By Rory Jiwani
Seven months is a long time in football. When Millwall visited the Vic in September, they'd had a reasonable start to the season with Mark McGhee in charge and we had yet to get a league win under our belts. This we achieved in some style with Bruce Dyer (the only time this season before Saturday) and debutant Ashley Young getting on the scoresheet.
A month later, McGhee was no more and taking over the reigns was everyone's favourite mild-mannered midfielder Dennis Wise with former Horns assistant manager Ray Wilkins in tow. Things did not start well for the pair but their season took a turn for the better with the arrival on loan of 'Goal Machine' Daniele Dichio and Andy 'Safe Hands' Marshall from West Brom and Ipswich respectively.
Millwall's history has been a chequered one and recent initiatives to eliminate hooligans have proved largely successful or unsuccessful, depending on who you believe. However, many fans have complained about the lack of atmosphere - last season we had to put up with pre-recorded crowd noise as well as getting thumped 4-0 - and this had clearly been reflected on the pitch. Millwall fanzine 'House of Fun' summed up the situation in mid-January as thus:
"The last two seasons have been, not to put too fine a point on it, f*cking boring. We've done precisely nothing. The club has not improved. It's not even gone backwards, which itself can be comparatively interesting. We've stagnated. We're not improving either on or off the pitch. And this lack of improvement has at times been self-imposed. On one hand, we have Ken Chapman (operations and security advisor) who feels it his personal duty to turn the New Den into a sterile, sanitised environment where anything approaching passion or indeed merely a raised voice is punishable by expulsion. As a result, it's becoming boring inside the ground. On the other hand, you have Theo's policies on player transfers which mean that serious, obvious holes in the squad never ever get addressed, which have often made it boring on the pitch. Recent games have been an excellent example. The whole "well, yeah, we played reasonably well but lacked a cutting edge up front" -- is that not footballspeak for "we were boring"?"
Then something extraordinary happened. Contrary to all expectations, Dichio scored six in seven games and sparked a fine run of form to take them up the table. You'll be glad to hear that since securing a permanent move he has returned to being the mediocre, clumsy front man we all know and love, scoring just once in ten games. Despite being rejected by Norwich and Ipswich in recent years, and the odd comical error, Marshall has displaced Tony Warner for the goalkeeping spot.
Then, of course, came that cup run. No Premiership opposition to speak of but the win over Sunderland at Old Trafford means that Lewisham's finest are heading to Cardiff (that's twenty thousand Millwall fans descending en masse to CARDIFF) and next year's UEFA Cup (that's five thousand Millwall fans descending en masse to Prague or Marseille or, heaven forbid, Istanbul).
On the bright side, the obvious distraction of the FA Cup final has seen them slip up in their efforts to reach the play-offs at the expense of their mates from north of the river, West Ham. While our record against them is nothing to write home about, recent form suggests that this should be a tight affair.
Marshall's back four will not contain Australian thug Kevin Muscat (cue big sigh of relief from Cooky) who was on the receiving end of a Muscat-style tackle from George McCartney in that FA Cup semi. Damaged knee ligaments mean he misses the rest of the season, which is a shame for those of us who quite fancied seeing him try to deal with Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo as only he can.
Also missing is Stuart Nethercott who, after being a fixture in the Lions' central defence for the best part of six seasons, has been deemed surplus to requirements by Dirty Den. The former Spurs own-goal specialist is currently on loan at doomed Wycombe.
Matt Lawrence, displaced by Muscat's arrival at the start of the season, has converted admirably into a centre-back and formed a fine partnership with former Horn Darren Ward. Nineteen-year-old Marvin Elliot has come in for Muscat with Robbie Ryan reclaiming the left-back spot from youngster Tony Craig after we beat them at the Vic.
Paul Ifill, a frequent thorn in Watford's side, tends to provide the width and flair in the midfield lacking since Steven Reid's departure. Australia's rising star Tim Cahill has amassed a whopping fifteen bookings this season but his next suspension is not due to start for another week. This means either David Livermore, who scored his first goal of the season on Saturday against Forest, or Andy Roberts will join him and Wise in the engine-room.
Up front, Wise faces his almost constant dilemma of who to start alongside Dichio. Neil Harris got the nod on Saturday but Nick Chadwick, on loan from Everton, scored a late equaliser to advance his claims. Former Brentford striker Mark McCammon was also on the bench but whoever Wise picks, Dyche and Gayle can expect a rare old buffeting as all four look to use their strength to breach defences. Shaun will probably relish it against his former teammates.
Millwall have had a reasonable crop of youngsters coming through over the years with Peter Sweeney and Kevin Braniff candidates to play some part in Tuesday's proceedings. Their most exciting prospect Cherno Samba has not yet been given his league bow but is definitely one to watch. January signing John Sutton came from Raith Rovers with a reasonable reputation as a goalscorer but has thus far failed to deliver.
So, an important match for both sides but probably more so for the home side after Saturday's results. A win for them would make them favourites for the play-offs, while victory for us would almost certainly see us avoid the drop. The omens are not good though - the last time we won there was in March '97, thanks to a goal from Sir Tommy Mooney. What we wouldn't give for some Moonster-style heroics this time around.