BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Ben Thompson is ready to head out on loan this season if he is not able to land more regular game time at Millwall.
The 22-year-old midfielder played just 39 minutes of Championship football last season.
And while Thompson has no desire to make a permanent exit from the Lions, he has echoed manager Neil Harris’ sentiments that a second campaign shadowing the likes of George Saville, Shaun Williams and Ryan Tunnicliffe could slow his progression.
His interview with the South London Press at the club’s Calmont Road training ground was temporarily halted by good-natured heckling by Steve Morison and Byron Webster – who went on to list a host of League One clubs that the Millwall youth product could be on his way to imminently.
But behind any jest is the reality that if Thompson is made available for loan, most if not all of League One would be interested.
Harris’ plans for his squad will solidify in the coming weeks.
The start of pre-season is a period of re-assessment, a clean slate where players can boost their first-team prospects.
Being a first-team regular at Millwall has always been Thompson’s aim. He was a diehard fan before signing for the South Londoners.
“I’ve come in for pre-season and obviously, my ultimate goal is to play for Millwall and play in the starting 11,” he said. “But if that’s not the case, then obviously there’s going to be other options for me to go out on loan and get game time somewhere else.
“My future’s here at Millwall. But if it has to be a six-month loan or a 12-month loan, just to get my game time up and get back used to playing every week, then that might be an option.
“Nothing’s concrete yet.
“I’m training with great players every day – all the boys are top quality. That makes me improve – but there’s only a certain amount of training that you can do.
“Games are the most important – they’re the key to everything – because you can’t replicate games in training.
“I can’t have another season like last – I only played between five and 10 games. It’s not enough. If I’m not in the starting 11, or as close as I can be to it, then I need to go out and play some games.
“That would be beneficial to my career and Millwall in the long-term future.”
Thompson won Millwall’s Young Player of the Year award – and goal of the season – in his first full campaign in 2015-16.
The following season he made 47 appearances as the Lions won the League One play-offs, although he lost his starting berth in the run-in as Harris opted for the know-how of veteran Jimmy Abdou.
Thompson has played 92 games for Millwall – 66 of those in League One.
What comes as a surprise is to hear that Thompson, perpetual motion during a game, is not a huge fan of the pre-season running.
“The first two or three weeks of the summer you’re buzzing to just have some time to relax and chill out – set your mind on being on the beach,” he said. “But the last three or four weeks you’re itching to get back into the season.
“Pre-season’s not the best of times for me. As much as people see me do loads of running on the pitch, I don’t particularly enjoy it unless it’s when I’m playing football.
“If I’m just running box-to-box on the pitch with no footballs then it’s not the way forward. I’ll run as much as I like in a game but, when it comes to just running across a pitch, it’s not me. Obviously it has to be done.”
Millwall’s eighth place finish last season has raised expectations for their second bite at the Championship.
Following that Wembley win over Bradford 14 months ago, most Lions fans would have settled for consolidation. But a 17-game unbeaten run had them shouldering their way into the play-off equation until after the penultimate round of fixtures.
“Once we started getting into that run and getting some form, we looked unbeatable at times,” said Thompson. “I was watching on and thinking: ‘No-one’s going to beat us’. It shows how far we’ve come.
“We’ve had a few years in League One where it’s been hit and miss – we’ve got there and not made it to the Championship and then we’ve made it. To come into the Championship and show teams that we’re not here to mess about is a great achievement for the club.
“No-one expected last season. Everyone expected us to be down there and fighting relegation – we’ve proven everyone wrong and that we’re good enough at this level.
“I don’t see why we can’t push higher up the table this year and hopefully get into the play-off spots, but another season like the last one wouldn’t be the end of the world.
“To do that in the Championship the first time around is unbelievable.
“The second seasons can be tougher, a lot tougher. We need to cement our place in the Championship and to do that we need another season like last, if not better.”
The promotion betting offers few surprises. Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion are the hot favourites with Swansea – the last of the relegated trio from the Premier League – only slighter longer odds.
Leeds’ appointment of Marcelo Bielsa has propelled them into the mix, with Forest and Middlesbrough, both opening their wallets to invest heavily, equally fancied to be in the shake-up.
But there are always clubs who have all the resources but are not properly equipped where it matters – on the pitch.
“You can have 11 players worth hundreds of millions or 11 players who want it more than anyone else,” is Thompson’s reaction.
“Money is a big thing in the Championship. You’ve got a lot being spent and players worth millions, but you’ve got to have 11 players who want to play for you, have good team spirit and want to play for the club.
“It’s a game of opinions, so other people might think differently, but I think you just need 11 players on the pitch that want it.”
Millwall’s preparations for the August 4 opener at home to Boro have certainly started smoothly enough, with a 5-0 friendly victory at Dartford last weekend.
The Lions only drew 1-1 in the same fixture a year earlier.
“I don’t think it’s too much to read into,” said Thompson. “We’re there to get match fitness.
“The result matters – obviously the result matters. Everyone wants to win, but we are playing lower opposition.
“It does show the team’s come along and that the players we’ve brought in are making us stronger – Jed [Wallace] showed his quality against Dartford.
“Jed’s quick and very fit – that’s hard for Dartford, I think they only train twice a week.
“Jed’s always fit it, always on it – he can come back for pre-season and be the fittest there.
“It shows the difference between training every day and twice a week. Players like Jed are going to be running past them.”
Photos by Brian Tonks