Saturday 22nd October 2016 (Millwall 2 Fleetwood 1)
Saturday afternoon at the Den, normally an occasion on the horizon that has gotten me through the working week numerous times. Today however I am not really feeling up for it, the sparse crowd at the Den isn’t either, nor it seems are the Fleetwood faithful, who despite being in the better half of the table, brought a mere 86 fans down cowards way to the North stand. Tuesday night is still fresh in the memory of us all, where the Lions had succumbed to a 2 goal reverse at the hands of Bolton. Our player of the season last time out, Jordan Archer, having flapped at a long-range effort on just 2 mins followed a whole game of hoofball to Morison, with every ball cut out by our old friend, Mark Beevers. Beevers had put in a MOTM performance, and when the long ball didn’t work, we persisted to hoof, hoof and hoof again.
The game kicks off, and within 10 mins the writing is on the wall, this game is going to be atrocious. Fleetwood’s side was giving a good go at showing us how bad they really are, and when the centre half hoofs his clearance behind him and almost plays Gregory in from what looked like a simple clearance, the scattered faithful Den crowd rubbed their hands together with the realisation that we could be in here. We could, quite possibly, be up against a side that was worse at defending than us!
Sometime later into the never-ending ‘creek in the neck looking up at the ball in the air’ entertainment that is 3rd tier football, and a quick throw plays the recently back to form Fred in on goal, who is pulled to the ground. The ref points to the spot, and Gregory tucks the ball home.
Gregory slots home the opening goal from the spot, the eagle eyed among you will notice this isn’t actually from the Fleetwood game, but I don’t really care.
It is at this point that myself, and a few people that sit around me, notice some shouts from the crowd. This in itself is rare, it’s not often I take a lot of time out to look at the crowd, or listen to some of the shouts from the terraces, but in truth my only explanation for this was that I, and seemingly the group of people that sit near me, were pretty damn bored! The discussion prior to the game, on my train journey up to the ground, had mostly centered relentless hoofball, and the comments Morison made about our fans being too impatient to play a passing game. A few passes across the back 4 by the Lions, and I noticed something I have never been aware of before, the sheer amount of people shouting “Forward”, “Go forward”, “Get it forward you f…..” you get my point. Then when the ball does go forward and does not reach Morison, there is a chorus of groans. I couldn’t help but feel Morison has a bit of a point. Despite this, there was (as the ever-growing troop of ‘hoofball haters’ will be pleased to know) some spells in this snoozefest, where the ball was on the deck and the team linked up well, albeit only in brief spells in between some truly shocking football from both sides.
2nd half is much the same, drab, scrappy and for the most part, boring. A corner is whipped in from William’s, Webster is bundled to the ground, and the ref again points to the spot. Gregory again steps up, and slots home. Surely we have coasted to a comfortable 3 points in this, one of the worst games of football I have ever attended. Not long after and Gregory is put through on goal after some impressive accurate crossfield switches from both Williams and Morison (yes I said it, passes that involved looking up and picking out a player!) but Gregory’s shot is tame and is easily saved. This is not the first time in recent weeks he has fluffed his lines, this chance should have given him his hat-trick, and a few weeks ago, another one-on-one should have drawn us level against Walsall. Gregory is coming back from injury granted, but he is another player right now who is not performing as he was last season as yet, and the penalties he has converted is masking that somewhat.
Whilst cruising to the supposedly easy 3 points, Fleetwood then came forward on a rare attack, and a speculative shot which looks bread and butter for a goalkeeper is flapped at by our much acclaimed stopper, and our quite impressively awful run of 0 clean sheets in 3 months is allowed to rumble on, with no end in sight. The back line had played well up to this point, including Tony Craig, but we all knew from that point on it was squeaky bum time. Harris panics and throws on Martin, Jimmy, and later, Hutchinson makes his long-awaited return, in what looked like a 7 man defense and Harris’ masterstroke ‘hoof the ball away at any cost’ formation. We do see the game out in the end, and I suppose 3 points is 3 points, but that seriously has to go down as one of the poorest games I have ever seen. I really never thought my Saturday afternoon hobby would ever become an endurance event, but this Saturday it did.
It’s not just News at Den that have fancy infographics, no no! Here is our own infographic showing the average position of the ball over 90 mins in the epic thriller that was Fleetwood at home.
