Millwall Turn Up The Heat
It seems to surprise us every season, even though it almost certainly shouldn’t. For the majority of the season in the Football League, most clubs seem to play as though the serious businesses of promotion and relegation can wait for another day. With such a relentless slog of fixtures this probably shouldn’t be too surprising, but some time around the start of springtime it feels as though clubs wake up and remember the scale of the prize at stake should they manage to squeeze their way into a higher division. Nowhere is this more accentuated than at the top of the Championship, where the prize for promotion is upwards of £100m.
For much of the duration of the winter months, the story of the top of the Championship has been the story of the considerable success of Wolverhampton Wanderers and of Cardiff City. Wolves seem likely to seal their return to the Premier League with games to spare, but Cardiff’s recent run of three games without a win has opened up a race for the second automatic promotion place which many had assumed to be more or less over. With four matches of the season left to play, Cardiff’s sudden wobble has opened a window of opportunity for Fulham, whose win against Reading last night nudged one of the division’s form teams into second place in the table.
Below these three clubs, the race for a play-off place is similarly fraught. At the time of writing, Cardiff City and Aston Villa have already claimed two of those places – although supporters of both of these clubs might consider finishing the season in the play-off spots to be something of a disappointment, albeit for somewhat different reasons – but the other two places could yet head to any two of seven clubs, from fourth-placed Derby County down to tenth-placed Brentford, who themselves are only five points from being able to grab that final lottery ticket. Derby have two games in hand on those below them, but the first of these is as daunting as can be expected in the Championship – a trip to Molineux this evening to play a Wolves team with the scent of the Premier League firmly lodged in its nostrils – whilst three of their five other remaining matches also come against teams near the top end of the table, in the form of Cardiff City, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa.
Even over the course of a forty-six match season, then, the margins between success and failure in the Championship frequently turn out to be as thin as a cigarette paper. Within such an environment, it should hardly surprise us when a team hits a purple patch of form and finds itself in contention for promotion, but somehow it still does. Few could contain their shock at seeing Huddersfield Town getting promoted at the end of last season, for example, and the same could easily be said for Bournemouth a couple of years earlier, even if their promotion to the Premier League broke Football League FFP rules to get to where they wanted to be. Every year there is a “surprise” club in the mix and last night this year’s surprise team, Millwall, jumped into sixth place in the table, that coveted last play-off position.
Sixth place in the table is a position with which this particular club is already familiar. Millwall finished in the same spot in League One last season, with a last day win at Bristol Rovers securing them a play-off spot which they took full advantage of in beating Scunthorpe United over two legs before beating Bradford City to secure promotion. This season had been expected to be one of consolidation for the club, and results at the start of the season – they began this season with just one win from their first seven league matches – seemed to indicate the avoiding relegation might be the best that anyone connected with the club could hope for. Somehow, though, this team has come good at exactly the right time. Since losing at Norwich City on New Year’s Day, a result which left them in fifteenth place in the table, Millwall have gone sixteen matches unbeaten in the Championship, with a new club record being set with last night’s win at Bolton Wanderers which surpassed that previously managed by the club in 1971.
What has been notable about this run has been its relative understatement. It might be reckoned that the pivotal result was a four-three win at Leeds United on the twentieth of January, when they fell behind with four minutes to play before pulling themselves level and snatching a win in stoppage-time. The fireworks set off on that evening seem to have done wonders for the confidence of the players, but since then Millwall’s slow ascent up the league table has been built on the foundation of solidly getting a job done. Millwall haven’t scored more than two goals in a league match since then, but they haven’t conceded more than two either, and a run of eleven wins and five draws from those sixteen matches seems to indicate that manager Neil Harris has found a way of getting the absolute best out of his somewhat limited resources over the last four months or so.
Harris cuts an interestingly unique figure in the trigger-happy world of the Football League Championship. It is a reflection upon the times in which we live that he is the longest-serving manager of a Championship club, even though he only marked his third anniversary as the club’s manager a little over a month ago. It would be a stretch to call him a “local lad” – he grew up near Brentwood in Essex – but Harris and Millwall certainly go back a long way. He first signed for the club as a player from non-league Cambridge City in 1998, and over the following six years scored ninety-three goals for the club before being sold to Nottingham Forest in 2004. His first spell at The New Den was also notable for his diagnosis with and recovery from testicular cancer, a state of affairs which led to the club setting up the Neil Harris Everyman Appeal cancer charity.
