Four years on
By Matt Rowson
On October 18th 1997, almost exactly four years ago, Watford played Millwall in a Division Two match at Vicarage Road. The chief significance of the fixture was that Millwall's one-goal win, courtesy of a Paul Shaw goal, was the first cautionary squeeze on the breaks as the Hornets' season careered breathtakingly towards Division One.
A lot has changed since then, as Lionel Birnie and Alan Cozzi's excellent book relates. We've seen a Championship, a play-off win, a humiliating relegation, the departure of a number of club heroes, the arrival of a one-time European Footballer of the Year and half a new squad.
Whilst our opponents have had a slightly more staid time of it, they came screaming out of Division Two last season on the strength of a revitalised young squad on the pitch and a much healthier outlook than you'd credit off it. Chairman Theo Paphitis' interview in the last WSC was not the sort of thing you'd perhaps expect from Millwall - certainly none of the wilful see-no-evil that his predecessor Reg Burr had so often seemed culpable of. Meanwhile the team on Tuesday will boast precisely none of the players who played at Vicarage Road that day (who seem to have included Paul Allen, for goodness' sake). Watford, ironically, will almost certainly name three survivors in the sixteen (Chamberlain, Hyde, Noel-Williams), with another two (Gibbs, Johnson) currently injured.
Other things have not changed. I'm still plodding away at these previews, for one thing. The Millwall game saw my first BSaD preview, and I remember stealing almost all of the factual content from the Millwall site "House of Fun".
House of Fun is still around too and still a target of plagiarism, albeit having gone through a redesign or two since then. One heartfelt piece on the site at the moment bemoans the rise of Borg-like entities in the world of "unofficial" football websites, a view which I'd second without reservation. Researching these previews takes longer than writing them, and a creative, independent website is much more interesting and useful than one which straw-feeds you through a straightjacket. Now, as then, the former can be hard to find.
With a squad of players largely untried at this level it was difficult to predict how Millwall would do this season, and to some extent this remains the case with crucial uncertainty about Neil Harris' fitness and some fairly dramatic swings in form already. Thursday night's impressive result at the Hawthorns improved a dicey away record, however, and with four wins out of five at home the Lions are picking up a bit of pace.
In goal is likely to be the excitable Tony "Denzil" Warner, once David James' understudy at Liverpool. Competition is provided by Frenchman Willy Gueret, who had a brief but successful run in the side last season.
A seismic injury list has caused plenty of defensive reshuffling, with the tried-and-tested 4-4-2 being replaced, by necessity, with a 3-5-2 at West Brom, an alternative that didn't require conventional fullbacks. With player-of-the-year Matt "Shaggy" Lawrence and aggressive Irish leftback Robbie Ryan both suffering from knocks, these were a scarce commodity.
Not so centrebacks; the signing of Darren Ward - due an entertaining scrap with Gifton - seems to have added to an already healthy stockpile. Club captain is ex-Spurs man Stuart Nethercott, who arrived at the Den three months after that game in 1997. Alongside him, Sean Dyche is perhaps the best footballer of the options at the back; he captained the Chesterfield side that merited a place in the Cup Final the previous season. The lumpy David Tuttle is out with a knock but would probably struggle to start anyway, unlike Ulsterman Joe Dolan, out since last season with a broken leg. Teenager Mark Phillips has approached the first team as a result of these injuries.
Although employed as a wingback on Thursday, Stephen Reid, perhaps the best of a very good bunch of young players at the New Den, prefers a more attacking role. On the left, Londoner Ronnie Bull filled in in a position that might normally be taken by pacy Belgian Christophe Kinet - he's also been on the injury list. Canadian International Marc Bircham is another who has been out, and he will have caused concern by limping out of his comeback match at the Hawthorns. Goalscoring Aussie Tim Cahill and another winger, Paul Ifill, are both likely to feature, with Leke Odunsi providing cover in the central positions.
Up front, Neil Harris is sorely missed; having re-emerged in the first team following an astonishing recovery from his shocking cancer scare in the summer, his recuperation appears to be being reined in a little. The front pairing therefore constitutes the gnarled Steve Claridge alongside lanky Irishman Richard Sadlier, scorer of both goals at the Hawthorns. Cover is provided by another Irish youngster Kevin Braniff and Venezuelan international Giovanni Savarese. Paul Moody has recently rejoined Oxford and, with options up front limited, McGhee is looking for another striker, although Danny Cadamarteri's £14k a week was, justifiably, considered excessive.
One of the items that featured in the preview four years ago was then newish chairman Paphitis' claims that he wanted Millwall rid of their unsavoury image. When we visited the New Den later that season Bermondsey was, as ever, cold, wet and intimidating. We'll have our ears peeled for "you'll never make the station" on Tuesday...this could be the ultimate indicator of how much has really changed.