No Pain, No Gain for Millwall
The optimism with which the season began didn’t take long to evaporate. Perhaps they were just another dispiriting example of modern football’s culture of instant gratification, but the boos that greeted the half-time whistle in our opening match at home to Blackpool were loud and clear.
In what some might refer to as a quirk of the fixture list, this opening match was a repeat of that which ended the previous campaign. The visitors went about both games in their usual way: urgent going forward, with the ever-present danger of meltdown at the back. There was, however, a world of difference between the two performances from the home side. May’s thrilling 2-2 draw against the eventual play-off finalists was the curtain call to a run of form taking Millwall from the precipice of League 1 to the comfortingly steady territory of 16th place. After months of struggle, from March onwards a settled side had displayed the defensive solidity and attacking ingenuity of a contender. Second time around, though, the defence struggled to contain Blackpool’s movement and the side created fewer chances for themselves. A 0-2 defeat was a fair reflection of the play, but, following League Cup defeat at home to Crawley, took on greater significance. Wins away at Peterborough and at home to Middlesbrough bookended a 2-3 loss at Sheffield Wednesday, but were followed by a five-match winless run, which included defeats to a team purporting to be Cardiff and Brighton at home, and a 1-4 embarrassment away to Hull. A deserved three points from last weekend’s home game with Bolton has lifted us out of the relegation places for now, but the failure to keep a single clean sheet and a tally of 18 goals conceded suggests that our form is far from ideal.
The principal cause of this inconsistency is, well, inconsistency in team selection and an uncharacteristically weak defence. Progress from the lower end of League One to Championship consolidation was achieved with a largely settled back four. Although supporters and management alike have long since agreed that the dependable but unspectacular likes of Tony Craig and Darren Ward would ultimately have to be replaced, upheaval seems to have been forced upon us, rather than planned. Craig’s departure to a reportedly guaranteed berth at centre-back at Brentford was not unexpected. However, Uwe Rà¶sler’s wooing of Craig’s understudy at left-back, Scott Barron, left us exposed in a position that wasn’t our strongest in any case. Ward’s departure on loan to Swindon and an early suspension for Shane Lowry only compounded the problems.
In Kenny Jackett’s, ahem, defence, injuries have made the transition more difficult than necessary. Club captain Paul Robinson has started just two games and completed none, while right-back Jack Smith missed the best part of a month after the opening defeat to Blackpool. Danny Shittu has now assumed the captaincy in Robinson’s absence, but struggled with his own fitness levels initially, having had scant match practice at QPR during last season. Fellow free transfer Karleigh Osbourne had to be introduced to the Championship earlier than expected, and made an alternately assured and calamitous start at centre-back; the former Brentford man is now on the sidelines himself. The arrival of Mark Beevers on a short-term loan from Sheffield Wednesday may temporarily have improved matters, as he and Shittu excelled against Bolton, but uncertainty remains. The goalkeeping situation is hardly any different. On the face of it, a choice between the evergreen (©Kevin Phillips) Maik Taylor and Ireland’s current number 2, David Forde, should be a pleasant dilemma for the manager. However, Taylor has already ceded the starting place to Forde, whose loss of confidence last season brought Taylor to Bermondsey in the first place.
Further up the pitch, things look a little better. Midfield should be our strongest area. Last season’s player of the year, Nadjim `Jimmy’ Abdou, now has some competition following the return the forgotten (or rather, injured) man, Therry Racon, while the contrasting styles of Liam Trotter and Josh Wright provide some creativity. The flanks are now adequately covered: James Henry is starting to fulfil the promise he showed as a young Biscuitman, while Scott Malone and Chris Taylor both joined in the summer to fill the void on the left wing. Towards the end of last season Wright, Trotter and Abdou proved very effective in a three-man midfield. However, the triumvirate were bypassed far too often in early games this season, and Wright has been the one to drop out in the cause of stability.
In contrast to this stage of last season, scoring goals is the least of our problems. Despite a pending court appearance, Darius Henderson has five goals so far. Andy Keogh hasn’t quite been the metronome of last season, but still has two goals and continues to impress with his all-round intelligence. Worries that the supporting cast of Shaun Batt and Dany N’Guessan have been partly allayed by the signature of Chris Wood on loan from West Bromwich Albion and by Batt’s energetic substitute appearances. Kiwi international Wood has started the last three games, scored on his debut and impressed the fans with his attitude.
The club’s newer recruits have taken time to settle. Malone – signed from Bournemouth in exchange for the expensive failure Josh McQuoid – has the ambition on the ball that his predecessors in the left-back role didn’t, but, at least initially, appeared somewhat timid in defence. Jackett seems now to have decided that Malone’s best position is on the left of a midfield four, and Smith, who started the season as first-choice right-back, now finds himself stationed on the opposite side of the field. As previously mentioned, Osbourne has showed some promise, but his lack of Championship nous has caused his side to drop points on occasion, while Taylor, according to club chief executive, Andy Ambler, doesn’t fit into the diamond formation preferred by his manager. Some of the manager’s tactical decisions haven’t helped matters either; the quite frankly barmy switch to a three-man defence against Hull is a case in point. As ever, though, the merits of individual players and decisions are mere trees in the wider forest.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by Millwall supporters that the progress of Swansea in recent years has had a profound effect on Kenny Jackett’s thinking. I don’t entirely buy into the notion that the Swans’ 0-2 masterclass at the Den in May 2011 was an epiphany, but the examples of Blackpool and Swansea — clubs of a similar stature before their promotion to the Premier League — are a clear influence. Jackett is trying to instil among his players those sides’ confidence in possession, while retaining the club’s defining aggression and durability. All of this on a budget reckoned by Ambler to be among the six smallest in the division.
After a long period of neglect by previous regimes, it is all change off the field as well. The board, led by Chairman John Berylson, have made great efforts to balance the books and have invested significant funds. While some – probably most – of that money has gone to cover trading losses, a decent portion has been spent on the training facilities, on laying a new pitch at the Den, and into rebuilding the Academy as part of an attempt to attain Category 2 status under EPPP.
Although I think it would be fair to say a majority of fans are on side, the methods on and off pitch have been the subject of criticism. Long-running gripes such as overzealous stewarding, expensive pies and high ticket prices remain debating points on the forums, but deeper criticism is also starting to appear. The latest edition of new fanzine I Left My Heart in Cold Blow Lane (if you’re planning a visit to the Den this season, get yourself a copy) begins with a cogent critique of Jackett’s low-cost tiki-taka. Taking as its underlying point the idea that Millwall is a `blood and thunder’ kind of club, the article suggests that ultimately the fans will not embrace the brave new approach, preferring instead a simpler, more direct approach to the game. Ignoring the knowingly provocative citation of Fat Sam’s `Ammers as an alternative model, the obvious flaw in the argument is that the two ideas are not binary opposites. The likes of Henderson, Keogh and Smith are as capable of passing the ball as they are of booting an opponent into the stands. It is also worth remembering that the promoted sides of recent vintage have all been notable for their composure and patience, rather than for their physicality.
Loathe as I am to write this, I feel that another of our rivals, this weekend’s opposition Crystal Palace, provide evidence that the Berylson/Jackett method can work. A well-managed academy provides a procession of exciting young players for the first team; a thoughtful manager quietly implements a clear strategy for improvement on the field; a transfer policy of relatively low wages and fees prioritizes value for money over PR; and the board emphasizes financial prudence and the development of the club’s infrastructure. I admit that it sounds a lot less exciting than `blood and thunder’, but stability and detailed planning do bring positive reward. A few frustrating Saturdays shouldn’t obscure that.