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In with a shout - Interview
Friday, 17th Jul 2020 07:57 by Clive Whittingham

With Millwall’s play-off push still alive and kicking we spoke to Lions fans Lucas Ball and James Blewett about Gary Rowett’s impact since replacing Neil Harris, and what they make of Big Matt Smith.

How has Millwall's season been overall?

LB: It was a relatively slow start despite a summer overhaul, and we just couldn’t get the best out of players. The moment Gary Rowett took over, things started to look up and we adapted our style to suit our more technical players more, which has seen us rise up the table from relegation candidates to potential play-off challengers. Whatever happens now, the turnaround since Rowett took over has been remarkable and we’re all very excited for the future under him.

JB: After a difficult start it’s been a great season. We all feared a relegation battle but under Rowett the team have come on leaps and bounds. Of course the Covid 19 suspension has made the whole last third pretty surreal and its very strange fighting for the play offs through these behind closed doors games. We didn't start well when the season began again but we seem to have hit our stride now and have played pretty well in the last couple of games.

League Results So Far…
Millwall 1-0 Preston (Wallace 33)
West Brom 1-1 Millwall (Bartley 57 – Smith 75)
Millwall 1-0 Sheff Wed (Smith 37)
Fulham 4-0 Millwall (Cavaleiro 15, 63, Knockaert 32, Mitrovic 65)
Middlesbrough 1-1 Millwall (McNair 70 – Bradshaw 76)
Millwall 1-1 Hull (Wallace 10 – Grosicki 18)
Blackburn 2-0 Millwall (Williams 18, Dack 74)
Millwall 1-2 QPR (Hutchinson 71 – Wells 56, 72)
Huddersfield 1-1 Millwall (Campbell 24 – Smith 41)
Luton 1-1 Millwall (McManaman 86 – Bradshaw 60)
Millwall 2-1 Leeds (Wallace pen 16, Bradshaw 45 – Alioski 46)
Brentford 3-2 Millwall (Da Silva 84, Mbeumo 86, Watkins 90 – Bradshaw 45, Wallace pen 55)
Millwall 2-2 Cardiff (Bradshaw 45, 77 – Ward 12, Hoilett 57)
Millwall 2-0 Stoke (Thompson 28, Wallace pen 75)
Reading 2-1 Millwall (Obita 9, Baldock 37 – Wallace 63)
Millwall 2-1 Charlton (Hutchinson 6, Smith 90 – Leko 51)
Swansea 0-1 Millwall (Wallace 65)
Millwall 2-2 Wigan (Hutchinson 24, Smith 60 – Pilkington 3, Robinson 56)
Birmingham 1-1 Millwall (Clarke-Salter 79 – Williams 61)
Millwall 2-2 Forest (Williams 15, O’Brien 90 – Grabban 63, 88)
Bristol City 1-2 Millwall (O’Dowda 84 – Wallace 11, Cooper 70)
Derby 0-1 Millwall (Bradshaw 25)
Millwall 1-2 Barnsley (O’Brien 85 – Chaplin 39, Schmidt 90)
Cardiff 1-1 Millwall (Flint 59 – Wallace 63)
Millwall 1-0 Brentford (O’Brien 8)
Millwall 3-1 Luton (Bradshaw 69, Mahoney 78, Smith 81 – Bradley 41)
Stoke 0-0 Millwall
Millwall 2-0 Reading (Smith 71, Bodvarsson 82)
Leeds 3-2 Millwall (Bamford 48, 66, Hernandez 62 - Hutchinson 4, Wallace pen 23)
Sheff Wed 0-0 Millwall
Millwall 0-2 West Brom (Krovinovic 42, O’Shea 84)
Millwall 1-1 Fulham (Bodvarsson 7 – Mitrovic 3)
Preston 0-1 Millwall (Hutchinson 78)
Wigan 1-0 Millwall (Hutchinson og 57)
Millwall 0-0 Birmingham
Millwall 1-1 Bristol City (Smith 51 – Pereira 10)
Forest 0-3 Millwall (Smith 20, 26, 33)
Millwall 2-3 Derby (Smith 15, Bodvarsson 90 – Sibley 26, 71, 90)
Barnsley 0-0 Millwall
Millwall 1-1 Swansea (Bennett 21 – Bialkowski og 66)
Charlton 0-1 Millwall (Cooper 81)
Millwall 0-2 Middlesbrough (Assombalonga 68, Fletcher pen 87)
Hull 0-1 Millwall (Leonard 2)
Millwall 1-0 Blackburn (Bennett 20)

Neil Harris is a club legend, but had the time come for a change there? How was that decision received?

