determined player in blue in front of them. Chances were few and far between, it wasn’t a classic.
Boos rang out at half-time. The Lions had their hosts exactly where they wanted them.
But like so often this season, Millwall failed to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and were undone on 61 minutes. Ince found space before picking out Saido Berahino – who squeezed between Cooper and Shaun Hutchinson – to head past Jordan Archer.
Cooper had a perfect chance to make amends at the other end, but headed into the away fans, instead of the back of the net. Steve Morison’s agonising effort sailed just wide before Aiden O’Brien’s crisply-struck volley found the hands of Butland in a flurry of late Millwall chances.
But it was too little too late. Their Boxing Day six-pointer with Reading – the side that sit just above them in the Championship table – has just become even more significant, if that was possible.
Millwall (4-4-2): Archer 6, Romeo 7, Hutchinson 7, Cooper 6, Meredith 4 (O’Brien 71), J Wallace 6, Tunnicliffe 6, Leonard 5 (Karacan 88), Ferguson 6, Elliott 5, (Morison 69, 6), Gregory 6. Not used: Amos, Webster, M Wallace, McLaughlin.
IMAGES BY BRIAN TONKS