The 2009/10 Season – Part Two

Welcome to part two my review of the 2009/10 season, in which Millwall Football Club righted the wrongs of the previous campaign by beating Swindon Town in the League One Play-Off Final at Wembley Stadium, winning promotion to the Championship.

When we left part one, the Lions had just completed the year of 2009 and were sitting in 9th place in the league table, ready for a new year assault on the top six. However, 2010 would begin with FA Cup action.

Championship side Derby County were the visitors to The Den as Third Round weekend got up and running. Lewis Grabban’s 49th minute strike was cancelled out by Kris Commons just three minutes later, meaning that it was all to play for at Pride Park ten days later.

Prior to the tie with the Rams, Darren Ward completed a permanent move back to SE16 from Wolves on a free, with midfielder, Liam Trotter, also joining the Lions on loan from Ipswich Town, while a few days after, Zak Whitbread moved east, switching his allegiance to Norwich City, for a fee thought to be in the region of £100,000.

Millwall bowed out of the FA Cup on penalties in the replay; despite Steve Morison giving Jackett’s men a 108th minute lead in extra-time, their lead – just like in the original tie – lasted mere minutes, as the Rams equalised six minutes later. Danny Schofield was the unfortunate man in the shoot-out, as Derby advanced, winning 5-4.

With all cup action out of the way for the rest of the season, it was back to the bread and butter of the league on January 16th, as the Lions took on Southampton at The Den. The opening 92 minutes of the game was a rather drab affair, but anyone who left early missed the entire talking point of the afternoon. Ricky Lambert’s free-kick was deflected past David Forde and into the net with little time left, but whilst the Saints fans were still celebrating what they thought was a sure-fire three points, the Lions attacked straight from the kick-off. The ball found its way to loanee Trotter, who stroked the ball past the ‘keeper, levelling the scores in the 94th minute, sparking wild celebrations amongst the 9,500 home fans inside the ground.

A 57th minute penalty from Neil Harris at Oldham Athletic ensured the Lions’ pursuit of the top six kept chugging along on January 23rd and three days later, a 2-0 win over Southend United meant that they did indeed jump inside the play-off spots. Goals from Danny Schofield and Shaun Batt, a loan signing from Peterborough, ensured that Kenny Jackett ended the first month of the year with a smile on his face. Steve Morison’s solitary strike at Brighton on the 30th cemented the Lions spot.

Steve Morison

Jason Price and David Martin joined Oldham and Derby on loan respectively in early February, whilst Marcus Bignot was released, as Jackett looked to cut costs. Five days later, nearly 14,500 fans were present to see a promotion six-pointer with league-leaders, Norwich City – and the Lions claimed their fourth straight win, thanks to Tony Craig and Neil Harris, whose strikes overcame Chris Martin’s third-minute opener.

The wins kept on coming, as Exeter City were next to be put to the sword; Harris’ strike nine minutes from time finally downed the resolute Grecians, but a shock defeat at Wycombe on the 20th – their first since Boxing Day – threatened to put a stop to the charge. In a hotly-contested game, which saw five Millwall players go into the book, a soft goal on the stroke of half-time was all that was needed to down the Lions.

That defeat only proved to be the catalyst for the Lions to roar once more, though, as an 11-game unbeaten run between then and the middle of April saw Jackett’s men into contention for a top two spot, let alone a play-off place.

More firepower was added in the month of February, as Jon Obika, a young striker, joined on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, but it was to be the partnership of the wily veteran, Harris, and his side-kick, Morison, that would provide the goals over the next month – beginning with a 3-1 victory at MK Dons. Shortly after half-time, Aaron Wilbraham cancelled out Danny Schofield’s 19th minute opener, but a double-salvo from the Lions’ all-time leading goal scorer ensured that the away side headed back down the M1 with all three points.

A 9th minute strike from Harris saw off relegation-threatened Hartlepool United on the 27th, before March opened with a dramatic 2-2 draw at Walsall on the 6th. With the game ticking over into the third minute of injury-time, Millwall trailed 2-1, but the left boot of Alan Dunne sent the ball into the top corner from 30 yards out, sealing a priceless point, sending the travelling fans into bedlam at the other end; I should know – I nearly broke my friends back in celebration!

231 hardy souls travelled up to Carlisle United three days later, to see the Lions cruise to a 3-1 win, courtesy of strikes from Steve Morison (2) and Danny Schofield, but it was to be the game after that – Charlton Athletic at home – where one of the best moments of the season would unravel.

17,632 fans arrived at The Den on March 13th, expecting to see a tight clash between the two teams in 5th and 3rd place in the table respectively. What they got was a complete demolition of the Addicks, as Kenny Jackett’s charges unleashed their promotion credentials on their near neighbours.

Paul Robinson

It took the Lions 44 minutes to open the scoring, but once they did (through Darren Ward’s header), the floodgates opened and they added another three in the second half. The unfortunate Christian Dailly – a hero of the ‘Mother’s Day Massacre’ of 2004 – doubled his own-goal tally at The Den in the 74th minute, before a five-minute Morison double (76 & 81) sent the away fans home unhappy – again. Millwall were on the charge and hunting down a top two place as the run-in began.

