Anything's better, but a win's best
By Pete Bradshaw
So, New Year's Day. A football match. Millwall at home. Cue hazy effect and swirling trance music. Go back...go back...
It's the end of December 2001. The Vialli and Wilkins mission to turn us into the Manchester United of the Second Division (then called Division One) was beginning to look even sillier than it did at the beginning of the season. We had not long suffered the humiliation of the League Cup (then called the Worthington Cup) shambles at Hillsborough. We had escaped our usual Boxing Day trouncing, due to Selhurst Park being unplayable. Someone really should tell them: we find anywhere unplayable on Boxing Day. We had, however, beaten Walsall at the Bescot. A victory notable for a goal by Gary Fisken (remember him?).
And so to New Year's Day 2002. I had been nursing my sick parents since Boxing Day and just had to get out of the house. I decided to walk to the ground. Only four miles and a nice day for it. The opponents? Millwall. Surely the Manchester United of the Second Division can beat them? They have playoff pretentions too, but they're all direct energetic football that can't really compete with our continental suave.
Eighty odd minutes later. We're 3-0 down. Helguson, our left winger, scores a consolation. Neil Harris comes off the Lions bench to applause from all sides. And scores their fourth. Humiliation. Pitiful humiliation. At least Vega (remember him?) found some energy and got sent off. Marcus Gayle was awarded 1/5 in the BSaD stats. That's how bad it was then.
Cue haze and ambient psy-trance. Fast forward three years.
It's the end of December 2004. Wilkins is now coaching the erstwhile euro-combatants of Millwall. Vialli is swanning about somewhere. We have just witnessed some of the finest cup football at the Vic for twenty years. Once more we are the Watford of the Second Division (now called, erm, who cares?). We had restored normality by losing our Boxing Day fixture and then followed that with our twelfth draw. We last won a home league game in August. I remember 1971-72. We couldn't win at home then either. Then we were rubbish. Now we are merely perplexing. A great set of players, if not great players, a great manager. But an inability to win football matches. And so New Year's Day 2005. A football match. Opponents? Millwall. Wilkins at the helm - make your own joke up about ITV's John if you want.
Yes, the "very nice" Ray Wilkins has been coaching in SE16 for a few years now. It hasn't escaped the Millwall fans' notice. An earlier season win was achieved by a team that a fanzine reported as having "Wilkinsed their way past Derby as they bored their opponents into submission for a flattering 3-1 scoreline". Wilkinsed - oh, what a horrid image that conjures up of Issa, Fisken and Hughes fannying about in the middle of the pitch, ably supported by Blondeau and Vega from behind. No one liked them, and we don't care.
Millwall have had a good run of late and look far more of a prospect than when we beat them at the New Den in September. Then pre-occupied with their brief excursion in Europe. Now totally focused on the playoff race. On the other hand, we're too totally absorbed by the cup matches in January to notice that we have to get some points on the board quickly. Or so it seems. I'm sure the management and players are well aware of that fact really.
Most recently, Millwall have beaten Brighton - "The final scoreline perhaps belies the struggle we made of this one," said one fans' site, and drawn at Leeds. They have had the sort of Christmas we can only dream of - a Boxing Day victory over leaders Ipswich and a resounding, if somewhat flattering, win at Derby. Playing well and getting wins. Playing not so well and still getting wins.
Controversy continues to haunt, follow, or be nurtured by their fans - depending on your point of view. Clearly the whole fanbase can't be painted with the same brush, but the deaf ears of the board at the Liverpool game and the recent mud-slinging over alleged racist chants at the Brighton game make uncomfortable reading. As an example, the recent reposte on the Rivals site may divert you from your seasonal festivities. All of this is much worse, to my mind, than the thuggery that got my uncle and his mates thrown out into Cold Blow Lane as long ago as the 1930s and which has continued to fester with outbursts such as seen at Elland Road month. All very sad, given my family's connections with the Surrey Docks and the delight that top Millwall fan Danny Baker brings to my journey to work each morning.
This controversy has now spread to more conventional things, with fans bemoaning the boring style of play and the managerial decisions. Whether the view that Wise and Wilkins are driving the best players away is justified remains to be seen, but the messageboards seem to expect an exodus at the end of the season. Maybe that will include management and board too, but we have a game to play before then.
In goal is likely to be Andy Marshall who replaced on loan Graham Stack at the beginning of the month following three successive defeats. Stack played in the game earlier in the season. Few clean sheets have been kept but one always feels that this is a team that is difficult to score against.
Darren Ward continues to be a dominant presence in the back four and an example of just how long it takes players to fully realise their potential. How Ray is right to protect the likes of Lloyd Doyley and Jack Smith from too much over-exposure. An injury on Boxing Day rules Ward out of another return to Vicarage Road, however. Matt Lawrence, now a bit-part player, will probably come in to join youth team graduate Mark Phillips, who can also play at right back. Alan Dunne and David Livermore have been regular full backs and, with Marvin Elliott also featuring in the defence in recent weeks, there is a healthy competition for places. This is increased now that Kevin Muscat has come back into contention after his suspension for a bust-up in the tunnel with Sheffield United's Paddy Kenny (you couldn't make it up, could you?).
In midfield, Jody Morris has taken the lynchpin role that manager Denis Wise used to have for himself. Wise recalled himself on Tuesday, only to be stretchered off. Paul Ifill, who missed our game at the New Den, was, like Ward, injured on Boxing Day and so will again be absent. Scottish youngster Peter Sweeney and Canadian Adrian Serioux makes up the regular contingent, although many of the players who line up at the back can also play in midfield. This gives the whole team a forward-looking approach, countered maybe by the coach - who knows? Josh Simpson has also featured in the recent squads, as injury and loans have depleted numbers.
Up front, Millwall play two of three strikers who have an average age of twenty-nine, yet have only started 539 games between them (about four seasons each). Mind you, they have scored 241 goals - not a bad ratio. This equates to about twenty each per season - if they could stay in a team that long. The stats are up there with Heidar and there are three of them! And sometimes all three of them start - an option in the absence of Ifill. They got one goal each against Ipswich on Boxing Day, while our defence was conceding the same number to a much less experienced set of goalscorers. Oldest first, we have Barry Hayles, who has played for everyone except us, Daniele Dichio and, recently arrived from West Brom, Scott Dobie. Hayles has five bookings, but the quirk of the calendar means he misses the Monday game against Rotherham rather than this one. More's the pity for us. Hayles is one of those who always does well against us, and a classic poacher's hat trick against Derby is ominous. It seems unlikely, but the aforementioned Neil Harris couldn't dislodge these three. Well, at least the management thought he couldn't dislodge them and, much to many fans' disquiet, he has gone off to Forest of all places. A shame for him really.
As has been said before every home game since September, this is a game we can win. As has been said before every home game since October, this is a game we should win. As has been said before every home game since November, this is a game we must win. Please. While anything will be better than the embarrassing farce that was 1 January 2002, we can't continue to afford to say "the players gave everything, but it just wasn't our day". We have to make it our day. We have to fight as we've done against so many other teams this season, knowing that eventually the results must average themselves out. Knowing that Helguson must hit the target again soon. If Ardley is to leave, then we just have to get on with it...even though it won't be easy. With a potentially awkward game in the park on Monday, we can't afford to give any more ground. So let's not be Wilkinsed. Please.
Let's go! And just remember - only three years ago we had to watch Pierre Issa, recently installed to Jeff Stelling's journalistic hall of fame as the worst player ever to play for Watford. No complaints there, then.