By Richard Cawley
Ben Thompson has more reason than most to hope Millwall have an FA Cup run this season.
The 22-year-old midfielder has only played 39 minutes of Championship football since play-off final promotion in May.
Thompson lost his starting slot in the run-in to the 2016-17 campaign as boss Neil Harris opted for the know-how of Jimmy Abdou as the club’s promotion hopes reached crunch time.
The summer additions of George Saville and Ryan Tunnicliffe have only made the challenge stiffer for Thompson, who is living the dream of playing for his boyhood club.
His all-action performance in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Barnsley – which saw him net the second goal – showed he is ready to take any opportunities handed him.
So far that has been away from the Championship as he has played every minute of Millwall’s cup fixtures.
The 90 minutes against the Tykes was the first time he went the full distance since the extra-time defeat to Reading on August 22.
“In the first 15 or 20 minutes I was blowing a bit but after that I got my second wind and I felt alright for the rest of the game,” said Thompson. “I was cramping up a bit but I could manage it. I felt not too bad considering I hadn’t played for a while – we’ve not had under-23 games of late.
“It felt good to be out there and to get a goal as well. It’s tough and it’s frustrating not playing. I’ve been sat on the bench watching the boys and getting minutes every now and again.
“I’ve not been used much in the league. My aim is to get in the starting 11. But the cup is a chance to show what I’m all about.
“I’ve chatted with the manager and I know I am going to have to be patient. We’re in the Championship now and we’ve got better and more experienced players in different areas of the pitch. I’ve got to bide my time. I’m still young. The more I watch some of these players then the more I learn. It’s just how football works.
“The players in my position have been playing very well – the whole team has in the first half of the season.”
League One Rochdale stand between Millwall securing a fifth round berth.
The Lions, quarter-finalists last time around after a hat-trick of Premier League scalps, will be expected to progress.
Manager Neil Harris was hoping to land West Ham United at The Den in the draw, which was made on Monday.
“That [West Ham] would be the dream,” said Thompson. “That is what you dream about as a little kid. Rochdale at home is a winnable game for us and a chance to get in the next round, we need to make sure we deliver on the day.
“If it wasn’t West Ham or Palace I’d take a lower league team or someone you feel you should beat.”
Thompson’s last time on the scoresheet before the weekend came in a 3-1 victory over Shrewsbury at The Den on April 9 2016.
“It was a good set-up by Aiden [O’Brien] on Saturday,” he said. “It was a nice cutback, I saw my chance and tucked it away. I got in the right position at the right time. I’ve been working on that in training, having shots. Adding goals to my game is something I need to do.
“Sometimes I practise with the manager when he takes a few of us, whether that is crossing or finishing. David Livermore mainly takes the midfielders to do finishing from outside of the box.
“The boys were as happy as me that I scored. I saw the picture [in the South London Press of him being lifted up] and I laughed. They had fun with the celebration, throwing me about.”
Millwall are unbeaten in six matches at The Den and aim to extend that record when Preston come to town tomorrow.
North End were amongst the early pacesetters before four straight losses in October and early November slowed their forward momentum.
But Alex Neil’s side have been defeated just once in their last 11 matches – winning six of those.
“We go into every home game feeling untouchable,” said Thompson. “The Den is a fortress at the moment. Any team can come and we’ll give them a good go.
“We need to keep our home form going in the league, that will give us lots of points, and then get that first away win.”
Millwall’s last three-point haul in the Championship came at Birmingham in February 2015, Alan Dunne’s 51st-minute goal sealing a 1-0 victory.
The record stands at drawn eight and lost 13 since then on the road at this level.
Ending that wait for a Championship victory at Leeds in just over a week’s time – considering the rivalry that has developed between the two sets of fans – would be extra sweet.
“I’ve not been there as a player and I’m really looking forward to that,” said Thompson. “I’ve heard it is a great atmosphere. Hopefully we’ll thrive on that and get a good result.
“I want to see what Elland Road is about and what Leeds United are about. I always approach every game with a little bit of nerves and excitement.”