Another promotion six-pointer took place on the 22nd, as Morison struck once again, silencing the Elland Road crowd in a SKY TV clash, before Shaun Batt’s magnificent solo effort ten minutes from time gave the Lions a precious 2-0 win over Leeds United, who were then in second place. That win moved the club up to third.

Lewis Grabban and Kiernan Hughes-Mason moved to Brentford and Cheltenham Town respectively on loan as March came to a close, but there was one more game to be played before then – a home tie with rock-bottom Stockport County.

The Lions made extremely sure that there would be no slip-ups, as they produced a five-star show to remain hot on the heels of the top two. Two unfortunate own-goals were topped up by Morison, Schofield and Jon Obika, as the Lions sent the fans home happy with just one full month left of the season.

Another bumper crowd (14,025) took their seats at The Den for a Good Friday clash with London rivals, Brentford – and it looked as though the Bees would snatch all three points, due to Carl Cort’s 32nd minute strike, but, on a night where warriors were needed, captain Paul Robinson stooped to head home fifteen minutes from time, giving the home side a share of the spoils, keeping them in third place.

To Essex it was on Easter Monday, as Colchester United played host to Jackett’s men. A brilliant solo effort from Steve Morison shortly before half-time handed the Lions the lead, but Kevin Lisbie levelled the scores five minutes after the break. With time ticking away and with the team needing all three points, Jackett threw Shaun Batt and Jon Obika onto the field of play, but it was to be the unfortunate (not so unfortunate for us) boot of Danny Batth that would give Millwall the points. A cross was sent in twelve minutes from time, which sliced off of the Wolves loanee, nestling into the net, sparking wild celebrations among the 3,000 travelling fans at the opposite end. Fans there that day may remember Yeovil v Leeds being shown on the big screen – the Glovers’ 2-0 win, coupled with the result in Essex meant that second place was well within the sights of Jackett and his team, with just six games of the season to go.

Goals from Shaun Batt, Tony Craig, Danny Schofield and Neil Harris downed Gillingham and sent Millwall into the top two of April 10th, but a run of just one win in four games meant that it would be the play-offs for the Lions once again.

Kenny Jackett

A 1-1 draw at Yeovil (where a point was only salvaged due to a 93rd minute equaliser from Jon Obika) was followed by a 1-0 defeat on SKY to Huddersfield Town (more of them later) on the 16th. Those results meant Leeds leapfrogged the Lions back into second place, where they would stay until the end of the season.

A 2-1 win over Leyton Orient at The Den on April 24th got Millwall back to winning ways, but a 2-0 defeat to relegation-threatened Tranmere Rovers on May 1st all but ended any hopes of automatic promotion. The final day of the regular season was a crazy one; the Lions hosted Swindon Town, with both clubs still able to achieve promotion automatically, mathematically – albeit unlikely – with Leeds needing three points at home to Bristol Rovers to secure their passage to the Championship.

Danny Ward gave the Robins the lead in the third minute at The Den, but Steve Morison’s penalty levelled matters in the 14th minute, in front of 17,083 fans in south London. At half-time, both matches were level, meaning it was as you were, but shortly into the second half, news filtered through that Rovers had taken the lead at Elland Road. All four sides of the ground were united in celebration, but those noise levels reached fever pitch in the home ends just after the hour mark, as Gordon Greer turned the ball into his own net, briefly putting the Lions into second spot.

However, more news came through from Yorkshire shortly after that a four-minute turnaround had been completed by Leeds, putting them back into the top two, meaning that Millwall and Swindon were technically playing out a ‘third-place play-off’. Morison extended the Lions’ lead in the 72nd minute, with Billy Paynter adding a consolation for the away side seven minutes from time, as the game finished 3-2. Leeds United had won the battle, but both the Lions and the Robins would meet again in three weeks’ time, to decide who would win the war.

The semi-finals of the play-offs pitted Millwall with Huddersfield Town, whilst Swindon would face Charlton Athletic.

In the first leg at the Galpharm Stadium, there wasn’t much for anyone to talk about, let alone the SKY pundits, as a Neil Harris goal, disallowed for handball, was the only thing of note in a goalless draw. This made the second leg at The Den a one-off game – and what a night it was.

Tuesday 18th May saw 14,000 Lions fans pack inside The Den, reaching levels of noise rarely heard in SE16, even before the two teams took to the field. As the game kicked off, Huddersfield’s players were visibly scared – they daren’t go near the touchline – and that fear factor meant that Kenny Jackett’s men would ease to a 2-0 win, securing a Wembley trip for the second consecutive season, for a shot at promotion to the Championship.

Millwall v Swindon Town: Coca Cola League One Playoff Final

Steve Morison’s 22nd minute opener was followed up by Paul Robinson’s header, seven minutes from time, as the Lions booked a place at the Home of Football against Swindon Town. This time, it was business. Revenge. Redemption.

A soaking wet Wembley day on May 29th didn’t deter a whopping 40,000 fans from making the short journey north, as the club returned to right the wrongs of the previous seasons defeat by Scunthorpe United. Again, like the first leg of the semi-final, talking points were few and far between, but the two biggest moments – one for each side – decided the entire season.