His time at Nottingham Forest was not especially happy. He was loaned out for a season at Gillingham, and it took him twenty-one months to score his first goal for the club, so his return to Millwall at the start of 2007 after a mutually agreed cancellation of his contract was no great surprise. He overtook Teddy Sheringham as the club’s record league goalscorer in his second match after his return, and pointedly refused to leave the club even after then-manager Kenny Jackett advised him that he would not be offered a new contract after the end of the 2007/08 season. His goals were instrumental in steering Millwall clear from relegation that season, and he was subsequently offered a new contract by the club, becoming its all-time record goalscorer in all competitions in January 2009.
He eventually left Millwall again in 2011 to play for Southend United, with his playing career eventually ending in 2013 through injury, but Millwall would soon come calling again. He had a brief spell as caretaker-manager at the end of 2013 before accepting the challenge again in March 2015, with his temporary position being made permanent the following summer. This time around, something has clicked. Beaten at Wembley by Barnsley in the League One play-off final at the end of the 2015/16 season, he went one better last time around, at the end of a season which also saw his team knock three Premier League sides – Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester City – on the way to a quarter-final defeat against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup. Returning to the Championship, however, was expected to be a significant challenge for the club and the lower mid-table position that Millwall occupied for the first five months or so of the season was about as far up the league table as many expected them to be.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Millwall should be capable of such a run, though. This is, after all a football club that is emphatically not like other football clubs. In the public consciousness, of course, this otherness most obviously manifests itself in the wilder excesses of a section of the club’s fan-base. It is true to say that The New Den remains one of the most intimidating grounds in the country for an away supporter to visit, but to focus entirely upon this is one-sided and overlooks the club’s outstanding record in its local community. From its explicit support to the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign to its fierce rearguard action in protest against the local council’s attempts to compulsorily purchase land adjacent to The New Den, this is a club that is of its locale like perhaps no other in the Football League.
This sense of togetherness might well serve the club very well over the last few weeks of this season. Millwall’s last four league matches of the season are all against teams with aspirations of a play-off place or automatic promotion themselves – in the form of Sheffield United, Fulham, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa – but, truism though it is, there is value for the club to be taken from the fact that the burden of expectation will likely weigh considerably more heavily on the other teams that on Millwall themselves. When looking at the “quality” of teams, we tend to focus on the tangible, on amounts of money spent and increasingly in modern times on reams and reams of statistics.
The margins that will define the difference between success and failure come the end of the season, however, are likely to be extremely narrow indeed. “Bottle” – or, to put it another way, the ability to cope under extreme pressure – will almost certainly be a considerable influence on how the end of the season plays out and, whilst it’s difficult to predict how any group of players will react in any specific situation, the nature of Millwall’s ascent up the table, the tightness of their defence – they’ve kept five clean sheets in their last six matches – and the hostile atmosphere of The New Den may all impact on how the rest of the season plays out, to some extent or other.
May 2018 also marks a highly significant anniversary for the club. Next month, it will be exactly thirty years since a Millwall team managed by John Docherty and featuring such notable names as Tony Cascarino, Teddy Sheringham and Kevin O’Callaghan won promotion to the First Division for the first time in the club’s history. After 103 years, Millwall were the last London Football League club to reach the top flight, but their stay wasn’t exceptionally lengthy. They briefly topped the table during the following autumn before tailing off, and their second season at that level saw them finish at the very bottom of the pile, with just five wins from their thirty-eight league matches at the end of the 1989/90 season.
As we enter its last few weeks, each season has a tendency to feel like a roller coaster approaching a peak and a downward slope. The acceleration has already begun, and those last few matches left before it all comes to an end will fly by. There’s no doubt that Millwall have their work cut out. They have four matches left against difficult opposition, all with something to play for, and all of this is just to get them into the play-offs, never mind winning them and getting promoted and into the Premier League. For all of that, though, there remains a sense that this is a club that is not operating under quite the same pressures as those around them in the table, and they remain one of the division’s form teams, at the moment. There’s a lot still to play for and they may well miss out in the end, but for Millwall, who were only promoted into this division via the play-offs after having finished last season in sixth place in League One, to even still be in with a shout at this point in the season is an achievement worthy of note.
Picture credit: Wikipedia Commons