Millwall shocked many last season with their brilliant late push for the Championship Play-Offs, but this term has brought fans back down to Earth with something of a bump and relegation is still a very real prospect heading into the final weeks. Has this season played out how you thought it would?
It’s probably more along the lines of how I thought it would go and I think a lot of Millwall fans were realistic as well. Nobody thought they were going to improve on eighth and get into the Play-Offs this season; I think this is the season they were expecting last time around. They were disrupted at the start of the season when they lost George Saville to Middlesbrough and suffered a couple of injuries.
They were a team struggling to figure themselves out, to an extent. They played 4-4-2 last season, got the ball forward a lot and were getting a lot of joy with Steve Morison knocking it down for Lee Gregory and a lot of players joining in. Morison is a year old now, not as influential and has made more appearances off the bench than he did last season. A couple of players, like Fred Onyedinma, haven’t pushed on since last season so it’s been a lot more of what you’d expect in terms of their budget, the squad depth, the quality of players that they have and what they can spend. Survival this season, I think, will actually be seen as success, given that there have been certain stages this season where things looked really bad, but Millwall fans really aren’t complaining or calling for Neil Harris’ sacking – it’s not like that at all. There’s just more of a realism around the club, because this is maybe where they expect to be.
Neil Harris expertly guided his side to an FA Cup Quarter-Final against Brighton & Hove Albion in March. How much of a detrimental effect has that had on The Lions’ survival chances?
I’d actually say the opposite - I think they’ve got a really good buzz from that. It’s given them real confidence, coming back against Hull and then knocking Everton out in the way they did in the last minute. Most people will have seen David Martin make that mistake late on against Brighton, but I would’ve been more worried had they won that game, faced Manchester City and had their game against West Brom brought forward. That would have been a little bit of a worry; they probably would’ve got a hiding at Wembley so they were best avoiding that. Even giving away that goal in the 94th minute and losing on penalties to Brighton, there was initial disappointment, of course, but every player I spoke to, including David Martin, got over it very quickly and I think, realistically, they all said they were probably better off not playing Man City. Even though they lost, the performance gave them huge confidence.
Do you think Millwall have what it takes to keep their heads above water come the end of the campaign?
Yes, absolutely. At this point, before the Brentford game, I’d actually be surprised if they did go down, because there’s a lot of confidence; there aren’t players moping around the training ground and the manager has told the players that they need to enjoy this challenge because they are fighting for survival in the Championship. They shouldn’t be fearing it, they should be enjoying it. The players are saying the same thing and they are looking forward to these games, despite a tough run recently. Going to Sheffield United, not many people thought they would get a draw, but I tipped a 1-1 draw because I could see their confidence. They beat West Brom and drew with QPR. Rotherham have had a couple of decent results lately, but, at this point, I believe Millwall have enough belief, enough confidence, and enough quality to stay up. Right now, it would be a shock to me if they were relegated.
Which Millwall player would you name as your player of the season?
That’s a difficult one because no player has really stood out like last season, where there were a few. I could pick someone like Lee Gregory, who has done superbly playing in the lone striker role recently, but maybe hasn’t got the goal return, so that somewhat affects him going for Player of the Year. I think Jake Cooper would be up there and I’d probably go for him. He’s got seven goals and seven assists, which is the highest for a centre-back in the top four divisions of English football and he’s also had around 50 shots, which is amazing for a player in that position. For the points he’s secured for the team, the absolutely crucial goals he’s scored from set pieces and for his defending at the other end, I’ll go for Jake Cooper.
When you’ve spoken to us previously, you’ve said that Millwall play a 4-4-2 with a “direct, aggressive style”. Presumably that will be the case once again on Friday afternoon?
Probably not, actually. Up until early this year, since the 2015/16 season - which was Neil Harris’ first full season in charge – I’d say that all but five times Millwall had played a 4-4-2 formation. But a couple of things have affected that: Steve Morison isn’t as decent as he was, Tom Elliott has been injured and Tom Bradshaw got an injury in 2018 that put him out for the season.
Harris has gone for either a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-1-3-1-1, with a 3-5-2 at Sheffield United. They’ve changed it around a lot of and it has been an answer to his critics, in a way, who suggested Millwall were too one-dimensional. Another factor was Ben Thompson coming back from Portsmouth. He made his debut five or six years ago but was out of the team last season, went to Fratton Park for the first half of this season and was probably looking to stay there for the rest of the season, helping them out of League One. He was brought back in January, has played in an advanced position behind Lee Gregory and has been really excellent, showing a massive improvement as a player; it’s helped in playing a different formation in that they don’t have to lump the ball forward, maybe not being as direct as they were.
Ryan Leonard has played a couple of different midfield roles around Ryan Tunnicliffe, and then they had those three centre-backs against Sheffield United. They have been a lot more flexible with their set-up since last season; partly forced by not having a big striker up front, but it’s been impressive how Harris has set his side up to cope with different opposition. And it has worked in 2019.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
I think with Millwall full of belief, full of confidence and it being a London derby, they will get stuck in from the start and maybe Brentford won’t quite fancy it if that happens. I’ll go for 2-1 to Millwall.