Millwall FC – Playoff Contenders?

If you were to ask fans of most other clubs to think of things that they associate with Millwall FC, the majority of answers would probably be rather negative. While it is true that Millwall are synonymous with trouble, and that this reputation often overshadows their successes on the pitch, they deserve a significant amount of praise for their 2017-18 season. Having only just been promoted from League 1 the previous season, and with a budget that would put them in the lower reaches of the Championship in terms of financial capability, anyone would be forgiven for expecting a difficult season for the club. In spite of the low expectations that many might have harboured, they have had a very impressive season so far that has left them within 1 point of the playoffs with 5 games of the season left to play. Some of the factors that have aided their playoff push have been their restraint in the transfer window, with trust being placed in some of the key players who secured promotion into the Championship, and their backing of manager Neil Harris. These are two significant elements of Millwall’s success so far this year, elements that are worth exploring in further detail as the season draws to a close and the club battle for a chance at the glory of back to back promotions.

The old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is all too often ignored within the world of football, with managers throwing exorbitant sums of money at players under the assumption that spending leads to success. Rather than bringing in a myriad of new players and potentially upsetting the balance at the club, Millwall resolved to try and stick with the formula that saw them return to the Championship for the 2017-18 season. The partnership of Lee Gregory and Steve Morison up front has remained a productive one, with Gregory currently standing at 10 goals in 2017-18, a return that has proved he is an apt goal scorer at this level. Although Morison’s 4 goals might seem somewhat paltry, he has contributed with an impressive 8 assists, which highlights that even at the age of 34 he has the ability to impact a game positively. Securing Jed Wallace on a permanent transfer was a crucial piece of business for the club, with the player having made a good impression while on loan last season. Wallace has 6 goals and 9 assists to his name and has marked himself as a very effective creative outlet with an eye for goal as well. The club’s trust in these 3 players in particular, as well as others who were instrumental in their playoff victory in 2016-17, has quite clearly paid off. Of course, the club had made several acquisitions, but it was a case of adding quality to compliment what was already present rather than buying players in a blind panic over the prospect of potential difficulties at a higher level. Players such as James Meredith and George Saville were carefully chosen, with the former proving to be an experienced addition to the backline, and the latter showcasing his efficiency in front of goal. Millwall’s transfer policy was one that was carefully considered, and after a slow start to the season, this combination of old and new have put together a 15-game unbeaten run in the league and catapulted themselves straight into the fight for a playoff spot.

These players, for all their collective talent, undoubtedly owe a large portion of what they have achieved this season to their manager, Neil Harris. Harris’ tenure at Millwall so far is a brilliant testimony for what can be achieved if a club is willing to break free from the managerial merry-go-round and take a chance on a younger, less experienced coach. When Harris was appointed caretaker manager in March 2015, Millwall were all but relegated, and despite a small upturn in form he was unable to stave off relegation from the Championship. The club decided that they had seen enough from Harris to appoint him permanently, a move that was almost immediately repaid with a return to the Championship, before a heart-breaking playoff final loss to Barnsley at Wembley. Here, Millwall displayed the virtue of patience, deciding to stick with Harris when many other clubs might have sacked him for failing to deliver promotion at the first time of asking. Harris made sure that Millwall wouldn’t fall at the final hurdle again, with a second consecutive playoff final against Bradford ending in a 1-0 win courtesy of a Steve Morison header. Harris had managed to lead the club to two successive playoff finals, and this season they have a very good chance of making a third appearance in the playoffs. To sustain this level of success over 3 seasons is very much impressive, and it emphasises that sometimes it is much better to ignore the same managers who are tipped for every new job opportunity that opens up and go for a younger coach who offers something different. Millwall certainly have a tough final 5 games to navigate, having to play 4 teams who are either already situated in or are fighting for a place in the playoffs. Despite the difficulty that these final few games offer, with a carefully curated squad and a manager who has consistently achieved since the club took a chance on him in 2015, Millwall have as good a chance as any of the teams around them to stake a claim for a playoff spot and a chance to force themselves into the illustrious land of the Premier League.

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