STOKE CITY 0
BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT THE DEN
Never will a result at The Hawthorns have mattered more to Millwall on Saturday afternoon. And finally the Lions can breathe easily – they are staying up.
This season has been a slog for Millwall, with the FA Cup the only distraction from the grinding nature of their Championship campaign. But now they can relax.
A third season in English football’s second tier has been secured. Millwall will be facing the likes of Huddersfield Town and Fulham next season. They won’t be going to the likes of Accrington Stanley and Fleetwood. No disrespect intended to those last couple of clubs, but it doesn’t exactly whet the appetite.
The quality of the Championship is getting better and better, that’s something that the Lions can attest to. It took until after the penultimate game of the 2017-18 season for their play-off hopes to be ended – and only then by a Fulham side who went on to party at Wembley in May’s play-off final.
But this time around it was matchday number 36 which saw them clinch safety. I’m not sure even the most optimistic Millwall fans expected another crack at the top six this time around.
But the natural question is, what changed? As is always the case when assessing a football season, it’s never about one thing. The Lions has speculation over some of their star men from last season. And even though they only lost one, it was a significant exit.
George Saville was such a huge part of driving on from midfield and hit 10 goals. While nearly all the signings in 2017-18 would go in the hit category, the same can’t be said for 2018-19.
Ryan Leonard has been a solid acquisition – his role in the team is not intended to be spectacular.
Alex Pearce helped Millwall significantly tighten up at the back, and that goal difference came hugely into play when you weighed up Rotherham’s prospects of climbing clear as the fixtures ticked down. But after that, it’s hard to pick out anyone else.
Tom Bradshaw’s campaign at a new club was ended almost as soon as it started by that cruciate knee ligament injury at Brentford. The big disappointment? Easy, it has to be Jiri Skalak.
The Czech winger has featured 19 times since his August move from Brighton and barely made an impression. If there are any suitors, likely to be on the continent, it is hard to envisage Millwall not looking to cut their losses – which are small-fry in comparison to most of the rest of the division, but not for a club who are prudent spenders.
Ben Marshall returned for a second loan in January but his displays have almost mirrored the story for the Lions at times. No lack of effort, but just not always clicking.
He scored a pressure penalty at Leeds, but the team still lost. He hit the bar with a spot-kick at Sheffield United, but Jake Cooper rescued a leveller at the death. Marshall was full of confidence last season, nearly everything he did coming off.
On Saturday it seemed like any confidence he had left seeped away as he struggled to make an impact – home fans not being shy in voicing their displeasure.
His substitution for Steve Morison felt merciful. Neil Harris will be aware more than anybody of the changes which need to take place. It promises to be a big summer.
Rewind to last May and it felt like only minor tweaks were needed to the squad. Now? It could be far more of an overhaul. The goalkeeping department is likely to see the biggest shake-up, with all four of them out of contract. But David Martin’s performances since surprisingly being put into the team at Birmingham have merited him staying on.
Jordan Archer, Ben Amos and Tom King all look to be on their way. Up front is another interesting area. Top-scorer Lee Gregory is also a free agent at the start of July. The striker’s detractors will say that he misses big chances. But I certainly don’t subscribe to that view.
Too often this season he has had one opportunity in a game. I don’t remember a lot of occasions where he has squandered two or three over the course of 90 minutes.
With Harris confirming to our paper this week that Gregory looks set to leave when his contract expires at the end of June, we could soon see if he can deliver more goals at another team at this level. Nobody has a 100 per cent conversion ratio.
The ones who need minimal chances are plying their trade in the Premier League. Gregory was badly isolated in the first half against Stoke. With Ben Thompson missing – his torn calf ruling him out – the Lions did not find it easy to get support up from midfield.
Harris tweaked that at the break. Jed Wallace was pushed further forward and Millwall started to ask a few more questions of the City backline. But it was still slim pickings, something Gregory has had to feed off too often this season.
He did fire wide when Ryan Tunnicliffe, initially denied by James McClean, fizzed the ball back across. Harris, Millwall’s all-time record goalscorer, is best-placed to provide an assessment. “As a striker in that position, you need the fortune,” he said. “The ball has come so quick at him, you almost need it to hit his shin-pad and fly into the net.”
When it comes to luck, Millwall had two pieces in the opening 45 minutes.
Martin made a brave save at the feet of Benik Afobe early on, but Pearce was able to escape any punishment for a clear pull on the striker as he raced on to Moritz Bauer’s scuffed shot. And McClean’s rising drive cannoned down off the Lions’ crossbar with Williams blocking the follow-up attempt by Joe Allen.
That was all inside the opening 15 minutes. They were to be the best chances of the match. Millwall had only one shot on target, and even that was a hopeful effort by Wallace.
He produced a driving run down the left with Danny Batth’s slip persuading him to shoot – but the tight angle meant it would have needed something really special to beat Jack Butland. And that was about as exciting as it got for the Lions, who were largely nullified in their attacking attempts.
Things had just began to click a little with their 4-4-1-1 formation, but then Ben Thompson suffered that hamstring tear which ended his campaign a touch prematurely.
It’s a safe bet that Harris will model his Millwall side around the likes of Thompson next season. And there is probably a need for more pace and legs in other parts of the pitch as well.
The summer is going to be big for the Lions. When you are not spending big like so many of the clubs at this level, it means there is far less margin for errors.
Millwall (4-5-1): Martin 7, Romeo 7, Pearce 7, Cooper 7, Ferguson 7 (Meredith 90), Leonard 7, Williams 6, Tunnicliffe 6, Marshall 4 (Morison 66), J Wallace 7, Gregory 6. Not used: Amos, McLaughlin, Skalak, Onyedinma, Elliott.