Where the hell did Grimsby go?
By Matt Rowson
The most disappointing thing about the Fourth Division table at the moment is the identity of the team in twenty-first place. It seems no time at all since Grimsby was a stand-out away fixture on the calendar, one of the ones you looked for in mid-June; now, the Mariners are floundering haplessly at the bottom of the League.
Our last trip to Grimsby was in March 2003. Six days earlier, Stephen Glass had done the business with ten minutes to go against Burnley at the Vic to secure our first Cup Semi-Final in sixteen years. The draw, pitching us against Southampton, raised the prospect not only of a trip to Cardiff and a Cup Final but also of a European tour should we beat the Saints and Champions' League (sic) bound Arsenal beat Sheffield United. The latter possibility was the subject of many songs in the away end at Blundell Park, if only to provide a bit of variety to break up the "Oh Stephen Glaaaass...." numbers.
It didn't happen, obviously, although looking back I can't understand why more agitation wasn't generated by James Beattie's blatant foul on Robbo in scoring the second goal; the Saints got the European tour instead, if only briefly, going out at the first hurdle to Steaua Bucharest.
A year later, Millwall take advantage of a favourable path to the Final to earn their own UEFA Cup place (albeit after a Cup Final performance whose feebleness still aggravates one particular acquaintance of mine); consequently Millwall face Ferencvaros of Budapest at the New Den on Thursday evening, a fixture which sees our own game with the Lions pushed back to Sunday.
A detail of the Champions' League (sic) qualifying structure that the big guns appear to have overlooked is that oiks like ourselves or Millwall have a slightly easier path to the UEFA Cup than previously by virtue of both the likelihood of Cup Final opponents to have already booked their place in a higher ranking competition, and the unerring but no doubt completely random tendency for the balls to generate at least one eye-catching TV-friendly clash of big guns per round to block the big hitters as the little blokes run through unnoticed. If I knew a damn thing about American Football then I'm fairly sure there'd be an analogy there somewhere; and incidentally, if the inherent excuse-letter from the endless, mind-numbing gruel that is the Carling Cup First Round isn't enough to motivate a repeat charge on the Cup Final this season, I don't know what is.
Trips to beautiful Budapest aside, things don't look great at the New Den. The Cup Final focus disguised a poor end to last season which saw the Lions excuse themselves from the play-off chase with one win in the last nine games - and that a 1-0 closing day victory over relegated Bradford. Since then Tim Cahill and Tony Warner have both left in acrimonious circumstances and the side have looked lacklustre in their opening league fixtures. Chairman Theo Paphitis, meanwhile, has announced that this will be his last season in charge - my first BSaD preview in 1997 centred on Paphitis' then recent ascent to the Chairman's role, he's hardly kept a low profile since and one way or another his departure looks like leaving a void.
Graham Stack, on a season's loan from Arsenal remains in goal for the Lions despite a recent arrest and bail. Andy Marshall, whose retention as first choice last season precipitated Warner's departure to Cardiff, is now on the bench.
A solid defence has been the key to Millwall's game this season, ex-Hornet Darren Ward excelling in particular alongside rejuvenated ex-fullback Matt Lawrence. Lawrence has been captaining the side in the absence of last season's stupidest opponent Kevin Muscat, who was injured in April's Cup Semi but has recently returned to contention. This appears to threaten the place of Marvin Elliott, whose deployment at right-back has, it has been argued, wasted abilities better employed in midfield in any case. Elliott turns twenty this week, having been born on Graham Taylor's fortieth birthday. On the left, Canadian Josh Simpson has impressed with strong, aggressive performances; he can also feature on the left of midfield.
Millwall's midfield has had a staid look about it in the absence of Paul Ifill, injured in the season opener at Plymouth. Arguably the Lions' most important attacking player, Ifill is nearing a return to action. Without him, Millwall are fielding naturally central players in wide positions, limiting their creativity. Dennis Wise's old Chelsea mucker Jody Morris should take one of the central roles; he has been partnered by another Canadian Adrian Serioux, whose ridiculously long throws have grabbed attention but the rest of whose game has not convinced all watchers. Workhorse Dave Livermore has been playing wide on the left with Wise playing wide on the right. Other midfield options include the left-sided Scottish U21 international Peter Sweeney and Irish winger Barry Cogan who made his debut in this fixture last season.
The Lions have problems up front, where Barry Hayles' introduction to add some much needed firepower was interrupted by cracked ribs less than an hour into his Millwall debut on Sunday. The thirty-two year old, who Kenny Jackett was once famously denied the funds to recruit from Stevenage and who recently joined the long list of players not to have got on with Neil Warnock, looks like being ruled out of Thursday's UEFA cup tie and must be doubtful for Sunday.
Elswehere, Danny Dichio failed a late fitness test to sit out last Sunday's game but is expected to be fit; his languid style conceals a habit of sticking his head in the right place - he has a one-in-two strike rate in League games for the Lions. Neil Harris' goalscoring exploits in Division Three have never quite been replicated in Division Two but he's still popular, with his absence from the starting lineup thus far not apparently well received. The 6ft5 of awkwardness Mark McCammon, whose falsetto enlivened a dire pre-season at Brentford a couple of years back, has generally been the hapless beneficiary of Harris' absence, although Stefan Moore on a three month loan from Villa has also featured.
We've struggled against the defensively solid sides we've faced so far, but like Leicester the onus will be on Millwall to push forward a little more at home which will probably suit us better. Millwall's European exploits are unlikely to be an irrelevance one way or another, but matching last season's fine result, and entertainment, would be welcome... even if the prospect of one of Millwall's finest making the ill-judged decision to arrive in a fetching pink sweatshirt again seems remote.