LB: Millwall fans love Harris, and he’ll always be a club legend - unless he pips us to sixth, of course. He was backed in the summer to overhaul the squad and then couldn’t get the best out of his new signings. We were struggling and might have been in real trouble had he stayed in charge, so it was the right decision for everyone. He didn’t tarnish his legacy, we’ve improved and he’s gone on to do well at Cardiff. He resigned, which showed his love and affection for the club when he knew we needed a change. He didn’t hang around waiting for a payout, unlike a certain Ian Holloway before him.

JB: Harris remains a club legend and the last few months of his time at the Den wont tarnish that. He left at the right time. After five years he had done really well but seemed to hit a wall (no pun intended). We were really poor last year and lucky to stay up. A summer overhaul of the squad didn't improve things and the crowd were just starting to turn when he walked. He has done very well at Cardiff so it’s finished very well all concerned

What has Gary Rowett changed and what have you made of the job he's done?

LB: He’s made us a lot more tactically flexible and showcased our players’ technical ability. He brought in players that we perhaps wouldn’t have been able to attract before in the likes of Ryan Woods and Mason Bennett. Tactically, we can play a variety of systems under him and have seen variations of 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 5-2-1-2, 5-3-2, 5-2-3 and maybe more. The flexibility means that teams don’t always know exactly what to expect from us which became a problem towards the end of Harris’ reign. He’s got some things wrong, of course, but I’m very interested to see where this team goes after he’s had more of a chance to bring his own players in.

JB: I've been really impressed by Rowett. He is an astute coach and has recruited well. He has no Millwall connections and I think someone who is a bit more dispassionate has helped the development of the team. We were twentieth when he came in and as you can see now sit in seventh.

Summer Ins: Connor Mahoney, 22, RW, Bournemouth, £900k >>> Matt Smith, 30, CF, QPR, £400k >>> Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, 27, CF, Reading, £700k >>> Jason McCarthy, 23, CB, Wycombe, Undisclosed >>> Jayson Molumby, 19, CM, Brighton, Loan >>> Frank Fielding, 31, GK, Bristol City, Free >>> Alex Pearce, 30, CB, Derby, Free >>> Harvey Bradbury, 20, CF, Oxford, Free >>> Bartosz Bialkowski, 32, GK, Ipswich, Loan

Summer Outs: Fred Onyedinma, 22, RM, Wycombe, Undisclosed >>> Sid Nelson, 23, CB, Tranmere, Free >>> Ryan Tunnicliffe, 26, CM, Luton, Free >>> Lazar Stojsavljevic, 21, CB, Newport, Free >>> Conor McLaughlin, 27, RB, Sunderland, Free >>> Tom King, 24, GK, Newport, Free >>> David Martin, 33, GK, West Ham, Free >>> Lee Gregory, 30, CF, Stoke, Free >>> Steve Morison, 35, CF, Shrewsbury, Loan >>> Jordan Archer, 26, GK, Released

Winter Ins: >>> Mason Bennett, 24, CF, Derby, Loan >>> Ryan Woods, 26, CM, Stoke, Loan >>> Luke Steele, 35, GK, Forest, Loan

Winter Outs: >>> Jesse Debrah, 19, CB, Dulwich Hamlet, Loan >>> Isaac Olaofe, 20, CF, Sutton, Loan

Well in with a play-off shout, can you do it?

LB: I think if the season hadn’t been suspended and if we’d had fans in the stadiums still, we’d have got there. We were coming off the back of a 3-0 win away to Forest and it killed our momentum, unfortunately. To still be in with a shout is great and hopefully we can do it, but we’re relying on Neil Warnock to pick up a result against his old side Cardiff. I don’t have much faith in Hull to take any points from Harris’ men after their display on Tuesday.

JB: A couple of wins and other results going our way have made a highly unlikely scenario distinctly possible. We still lack quality up front and I think we will miss out... possibly and ironically to Cardiff.

How's Big Matt Smith gone for you?

