Millwall’s late push for the Championship playoffs

Ask 90% of Millwall fans, they’d have taken finishing in 21st this season back in August. However, with ten games left, the Lions now sit six points outside the top six.

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(Photo credit: Ungry Young Man)

Working on the second smallest budget in the league with one of the smaller squads, nobody expected Millwall to be where they are right now. 

After thirty-six Championship games, Neil Harris’ side sit in eleventh place on fifty-two points, six behind sixth-placed Middlesbrough. 

Back in August, the Lions were also fourth favourites for relegation in August but excellent recruitment and team spirit has seen them relish that underdog tag once more, typical of any good Den side. 

Safety is virtually guaranteed and a late surge could see Millwall into the play-offs for a third consecutive year (albeit the previous two post-season campaigns being in League One). With experience and youth and that hostile Den atmosphere, the play-off semi-final would be a tough task for any side, and potentially even the final given the Lions’ Wembley experience.

However, that would be rather getting ahead of ourselves. As much as the SE16 faithful want to dream of a late Tim Cahill winner to send them into the Premier League, it is unlikely to happen. That said, this run gives them something to play for in the last ten matches and a good platform for next season. 

Whatever happens now, it has been a phenomenal season. A win this weekend could see them move up to ninth if Sheffield United were to lose.

First off, let’s look at what’s behind this impressive return to the second tier of English football.

The manager

Mr Millwall – Neil Harris, the club’s record goalscorer, put his neck on the line as a legend becoming manager almost three years to the day (10th March, 2015). While there were times when people called for him to be sacked, what a turn around it has been since the dark days of Steve Lomas and then Ian Holloway, now despised by any ordinary fan.

Harris has put a team together that bleeds Millwall. Not everyone can succeed at the Den, it takes a certain personality to do well. Every player understands that and knows that they have to give 100% for the shirt and cause to get the fans behind them. 

The commitment and hunger to win games is as high as it has ever been. Players like Steve Morison and Tim Cahill, in particular, have done well for this club in the past, and continue to lead by example for those who are still developing.

A squad to work with

There are a record number of internationals in the squad too, testament to how Harris has developed his players. 

George Saville, for example, earned his first Northern Ireland caps this season; whilst Aiden O’Brien and Jordan Archer both won their first call-ups to the Republic of Ireland and Scottish squads, respectively. Shaun Williams has arguably been unlucky not to be involved with Ireland.

Recruitment has been almost spot on this year thanks to the likes of Alex Aldridge and Terry Bullivant behind the scenes too, whilst tactics have also played a huge part. 

So many sides have fallen to the physical challenge presented by this side, with Millwall winning 55% of aerial duels in the Championship across 2017/18. Steve Morison is a veteran target man and, with Shaun Hutchinson and six foot six Jake Cooper at centre back, all three have played an important role here. 

Lee Gregory and Steve Morison’s pressing from the front disrupts teams, with opposition often putting themselves under pressure by playing the ball around the back.

Key Players

1. Shaun Hutchinson

Hutchinson is almost a certainty to win Millwall’s Player of the Season award. It would be surprising if his name is not mentioned for the Championship Team of the Season too. 

Last season, his injury struggles made Lions fans wonder if the former Fulham man had what it takes to play in South Bermondsey and his form this season has certainly proved it. 

As well as solidifying the Millwall defence, Hutchinson has led the side on more than one occasion and done excellently. His centre back partnership with Jake Cooper has been too much for many a Championship forward line, with “Hutch” also providing an added threat at the other end at set pieces.

He makes 1.4 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game, with the latter statistic ranking him 29th in the division in that respect. His desire and willingness to throw his body in the way of absolutely anything is exactly the sort of thing that the Millwall faithful love to see.

2. George Saville

A Wolves reject, Millwall have a weird love affair with Saville which has continued with his third coming as a Lions player in the summer. 

The previous two spells for him had been as a loanee, once from Chelsea and once from Wolves in 2015/16, Harris’ first full season in charge. With Nadjim Abdou leaving the club, he needed a replacement, opting for Saville. Many were unsure of the move, saying he didn’t have the right attitude to be a long-term success in SE16. 

He’ll be happy to say that he’s proved the doubters wrong. Saville has arguably been one of the signings of the season, with him and Jed Wallace costing a combined total of less than £1 million. 

