A Cup Half Empty for Millwall
Some nine years have passed since the last peak in the endlessly repeating cycle of Millwall boom-and-bust. Of course, we didn’t realise that was what we were watching at the time. At least, I — still a hopeful undergraduate at the time — didn’t realise. A team containing genuine top-flight talent had reached the FA Cup Final for the first time in the club’s 118-year history, while an attempt on the Championship play-offs had only faltered once the glint of a Cup runners-up medal caught the players’ eyes. With the coffers as full as they had ever been and a UEFA Cup campaign still to follow, the only way was up. Two years later, we were relegated and potless.
That period was a crash course in football fandom. I’d seen cup runs swiftly followed by relegation before: Mark Kennedy’s screamer at Highbury, John Spencer’s missed penalty at Stamford Bridge; down to the third tier the next season… But I was too young then to think beyond the playground bragging rights. Decline and Fall meant nothing, except a battered paperback on my grandparents’ bookshelf. For good or bad, I’m experienced enough now to see the long-term narrative. Which is why I approached last weekend’s Quarter Final in trepidation, rather than excitement.
It wasn’t just the previous week’s results that got me down, although they didn’t help. An insipid 0-2 defeat at home to what was supposed to be cannon fodder in the shape of Wolves, a season-ending injury to one of our few in-form players, and another, even more serious, injury to a loan striker who looked finally to have a bit of the pace and vigour that we’ve been missing since the departure of Chris Wood. No, things have been bad for a while longer. Since winning our 3rd Round tie at home to PNE on 5 January, just 4 points have been gained from a possible 27 in the league. Our last home victory came in the 4th Round of the competition, against an Aston Villa side looking more like a mid-table Championship club than us. 5th Round victory at Luton was overshadowed by losses away to a struggling Blackpool and at home to bottom-of-the-table Peterborough, the latter a jaw-dropping 1-5 reverse. Take out the Chris Wood Bounce between September and December 2012 and a picture of struggle against relegation begins to emerge. Add to that dwindling crowds — which fell below 9,000 for the last two home fixtures – and the possibility of a trip to Wembley is clearly papering over the cracks of a difficult season.
There are, as always, other extenuating circumstances: injuries to key attackers in ex-Oldham winger Chris Taylor and James Henry, loss of form from Liam Trotter and Andy Keogh, and the transfer of Darius Henderson to Forest have all destabilized the squad. However, despite protestations otherwise by some remaining members of that squad, there has been a marked decline in performance in league fixtures recently. As Sunday showed, a lack of finishing prowess and physical presence among the forwards has stymied the side. Nevertheless, the defeat to Wolves was largely caused by a lack of application that, for many of us present, betrayed a shift in focus to the Cup game five days later. Perhaps understandably, the thoughts of players and fans alike have drifted as a Wembley semi-final became tangible. Our form in 2013 is a sobering reminder that modern football is a squad game; only those with an extensive pool of players to call upon can sustain success in more than one competition at a time. And, if you ask me, the most important competition to a club of our size is the Championship. The past three seasons have been characterised by incremental progress in Millwall’s League standing, which, make no mistake, is under threat if form continues as it has since the turn of the year. A fortuituous Cup run and the extra revenue derived from it won’t count for much if we fall back into the 3rd tier.
As it proved in 2003/04, a set-piece fixture in the Cup could in fact make matters worse: that year, a promotion challenge and the prospect of a career-defining appearance in the Cup Final proved incompatible, and decline followed swiftly thereafter. Unromantic and curmudgeonly it may be, but I won’t be too emotional whatever the result in tonight’s replay. Charlton away on Saturday is much more significant.