Millwall emerged 1-0 winners in the latest south London derby between themselves and Charlton Athletic on Friday night at The Valley, with Jake Cooper’s goal the difference.
It may well be July now, but this had plenty of characteristics that you’d get from a mid-October clash. Floodlights beaming, consistent rain floating around a blustery Valley and a zippy start from both sides that suggests any rust accumulated during the lockdown has now been truly shaken off.
Charlton had two early chances. A well-struck effort from Albie Morgan was blocked before Tomer Hemed was played in on the left of the box but his strike was held by Bartosz Bialkowski.
An encouraging start for Lee Bowyer, but gradually Millwall saw possession and territory go in their favour up to the first drinks break.
Before the game, many were intrigued by Gary Rowett’s line-up with an array of central players on show but the selection worked in helping the Lions control possession early on.
Jayson Molumby and Ryan Woods played deeper in midfield whilst Jed Wallace and Ryan Leonard looked to support Matt Smith. Wing-backs Murray Wallace and Mahlon Romeo, meanwhile, were more wingers when the Lions were at half-way, giving Charlton’s back-line plenty to think about marking wise.
Indeed, Jed Wallace drove towards the box but had an effort blocked, whilst Matt Smith and Tom Lockyer’s battle for aerial supremacy was just as entertaining as the fireworks, being let off behind the away end in the first half, going on above them.
When Smith did find himself free of attention, though, looping a header towards goal, Dillon Phillips was quick enough to get across and take ownership of the striker’s goal-bound effort.
There was a sense, however, that Millwall were looking most likely and, evidently, Lee Bowyer was feeling the same as he used the drinks break to shake things up.
Darren Pratley dropped into defence alongside Jason Pearce and Lockyer, whilst Aiden McGeady would play through the middle in behind Hemed and Macauley Bonne.
As the rain persisted, the game restarted and it was Millwall again with an opening, Dillon Phillips’ superman punch completely missing a cross but it was Smith the ultimate villain here as he could not get anything on it.
One-way traffic it was not in the second period of the first half, though, with Macauley Bonne and Tomer Hemed both having, and not taking, good chances to break the deadlock.
Bonne raced clear into the right-hand side of the box but his strike could only find a sprawling Bialkowski at the near post – something Jed Wallace experienced seconds later up the other end with Phillips this time keeping his clean sheet intact.
Hemed’s chance, meanwhile, was a little tougher as he looked to volley home, having to turn around underneath its flight whilst under close watch from the Millwall defence. Indeed, he connected with the ball but was going down as he did so, ballooning over from close range.
For Charlton’s fine form since the restart they have lacked goals, and here we again were getting a reminder of what Lyle Taylor once brought them.
The final chance of the half came for the hosts and for, arguably, the other match-winner of Taylor’s ilk that they have; Aiden McGeady.
He picked the ball up around the halfway line, just left of the circle, and drove towards the heart of the Millwall box. His effort, though, was tame and deflected, leaving us goal-less at the break.
There were changes for both sides at half-time, too, with Sam Field on for Albie Morgan and Ben Thompson replacing Jayson Molumby.
Thompson was quickly into the action, too, as he squeezed in a cross for Matt Smith but, as was the case all evening for the forward, he found a red shirt blocking his attempt at goal.
However, that would not prove an indicator of some end-to-end action being on the horizon, with a lull in play ensuing.
A hopeful sweep up field from Shaun Hutchinson saw Mahlon Romeo looking to cut inside Darren Pratley, to no avail, whilst a lovely back-heel from Thompson found Jed Wallace racing onto it but his shot was blocked – an increasingly familiar feeling for both sets of sides this Friday evening.
Things did open up a bit just before the break for drinks in the second half. Chuks Aneke injected some urgency as he came on for Macauley Bonne and quickly forced a strong arm from Bialkowski, getting low to the striker’s effort. Deji Oshilaja nodded just wide, meanwhile, with many of those that were in The Valley thinking it was going in and Tomer Hemed also just glanced his own header wide in a period of pressure from the hosts.
Millwall would threaten next with Tom Bradshaw, on for Matt Smith, seeing the same frustrations come about as the man he replaced with a blocked effort, before then getting in the way of Mahlon Romeo.
It seemed a night where defensive rear-guard action would prevail, then, with even a Charlton crowdie in the Covered End taking a Tom Lockyer volley full in the face, but, in the final quarter of the game, Jake Cooper would break the deadlock.
The defender had been looking to surge forward as much as he could in the inside left channel and this was where he’d earn his strike.
Conveniently, it came from another blocked effort, this time Dillon Phillips getting in the way of Connor Mahoney’s rasping drive, only for the loose ball to be emphatically slammed into the roof of the net by Cooper.