He covers a lot of distance every game, working well both defensively and offensively having formed good partnerships with both Shaun Williams and Ryan Tunnicliffe. His combination with Williams has probably provided more success for Harris’ men, with the inclusion of the Irishman freeing Saville to do more work further up the pitch.

As well as scoring eight goals so far, Saville’s 2.7 tackles per game put him 9th in that statistic for the whole league, emphasising how he can have an impact on both sides of the game.

3. Lee Gregory

Jed Wallace came close to making the top three but Gregory’s recent goal-scoring form means that the former Portsmouth wide man just misses out. Wallace himself has said that if Jamie Vardy’s ex-strike partner finished all of his chances, he would be playing for a top ten Premier League side- which is true.

Gregory’s hold up play is second to none and whilst not blessed with bags of pace, the former Halifax man is certainly an intelligent player and almost always makes the correct runs. 

Steve Morison has assisted four of his goals this season, with no combination in the Championship having provided more for each other. Their understanding of each other’s game was one of the main ingredients behind the Lions’ promotion last season and it seems to have developed further this season.

His work off the ball sometimes goes unnoticed but it is impressive. Most have never seen a striker work so hard for the team: it is surprising that he can complete ninety minutes given how much work he gets through!

The Den

As much as Millwall’s recent away form has been the best in the league (with five consecutive wins on the road, requiring one more to equal a club record), it is their home record which has seen them into this position. 

The Den is known as a tough place to come for any opposition (as evidenced by the Lions beating Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester last season) and many have fallen foul of the hostile atmosphere in 2017/18 alone. 

The likes of Leeds, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Norwich all came away from South East London with nothing to show for it, those sides alone giving warning to any future visitors.

What happens next season?

As mentioned, Neil Harris’ side are still unlikely to make the playoffs. A fantastic story it would be, but a top half finish is looking much more likely. 

Next season, then, they have to build on this season by adding quality to the squad and continuing to work hard, something that will not stop under Millwall’s former No 9. No player will be allowed to rest on their laurels. But what transfers are we expecting this summer?

In terms of players leaving, there are a few possibilities. Few expect Shane Ferguson and Tom Elliott to be at the club next season, with Ferguson not even making the matchday eighteen currently and both Aiden O’Brien and Wolves loanee Ben Marshall ahead of him in the pecking order to play on the left of midfield. He has struggled at times to impress the fans and a move may be for the best.

Tom Elliott signed from AFC Wimbledon last summer with high hopes of becoming a regular starter for Millwall but that hasn’t been the case. He has looked lazy at times and often does not win as many headers as he should, with Neil Harris possibly looking to other options as a long-term replacement for now 34-year-old Steve Morison.

Ben Thompson could also look for a move. The young central midfielder did well in League One and may still do well in the Championship, but it is hard to see him getting much game time with Williams, Saville and Tunnicliffe all continuing to impress. Thompson himself grew up a Millwall fan and much has been made of his new friendship with hero Tim Cahill given “Timmy” was Thommo‘s idol as a youngster. This could mean that a loan deal is more likely.

Byron Webster may be offered a new deal if his recovery from injury goes well, but that remains to be seen. Lee Gregory is set to sign a new deal but Tim Cahill may choose to retire after the World Cup, if he makes it into the Australia squad. Harry Toffolo has a deal until the end of June as well, but many expect that to be extended.

Former MK Dons goalkeeper David Martin’s contract also expires, with there being no clues yet as to whether or not he will re-sign.

Jason Shackell is on loan at Millwall from Derby and his Rams contract expires at the end of this campaign. His experience could be useful, with Harris challenging the former Burnley centre half to win himself a deal past the end of 2017/18.

Reports this week have been circulated that the Lions will complete a £750,000 deal to sign loanee Ben Marshall to a permanent deal in the summer, who seems to be enjoying his time in London.

Expect a striker, or two if Tom Elliott does leave, but there have been no real rumours as yet. Many fans would like to see a new goalkeeper come in, however unlikely this may be.

Don’t expect huge amounts of activity over the summer, then. Harris and the recruitment team will be rigorous in their scouting and look to sign players who will genuinely improve the side. It is hard to argue against another season of at least establishing themselves at this level, if not making a real playoff push.

What do you think? Let us know by commenting below.

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