Danny Schofield’s corner was met by a flick from Neil Harris in the 39th minute. The ball landed at the feet of captain Robinson, who thumped home, sparking a guttural roar from one end of the national stadium, as the Lions took the lead. In the second half, Charlie Austin, destined for greater things, whether with Swindon or not, was sent clear, with just David Forde to beat. Robinson failed in his attempt to catch up with the striker, deciding that the best course of action was to shout ‘WANKER’ as loudly as he could, but as Forde went to ground, it looked as though there would only be one outcome – an equaliser and the possibility of extra-time.

However, somehow, incredibly, Austin sent the ball wide of the post. Replays showed that the ball had taken a huge bobble, just before the striker shot for goal – thank God it did.

After an agonising period of injury-time, the referee blew his final whistle – the Lions had done it. After heartbreak just twelve months previously, Millwall had shown immense character and bottle to return to Wembley and win promotion to the nPower Championship.

Celebrations continued long into the night, hours after Paul Robinson had lifted the trophy in front of the Lions faithful. Tony Craig, on crutches due to an injury in the first-half, hobbled onto the pitch to join in the festivities – this was a special moment and he would be damned if he was going to miss it.

Looking back on the season as a whole, Millwall deserved to be automatically promoted that year. Kenny Jackett deserved it. The fans deserved it. But it was all just that little bit sweeter to do it via the play-offs, wasn’t it?

Next Up: 2010/11

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Taking Stock

Well, that’s the Wembley dream over, then. For the next three months, anyway.

Despite winning the second leg by a single goal to nil, Oxford United pipped Millwall to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final on Tuesday night, as they won 2-1 on aggregate. The Yellows became the third League Two side to dump the south London outfit out of a cup this season, after Barnet and Wycombe’s victories in the Capital One Cup and FA Cup respectively.

The Lions only have themselves to blame – a plethora of missed chances, along with a catastrophic goalkeeping mistake by David Forde on a terrible night at The Den a few weeks ago ensured that they went into the return match with their backs firmly to the wall.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The win over Oxford was Millwall’s tenth on the road this season; quite an achievement. Three of those victories came in the JPT (Plymouth, Southend and Oxford), meaning seven have come in the league – a record that has propelled the Lions into the play-off places as January ends and the business end of the season begins to come into sight.

The end of January also meant the end of the transfer window and whilst the clubs transfer activities weren’t spectacular, they did pull off some good business. Firstly, signing Aiden O’Brien on a longer-term deal sent out a message to other clubs that our young talent is not for sale; that was backed up by the permanent signing of Shane Ferguson, initially on loan, after a long pursuit from Neil Harris, before the loan spell of Jed Wallace was extended for another two months.

Wallace gives the team exactly what it needs – someone that can pick the ball up from deep and create something out of nothing with explosive pace and a pinpoint delivery. With Lee Gregory moving on to 16 goals for the season against Oxford, it is no surprise that he has gone on a goal-scoring run since the arrival of Wallace; six goals in the last five games, to be exact. Strikers thrive on service from out wide – Wallace (and Ferguson) certainly provides that.

With Gregory nearing the twenty-goal mark and with O’Brien and Steve Morison on 11 and 10 goals respectively, there could be an argument that the Lions do not need another striker. However, I disagree. Should any of those three pick up a suspension or an injury, we are extremely light up top. Harris does have the likes of John Marquis and Jamie Philpot in reserve, but – whilst another year in League One won’t harm the development of certain players (let alone a certain manager) – if we are to challenge for promotion back to the Championship this season, I feel we need someone with a certain amount of experience to bolster the ranks.

Having said that, at the moment, you wouldn’t notice that O’Brien was even in the starting eleven. He is a striker playing out on the wing, therefore out of position, yes, but the past couple of performances have seen the Irishman become almost anonymous, totally ineffective and bottling tackles. I don’t want to be too hard on him as he is young and has no doubt a long and fruitful career in front of him, but when you set the bar as high as he has, performances like the last couple are disappointing to see to say the least. Perhaps a spell on the bench will light the fire from underneath him again.

Another weak link in the team in Shaun Williams. I don’t dislike Williams – I think on his day, he is an extremely clever footballer, with a fantastic range of passing – but over the last few weeks, the Irishman has been nothing short of a passenger. Against Crewe, numerous corners failed to beat the first man at the near post, whilst against Oxford, I lost count of the amount of times his lackadaisical attitude lost us the ball.

Suggestions he cannot play in certain formations are folly and a mere smokescreen for his bad form; he is a central midfielder, playing in a central midfielders position and should be effecting games in a positive manner – not the negative way that we have seen in recent weeks. Hopefully Ed Upson, who replaced Williams against Oxford on Tuesday, can have a run of games in his natural position and show what he is made of.

Lastly, Neil Harris’ Manager of the Month nomination for January must be mentioned. I think a lot of people need to remember that this is the record goal-scorers first full year of management, in which he has had to deal with the bare bones from day one.

He is working wonders with what he has got at his disposal. Well done on the nomination, Bomber, but for Christ’s sake, don’t win it!