BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Ryan Leonard has admitted that Millwall’s FA Cup exit is probably going to aid their attempts to secure Championship survival.
That’s not to say that the Lions midfielder is not hurting over Sunday’s penalty shootout defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion.
But while a Wembley semi-final against Manchester City would have been a huge prestige fixture for the SE16 outfit, there would also have been the risk of it becoming a distraction.
Pep Guardiola’s side smashed seven past Schalke in the Champions League earlier this month, racked up six goals against Chelsea in February along with a 9-0 humiliation of Burton Albion in the EFL Cup semi-final.
Rotherham, just below the Lions in the league table, were wiped out 7-0 in the FA Cup at the start of the year by City.
It’s led to suggestions that a fixture against City isn’t necessarily a confidence booster for the bigger objective.
“You can look at it from two aspects,” said Leonard, a club record signing from Sheffield United. “It would be a hell of a day out for the football club – for the fans and players to get to Wembley. You’re going up against probably the best team in the world.
“But, on a positive note, it is probably going to help in the long run not having that day out and everything around that game. It would have been a very difficult one.
“It’s still a little bit frustrating and we’re disappointed. But the focus is just on a huge game at Leeds and getting some much-needed points as soon as we can.”
Leonard reckons that Sunday’s match topped the fourth round win over Everton at The Den in terms of noise levels.
“It was one hell of an occasion,” said the 26-year-old. “The atmosphere was unbelievable – especially after we got the two goals. I’ve not felt that before in my career – it was that good.
“The thing about the Everton game is that it [Murray Wallace’s winner] was the last kick of the match. It was jubilant scenes. But our performance as a team was better against Brighton. We had a 25-minute spell in the second half where we dominated and got a two-goal lead – the fans were driving us on.
“We looked very comfortable until we conceded two late goals. The first one was something we didn’t see coming. It was a great finish from the lad [Jurgen Locadia]. Take nothing away, it probably wasn’t a chance really. It was a half-chance and he’s zinged it in with his left foot.
“The second goal is a mistake but these things happen in football – people make mistakes but also get you out of jail in other ways.
“We can be proud we took a Premier League side 120 minutes, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Leonard took – and converted – one of the Millwall penalties in the shootout. He also scored from the spot for Southend United in their League Two play-off final win over Wycombe in 2015.
The Lions had plenty of players not on the pitch at full-time on Sunday who would normally have stepped up, such as Lee Gregory, Aiden O’Brien and Jed Wallace.
So would Leonard have normally been making the walk as one of the initial five?
“I think that’s probably determined after the game,” he said. “I’d have always taken one – whether the manager wanted me to take one or not is a different story!
“I think I’ve been involved in two penalty shootouts before the weekend and I’ve scored both.
“I’d definitely always put myself forward. It is literally a lottery. You saw Glenn Murray, who has been scoring lots of goals at the moment, and he misses his penalty. I don’t think you can determine whether a striker, midfielder or defender will score – it’s just luck. Brighton had that and unfortunately we didn’t.
“It is nerve-racking. You know you have to score. All the pressure is on the taker. For a goalkeeper it is a nice thing, there is no pressure on them.
“I probably enjoyed it a little more than my recent penalty shootouts because usually we’ve been behind when I’ve taken them – whereas at that stage we were in front.
“For me it was trying to hit the target and make the keeper make a save. Luckily enough it went in, which was a sigh of relief.”
Leonard has had that one Wembley experience with the Shrimpers.
“It would have been a nice way to get there again,” he said. “But it’s a long career and you never know what will happen in the future.
“As players you just look at it and think it was not meant to be.
“We did enough to get there, but we didn’t get there because of a penalty shootout.
“We have just got to regroup from it, and I’m sure we will.”
PICTURES BY BRIAN TONKS AND KEITH GILLARD