Welcome back to my review of the 2008/09 season; a campaign which saw Millwall Football Club narrowly miss out on achieving promotion to the nPower Championship through the League One play-offs, losing to Scunthorpe United in the Final at Wembley Stadium.
We left the season at the end of Part One at the turn of the year, with the Lions sitting in 5th place, having signed off 2008 with a 1-1 draw against Yeovil Town at The Den.
The year of 2009 opened with FA Cup action, as Crewe Alexandra came to SE16, looking for a place in the Fourth Round at the Lions’ expense. However, the tie would have to be replayed, as it finished 2-2 on the day, with Marc Laird and Andy Frampton scoring the goals for the home side. The draw paired the winner with a trip to Premier League side Hull City and it was to be the Lions who would advance – with a dollop of history thrown in, too.
A topsy-turvy cup tie saw Millwall win 3-2 in front of 3,060 fans at Gresty Road, but just 244 Lions fans would witness history in front of their eyes. With Neil Harris tied with Teddy Sheringham in the leading goal-scorer stakes, a poacher’s goal from ‘Bomber’ in the 54th minute saw him overtake the ex-West Ham striker, sparking wild celebrations amongst Millwall fans and players alike. Harris would go on to extend the record before retiring, but that moment must rank up there with the best in his career.
Gifton Noel-Williams’ ill-fated spell at The Den came to an end in January, as he was released on a free transfer, whilst young goalkeeper, Preston Edwards, joined Dover Athletic on loan. On the flip side, the transfer window saw Kenny Jackett bring in Adam Bolder from QPR on a free, while striker Izale McLeod joined on loan from Charlton Athletic.
It was back to league action on the 17th, as Marc Laird’s 73rd minute winner downed plucky Tranmere Rovers, keeping the Lions inside the top six, but the FA Cup took centre stage once more a week later, as the Lions travelled north to Hull for their Fourth Round tie.
2,284 fans saw their side produce a heroic performance against their top division counterparts, but a combination of dodgy refereeing and Premier League quality saw the Tigers squeak through to Round Five with a 2-0 victory.
With the cup now out of sight, full attentions could be focused on the league campaign and the charge towards the Championship. Laird continued his scoring form, adding a 90th minute strike to Tony Craig’s opener just after the hour mark, as the Lions won 2-0 at struggling Hereford, but January ended with a 2-1 defeat to Scunthorpe United at The Den in a promotion six-pointer, as a Gary Hooper double cancelled out Gary Alexander’s opener in the second half.
Richard Duffy joined on loan from Portsmouth as February began – with Adrian Forbes going the opposite way to Grimsby Town – and the right-back made his debut at Elland Road on February 9th, lasting just 52 minutes before being replaced by Alan Dunne in a 2-0 televised defeat to Leeds, as the Lions just about held on to their place in the top six.
Jackett’s men let two points slip through their grasp in the final eleven minutes at Stockport County five days later, as a 2-0 lead, given to them by Izale McLeod, was cancelled out. A crashing injury-time drive from Reading loanee, James Henry, three days later ensured that the Lions remained in the play-off places, courtesy of a 1-1 draw with Swindon Town, but a 1-0 defeat at home to Brighton and Hove Albion on February 21st left Millwall hanging precariously once more.
Vincent Pericard joined on loan from Stoke City shortly before the Brighton game, but found his loan spell – and season – cut short at Cheltenham Town, as he was forced off with a cruciate ligament injury in the Lions’ 3-1 win over the basement boys. Henry, Ashley Grimes and Marc Laird gave the away side a comfortable win, as they moved up to 4th in the table.
Chris Taylor’s injury-time winner snatched all three points for Oldham Athletic at The Den on February 28th, as the Lactics won 3-2, moving into the play-off places themselves, but Jackett’s charges ensured that defeat was a distant memory by March 10th, as they strung together three successive victories.