LB: Overall he’s been a very useful signing and been a key part of the side. He’s our top scorer but sometimes lacks mobility and hinders our high pressing, which means he perhaps hasn’t started as often as he’d have liked under Rowett. He’s a very good option off the bench if we’re chasing a game late on and I think that will be more of his role when Rowett has put his own stamp on this side.

JB: Smith has done really well for us and is our top scorer. You told me that he was a one trick pony but was very good at that trick... possibly the best in the division. That is whip in some crosses and he can attack them and cause any defence problems. You also said that on no account should he be played as a traditional target man and that he was painfully slow. Harris proceeded to play him as a... traditional target man... he looked dreadful. However, and this is a reflection of Rowett as a coach, in recent months he has been great but never, as you know, lasts the whole game.

Player of the season candidates?

LB: There’s a number of candidates, to be fair. Bartosz Bialkowski, Mahlon Romeo, Jake Cooper, Jayson Molumby and Jed Wallace have all been excellent. Bialkowski is one of the best ‘keepers in the division, Romeo has improved consistently under Rowett and linked up superbly with Jed down the right, Cooper has played every minute of the last 120 league games and has also developed his game hugely on the ball this season, breaking forward during open play on numerous occasions. Molumby has provided energetic performances in midfield on a season-long loan from Brighton, whilst Wallace is the only player in the division to have reached ten goals and ten assists.

JB: Quite a few...Bialkowski, the keeper, Mahlon Romeo, the right back, big Jake Cooper at the bank have all been superb. Jed Wallace and more recently on loan Ryan Woods have also been impressive.

Weak links in the team?

LB: I like Murray Wallace a lot but we probably need an out an out left back, especially when we play a system with wing-backs. He’s good but can often be done for pace and his play on the ball could be better. Other than that, we don’t create enough from midfield and need a better finisher up top, but they come at a price.

JB: Scoring goals. Tom Bradshaw is not a bad player and painfully short of confidence. This has left us dependent on Smith's cameos although recently-arrived Mason Bennett from Derby is starting to look very dangerous

Assuming for a moment you're not a Premier League team, how does next season look from here?

LB: I’m confident of another season of relative stability. I don’t know that we’d reach the play-offs, but a season of mid-table solidarity would be welcome still. We still have a relatively small budget but coronavirus might level things out a bit at this level, which could really help us.

JB: As I said I think we will miss out on the play offs and if we did get into them I'd be very surprised if we won them. I wouldn't be at all downhearted though and I can see another season of steady progress under Rowett next year with the play offs a realistic goal which is not something you can often say as a Millwall supporter when the club is in the Championship. However with Covid 19 all is so uncertain in so many ways not least it will have on the transfer market and the finances of clubs.

Links >>> Millwall official website >>> South London Press – Local Paper >>> News at Den – Blog >>> North Stand Banter – Forum >>> News Shopper – Local Paper

The Twitter @LTBall2211, @millwalljdb, @loftforwords

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Myke added 10:22 - Jul 17
Pleased that Smith has had a good season. Remarkable that professional coaches like Holloway and Harris didn't understand how to get the best out of him. I know Hugill has been a little maligned for all the goals he has missed. It would have been interesting to know how Smith would have fared getting on the end of BOS/Manning/Eze deliveries? You would have to think against Luton the other night he would have had a field day. Also his worth at the other end of the pitch when defending set-pieces was often understated, and that has certainly being our achilles heel this year

francisbowles added 11:54 - Jul 17
I like Matt Smith and he did/does have his uses. However, taking the nostalgia coated rose tinted specs off and remember that like Hugill he also missed sitters including with his head, he was much less mobile and he never got a decision from a ref. Occasionally he would surprise us with a volley or a drag back and turn but usually it was just all in wrestling with the other big bastards.

We may never know but I wonder what the cost of keeping him would have been when compared to the loan cost of Hugill or Wells?

TacticalR added 13:41 - Jul 18
Thanks to Lucas and James.

Sounds like the Gary Rowett show. He did really well at Birmingham, then struggled at Stoke, which made me wonder if he was a lower half of the Championship manager, so it's interesting to hear about his tactical flexibility.

Most of us felt that Matt Smith was a reasonable plan B option for the second half of games, who could do well from corners and crosses if given good service. Our problem was that whenever he was on we resorted to hoofing the ball in his general direction.

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