When Millwall were booed off at Luton back in October, had gone seven league games without winning and sat 18th in the Championship standings, few could have predicted that almost ten months later they’d be disappointed with an eight-place finish.
In fact, if this crazy season hadn’t been extended due to COVID-19, the Lions would currently be in the thick of their pre-season programme and most likely be turning out at somewhere local like Dartford, Barnet or Stevenage this weekend, not stewing over a failed play-off bid that only started gathering pace around Christmas.
Those boos at Kenilworth Road were somewhat harsh – especially as less than six weeks earlier Neil Harris had guided Millwall to their joint-best start to a Championship campaign, with seven points from their opening three matches. However, results weren’t the only problem, Harris’ negative and tedious style had become stale, and another relegation battle looked the best-case scenario.
Change was needed. ￼Millwall and Harris had outgrown each other, and although the timing was odd – with rivals Leeds up next, a side that Harris has notoriously done well against – the announcement coming prior to an international break made it that little bit more understandable.
It was simple, Millwall needed someone with the capacity to take them to the next level.
Enter Gary Rowett, well, albeit after an impressive three-match spell as caretaker manager by first-team coach Adam Barrett, who narrowly missed out on the management gig despite knocking up four points from three games – although it could have been totally different had it not been for that late capitulation at Brentford, where Millwall somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Millwall required someone with Rowett’s experience and knowledge of the Championship, whilst the 46-year-old needed something to get his teeth stuck into after a testing stint with the Potters had damaged his managerial reputation.
Timing is everything in football, and the former Birmingham, Derby and Stoke boss looked too good an opportunity to turn down. It seemed a perfect fit.
From the outside, it appeared a match made in heaven.
Rowett’s witty and confident opening press conference left you wanting more, whilst his impact on the pitch was instant. 48 hours later, a dominant 2-0 victory over Stoke – celebrated with a punch of the air towards The Barry Kitchener Stand – left those inside The Den excited and intrigued.
Wind on three months, and after collecting 29 points from a possible 45 available, only goal difference was keeping Millwall outside the top-six and the new manager bounce was in full throttle.
Rowett was no magician, but he was working wonders in SE16 in what felt like a never-ending honeymoon period.
In fact, a gritty 2-0 win over Reading in late-January, which moved the south Londoners level on points with sixth-placed Nottingham Forest, was significant in more ways than one. It meant that Millwall had already equalled their points tally from last term with 18 matches remaining.
Rowett’s revolution was picking up speed, and Millwall were quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with – helped by shrewd January deals for Mason Bennett and Ryan Woods, who he’d previously signed as Stoke boss.
Play-off rivals Swansea, Derby, Bristol City and Preston had all been swept aside on the road, and by the time Millwall had recovered from a rare three-game blip to produce their best display of the campaign in dispatching Nottingham Forest in their final game before the suspension of English football, the top-six looked theirs to lose.
However, the 106-day break due to the Coronavirus outbreak from the City Ground massacre, to the disappointment of Derby, halted their momentum, and although a late surge of victories threatened to gatecrash the play-off picture, Millwall’s slow post-lockdown return cost themselves the opportunity at dislodging either Forest or Harris’ Cardiff – with defeat at QPR confirming their race was run.
But, such is Rowett’s mentality, it won’t come as much surprise that he’s already looking towards next season. Today marked the opening of the summer transfer window and Rowett has wasted no time – capturing the loan signing of Wood – one of his many success stories since his arrival in south London – less than seven days after the Lions rounded off an impressive campaign by thrashing Huddersfield at The Den to secure a second eight-place finish in the space of three years.
Millwall fans will no doubt be wanting more, but they’re certainly in safe hands heading into their fourth consecutive season at Championship level, and with the likes of Leeds, West Brom and possibly one of Brentford of Fulham no longer in the division next term, the sky is the limit for this hungry Lions side.