Gary Alexander scored the only goal of the game as Millwall won 1-0 at Southend United, before a last-minute James Henry winner captured all three points at Huddersfield Town, after Gary Roberts cancelled out Marc Laird’s opener. Alexander was on the score-sheet once more, scoring the winner in a 1-0 win over Northampton Town at The Den, as the Lions completed their trio of victories, strengthening their grip on fourth place in the process.
A 1-0 defeat at The Den to leaders Leicester City put a slight dent in the Lions’ armour, but three more consecutive victories meant that the Lions finished March in third place, chasing the top two.
Marc Laird continued his form in front of goal, handing Jackett’s men all three points in a single-goal victory at MK Dons, before Neil Harris rolled back the years at Hartlepool, netting a ten-minute second-half hat-trick, turning a 2-0 defeat into a 3-2 victory. That was followed by a 1-0 victory at Crewe, with loan signing Jason Price scrambling home an injury-time winner. A 1-0 defeat to Colchester on March 31st stopped the Lions’ momentum slightly, but they would go into the final full month of the season well placed for a charge at the top two.
8,800 were at The Den to see Price and Alexander share the goals in a 3-1 win over Walsall on April 4th, before Jon Obika – more on him in the next season – netted one of the goals in a 2-0 defeat to Yeovil Town at Huish Park on Good Friday.
Easter Monday bought Sky TV to The Den, as the Lions took on Peterborough United. Posh, sitting in second place, were looking the extend the gap in their attempt to reach the Championship, whilst the Lions looked to close the gap. Jackett’s men took the lead in bizarre circumstances in the 25th minute, as they scored from the spot at the third attempt. Gary Alexander’s first two attempts were scuppered by the referee, which lead to Dave Martin slotting the third spot-kick high above the ‘keeper. Jason Price’s 58th minute strike gave Millwall a priceless win in the race for promotion.
A rare occasion – a Jimmy Abdou double – was not enough at the Memorial Stadium on April 18th, as Bristol Rovers rattled in four goals, all but mathematically ending the Lions’ hopes of automatic promotion in a 4-2 defeat. Gary Alexander’s double turned the final home game of the regular season on its head a week later, as the Lions defeated London rivals, Leyton Orient, 2-1, before the season finished at Carlisle United, as Jackett’s men prepared for the play-offs by losing 2-0 to the Cumbrians.
And so, to the play-offs. Finishing in fifth place in the League One table meant a two-legged semi-final affair against bitter rivals, Leeds United. The first leg at The Den saw the Lions poke their noses in front, courtesy of a 71st minute winner from Neil Harris, but it was to be the second leg at Elland Road that would go down in the history books.
With Leeds United advertising packages for Wembley Stadium on their website and in their match-day programme, the Lions had the last laugh, as Jimmy Abdou’s 74th minute strike cancelled out Luciano Becchio’s opener on the night, giving Millwall a 2-1 aggregate win, sending themselves to Wembley and the League One play-off final.
In that final, they would come up against Scunthorpe United – a team who had already done the double over the Lions. In the blazing sunshine, Kenny Jackett’s men would cruelly miss out on promotion to the Championship, as Martyn Woolford’s winner five minutes from time sent the Lincolnshire side up to the second tier.
The day would be looked back at fondly by Millwall fans, however, as Gary Alexander scored the greatest goal ever seen at the new Wembley Stadium. Having just equalised in the 37th minute, after Matt Sparrow’s 6th minute opener, Alexander picked up the ball from a throw-in around 40 yards from goal. Turning on a sixpence, the striker unleashed an unstoppable shot over the head of the ‘keeper into the top corner, sparking wild celebrations in the sunny Millwall end of the ground.
Unfortunately, the wonder-strike wasn’t to go down in history as the goal to take Millwall Football Club into the Championship. However, just one year later, they would be back at Wembley Stadium in the play-off final. This time, they would go one better.
Next Up: 2009/10.