MOTM Fred for me, looking a different player and is linking well down the right with Romeo. A Special mention goes to Thompson and Morison who like most weeks ran themselves into the ground, and also to me and most others around me who managed to stay awake for the full game.
Neil Harris ponders what he has to do to get a free bit of toast at the training ground.
“Millwall boss only has one disappointment from 2-1 win over Fleetwood – his side’s inability to keep a clean sheet.”
If I had spent £30 on a match ticket to watch the same game, I would have a few choice additions to Harris’ seemingly optimistic “only disappointment”. As a new manager he is bound to make mistakes, he made them last season, he is making them this season, but will he learn from them I think is the million dollar question. Some of these are quite concerning. No plan B has been a problem for a while and for me this is the biggest issue of all. There was no better example of this than the continuous hoofing to Morison against Bolton, when we could have kept the hoof going until 9am the following day and still not scored. That said there were some glimpses of passes and link up play against Fleetwood, so hopefully, this is a sign that Harris is beginning to see how one dimension his approach has been thus far.
If Harris left tomorrow, his whole tenure would be remembered largely for ‘the hoof’ and it dominates almost every discussion I hear from recent games. The truth is that I am not actually the biggest critic of ‘the hoof’. Morison is very capable at making things happen from long balls, and an ‘on form’ Gregory feeds off this really well. Last season this combination was deadly, we weren’t all complaining about the hoof when it paid off at Bradford away in the play offs!
The problem for me is the fact that when it doesn’t work, we continue to hoof it long. There has to be a point where we need to adapt to the game and try a different approach. With Butcher, Williams and Thompson we have a midfield more than capable of picking the ball up and playing through the middle, and I hope we can see a more rounded Wall side in the coming months.
I do get that it has been frustrating to watch, but what are we going to do? Bar a mega rich oil tycoon taking over from a chairman seemingly only interested in the regen, or an amazingly talented manager appears on the horizon of Ilderton road willing to work with small pay, no budget, the current crop of players and a restless fanbase; I see even debating Harris’ role right now quite pointless. The best we can do is hope Harris learns from his mistakes, and we start to mix play better on a climb towards the right end of the table.
Above: Tony Craig returns for a third stint at the Den an undisclosed fee. Rumour has it the fee agreed was close to the clubs record transfer fee. (Source: Ian Holloway)
Shaun Hutchinson made his return, and didn’t go off injured 5 mins later, this can only be good news. Beevers return to the Den this week showed what we have been missing, namely an aerial presence alongside Webster that nullifies any team wanting to ‘out hoof’ Harris’ talented squad of hoofballers. Tony Craig – the scapegoat of the current crop; for the 3rd game running put in a decent display. I do feel a bit for Craig, you know he is trying his hardest, and you know he always would, he is a true 100 percent-er. Regardless of this, he is not the player he used to be, and the player he used to be was not a centre half, and IMHO, was never that good anyway. I don’t believe he deserves the abuse he has got, but I also get that people see him as the weak link that has turned a solid defense into a leaky one. The problem for Craig is not just this, but also that a certain centre forward is also a far better candidate for the armband. Hopefully Hutchinson’s return to the side will shore up our poor back line, but regardless of how the defense is, on recent form we are also going to have to rely on Jordan Archer remembering how to catch a ball, if we are ever to see a clean sheet again.
Random observation: Jumbotron
Seems a while now since the Jumbotron was introduced (or the ‘minitron’ as coined by some, based on the size of it). For those unfamiliar with these terms, I am talking about the ‘big’ screen in the corner. Our beloved former CEO, Andy Ambler, once described the new screen as being “bigger than the previous screen”. This politician-like manipulation of the truth clinches first place in the ‘CEO hot air quote’ competition, no mean feat considering this same man was quoted with other gems such as “Millwall have the 3rd biggest budget in the league” and “Of course, due diligence was carried out on Euroferries”.
Left: the beloved old jumbotron Right: It’s, ahem, ‘bigger’ replacement.
Not only now is the ‘minitron’ too small to properly see any replays from what should be a prime position (I sit adjacent to the press box in the Kitch) but broken squares have started to appear on the screen much akin to the old, more appropriately sized one. When it arrived, our old mate Ambler said, at the time of purchase, the screen had cost “a six figure sum”. As I tried to squint to see a replay, barely able to see the ball, with a big square of the screen missing, while our shoestring squad struggles to overcome the might of Fleetwood, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the money could have been better spent.