BRISTOL CITY 2
Paterson 76 Diedhiou 86
BY TOBY PORTER AT THE DEN
There have been times when Millwall’s captain Steve Morison was left spitting feathers because fans ran on to the pitch after the final home game of the season. Tuesday night was not one of those occasions.
About six well-mannered young supporters climbed over the hoardings and trotted towards some of the players, who were applauding the crowds at The Den. It was somehow a symbol of a stuttering season which had still ended early, in safety, three days before.
The fireworks instead came in manager Neil Harris’ press conference after the game. He revealed disruptive elements had scuppered the Lions’ chances of building on the eighth place which they achieved last season despite having one of the lowest budgets in the Championship.
Had the club been relegated, it is unlikely Harris would have fired his salvo. The club’s record goalscorer would have had to await the verdict of chairman John Berylson.
A new manager would have had a big clear-out but staying up and having a good cup run will ensure it is Harris who wields the axe.
There will be a few players looking over their shoulders – especially the fit first-teamers who were bounced off the team sheet by academy graduates Billy Mitchell, Jesse Debrah and George Alexander on Tuesday.
The fact that Bolton loanee keeper Ben Amos was preferred to in-house colleagues Jordan Archer and Tom King must be a bad sign for the last two. Fred Onyedinma is another whose future must be in doubt. Those questions may not be answered until July 1.
Tuesday’s defeat, though, will leave a bad taste unless fans can be mollified by a result at Wigan on Sunday. Those supporters had fun for the first 71 minutes at The Den, until Millwall’s dominance was undermined by a missed penalty.
There was even a spell when the Lions passed the ball around almost arrogantly, to surging cheers from the stands.
Lee Gregory’s flamboyant 41st-minute strike, set up by Morison, gave them a swagger which had been missing for much of the campaign. But after Shaun Williams side-footed his spot-kick lamely within easy reach of City keeper Max O’Leary’s hands, the visitors sensed their season might not be over.
The Robins virtually went up the other end and scored, direct from Jamie Paterson’s 76th-minute 30-yard free-kick – and suddenly their tails were up.
The tentative, nervy, tippy-tappy prodding had disappeared when Liam Walsh – a doppelganger for his manager’s look and playing style – had been replaced by the more fluid Kasey Palmer at the break. And the sub’s persistent probing paid dividends – he played a neat one-two with Paterson in the 81st minute.
The £900,000 midfielder fed £5.3million striker Famara Diedhiou, who had time to take a second touch before slotting past David Martin.
The game had been turned on its head in little more than 10 minutes. It definitely dampened enthusiasm for a lap of honour – or a pitch invasion.
One thing fans did do, though, was regularly chant the name of scorer Lee Gregory, who looks unlikely to sign a new deal for next season.
The 30-year-old hit his 13th goal of the campaign and 77th for the Lions – and may have rejected the chance to add another when the spot-kick was offered to him. The ex-electrician cost just £250,000 five years ago from Halifax – definitely then-manager Ian Holloway’s best investment.
With Morison wearing the armband, and setting up his strike, it was almost nostalgic to see the duo recreate their heyday, when they led the line to play-off victory in 2017.
The duo were an inspiration – for their selfless dedication to the Lions’ cause. They knew that if the club did well, so did they – but in that order. Tom Elliott will come to the fore next term.
It is too soon to look to those academy graduates like George Alexander, who has some way to go yet before he can match his dad Gary’s strength and stature.
But Harris must certainly land two strikers in the summer, knowing there is unlikely to be huge amounts to spend – and that any potential star from the cheaper lower leagues would take time to bed in. But every signing is a gamble.
Performance stats will be important. But this is one time when references about the character of each new face will be crucial. Some self-destructive individuals in the squad have got carried away with themselves or their publicity, or their supposed technical flair.
Now, more than ever, the vital X-Factor will be finding players who understand how much it means to be a Millwall player.
Millwall (4-4-2): Martin 7, Romeo 8, Meredith 6, Cooper 7, Pearce 6, Leonard 6, Tunnicliffe 6, Williams 5, Ferguson 8, Gregory 8, Morison 7.