Up until the last quarter of an hour on Tuesday I couldn’t quite decide whether I wanted us to win or simply to avoid screwing it up. This isn’t an unusual feeling for me, I lost the idea of winning as a target a long time ago. Winning is just a by-product of avoiding humiliation.
There was a bit more to it than that. We’re a happy club these days, we do positive things and try to enjoy ourselves. Millwall are a club built on misery and anger; ‘No one like us, we don’t care’; if you extrapolate that to its logical conclusion and they achieve the goal of no one liking them, they wouldn’t exist. It makes you wonder whether they support their club or whether it just happens to be a convenient prism through which their anger about life can be channelled.
It’s not fair to tar everyone with the same brush, of course. I’m sure there are many nice and friendly Millwall fans, as a team I thought they looked good and I’ve always liked Neil Harris, but if there was a reason to win the tie it was to show that being positive is better than being negative.
Tactically we were much more astute than against Blackburn. We absorbed their attempts at gaining an early advantage and played our way into the game. Alex MacDonald, not a player you naturally think of as a leader, was magnificent both in terms of his play, but also the way he calmed everything down, including the ballboys who he felt were returning the ball too quickly.
This had a hugely positive impact on Jonjoe Kenny who seemed to grow up in front of our eyes. His cameo on Saturday was all nervous and jelly legged, which lead to a clumsy foul and a booking. On Tuesday, in almost the same situation, just moments from the end, when the pressure was at its peak, he momentarily looked like he was about to lunge in again. Instead, he stood up, timed his tackle perfectly and picked the ball off the toe of the oncoming attacker. If he can keep it up, then the loss of George Baldock may not be as keenly felt as we thought.
So, a risk-free trip to Wembley beckons; a celebration of what the club has achieved and become, a reward for everyone, on and off the pitch, in the stands and the board room. A reward for positivity. These are special times.
Old game of the day
If I’m honest, I thought this would be the one when the wheels fell off. In an already extraordinary couple of weeks, off the back of an extraordinary 8-9 months, everything about the Millwall game was, well, even more extraordinary. I thought that, temporarily at least, the sheer force and velocity of our development and trajectory would blow us to bits. In the same way that a Formula 1 racing car is the most powerful, expensive, high performing car in the world but has tyres that last less than 40 miles, I thought this would be the point at which we’d be destroyed by our own power.
Four days after beating Swansea and becoming media darlings, on a Thursday, two games from Wembley, away to a League 1 team; I thought the frailties that have caused these players to drop into League 2, which have been so hidden all season, would show just enough for Millwall to exploit. Surely at some point tiredness; mental, technical and physical, would kick in.
But, and I am running out of ways of describing us at the moment, we were brilliant. Again. To have expectations heightened to the level they were and then meet and exceed them is mind blowing. And the fact it’s us is more astonishing still. It’s not just the application and heart, it’s the craft and creativity. It’s where we were this time last year and where we are now. And, and, AND, it’s the way we’re doing it; there’s no billionaire investment, these aren’t players lured to the club by endless riches. We’re not, in short, financially doped.
But also, this isn’t just about the result, this might just be about keeping the squad together. When Roofe’s first goal went in, I could see him leaving in the next three weeks, when the second one did, I changed my mind. Roofe, O’Dowda, Lundstram et al now have something beyond the transfer window to work towards; the opportunity to play at Wembley. They won’t get that by moving up the divisions. That and the opportunity to progress in the FA Cup, and promotion, and to do all this together as a squad. They will become club legends.
Moves to bigger clubs and the riches that come with it might well be in their future, maybe even this summer if they keep this up, why the hell would you want to move now?
On the other hand, it’s still the JPT, it’s more clutter to our fixture calendar and it’s a pointless risk to our perfect Wembley record. I just can’t quite calibrate it all. I want us to win, I don’t want us to lose. I think ultimately, if we’re going to win this and gain promotion, then I want it to continue. If not, then I don’t.
This season is a bit like the Star Wars film; a modern reboot of an old classic. In 1985/86 – the year we won the Milk Cup and played in the top flight – we had another chance of a Wembley final when we made the semi-final of the Simod Cup. Technically the Full Members’ Cup, it was an attempt to fill the fixture calendar after English clubs had been banned from Europe after Heysel. It was as unloved as it sounds, like the JPT, we managed to make the semi-final to play Chelsea – a widely disliked London club – like Millwall. We lost and they went on to win 5-4 in front of 70,000 people at Wembley. I have a vague recollection of feeling the disappointment of missing out on that day (even though I hadn’t given a monkeys about the tournament). Perhaps I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Old game of the day
Oxford United 1 Forest Green Rovers 0
Forest Green was much more routine than it perhaps looked. They looked physically bigger than us all over the pitch, which may actually have been due to their vile luminous green shirts. Perhaps they were just conforming to the cliche of the part-time pub player, but I guess it’s more that they’re specifically built to cope with Conference football in the deep winter.
We may have been more lithe, but we also had added sophistication and class. Their strategy was to use their bulk to unsettle us and maybe get something – a goal – they could defend when they tired. It worked, to a point; we couldn’t settle on the ball and the referee couldn’t distinguish between a genuine tackle and a foul. As a result, we couldn’t control the game in the first half and they threatened to snatch a goal.
We just needed to weather the storm, if we could avoid conceding and not tire from the battering, we could press home our quality advantage late in the game. The risk was that they wouldn’t tire (although the way they started, it always it seemed likely they would), that we would concede (we didn’t) and that we were effectively planning to find a winner in a 30 minutes game. Of course, when you have a magician in your side, you’ve always got a chance.
So they leave having given it a good go, we scrape through and avoid the humiliation of a giant killing; which pretty much fitted the template of this kind of game.
Oxford United 3 Yeovil Town 2
Yeovil was an altogether more pleasant and enjoyable experience. Partly because of the performance, but mainly because they were pretty awful and the result, ultimately, didn’t mean very much. There was very little angst in the tie; it was more a cosy night in the pub with friends than a raucous all-nighter.
Even now, just two positive results from Wembley, it is kind of difficult to get excited about the JPT, that said, I did go, which might suggest something is stirring.
Millwall in the next round offers something interesting; Nathan Cooper’s passionate pre-match denunciation of the tie made an interesting point. Promotion from League 2 will not see a significant improvement in crowds – there are few ‘glamour’ clubs. What’s more it’s a heavily ‘northern’ division, meaning very few big away followings. So really, promotion only really means something – in a business sense – if you’re aiming for the Championship, where things really will improve financially.
Survival in League 1 is not really enough to justify the investment currently being made by the owners, so, if we do get promoted this year, we’ve got to compete and beat the likes of Millwall next. The tie will be a really interesting test of how close we are to doing that.