Onwards and upwards
The blue and white bunting will long since have been replaced by St George crosses on the lampposts of Bermondsey, but the days since Millwall’s triumph in the League One play-off final have been, for some of us, a time of reflection on the prospect of Championship football. Shuffling down Olympic Way after the 1-0 defeat of Swindon Town on 29 May, the near silence of 38,000 fans beginning the slow journey home to South London seemed to testify an uncertainty over how the club would adjust to its new circumstances. In the four years since Millwall’s last, ignominious campaign in the Championship, the nature of that competition has changed significantly. Many of the clubs involved remain the same, but the quality of play appears (for those of us with our noses pressed against the window, at least) to have improved, while the financial stakes are undoubtedly higher. The Lions have always been relative paupers during their stays in the second tier, and, while average attendances during exile were healthy for a club in League One, the Den will be among the least attended stadia next season.
Despite all the worries, though, I can’t help thinking that the club is in good health. After Dragons and bombastic playboys, there finally seems to be in place a regime that not only is serious, but one that has a plan for the future which isn’t reliant on getting lucky in the property market. Chairman John G. Berylson has proved shrewd in almost every decision since his arrival in 2007, and is in danger of giving US owners a good name. The board have dealt patiently with a disruptive shareholder, and the dispute which threatened carefully laid plans seems to have abated. Attempts have been made to reconnect the club with the supporters, including the allocation of a place on the board to an elected fans’ representative. Above all, the appointment of Kenny Jackett as manager has turned around a team that seemed to be drifting towards League Two. With the board’s full backing, Jackett has shorn the squad of the underperforming and overpaid, and brought in a handful of players from all corners of the English game’s lower reaches that have become the vertebrae of the first XI. Goalkeeper David Forde has been ever-present during the past two seasons, having been drafted in from Cardiff City’s reserves. Ex-Pilgrim Nadjim `Jimmy’ Abdou has been tireless in midfield, while 23-goal centre-forward Steve Morison has grabbed his second chance at a League career with both hands.
So, there is reasoning behind my post-promotion optimism. Of course, improvements must be made. Berylson has already stated that funds will be made available for Jackett to make additions to the squad, although in keeping with the prudence shown thus far during his tenure, no boats will be pushed out. Permanent deals for key men from last season, including ex-Ipswich loanee Liam Trotter and Darren Ward, are already complete, while the shopping list will surely include a striker to partner Morison. A left winger and a centre-back with pace should be on there in capital letters too. The addition of a season-long loan or two for eager and talented Premier League youths should provide a squad ready to do battle. And do battle they will. For the neutral spectator, it won’t be pretty. But the signs look good as the Lions attempt to follow Doncaster Rovers and Scunthorpe United in consolidating their place among the top 24 clubs in the Leccy League.