"The huffing and puffing from Millwall was getting louder, and the front door to Bournemouth's house was being blown in"
The dark nights were drawing quickly in South East London, and the recent Indian summer like conditions were replaced by a sudden chill that was adding to the feeling of angst that was filling the fans in SE16. Although Millwall were sitting comfortably in the top half of the table, and Gary Rowett's side were only a point outside the Championship play-off places, there was a feeling that it still wasn't clicking at The Den and the grumbles as we walked to Zampa Road were drowning out the trains running past South Bermondsey station.
The two sides took to the field, and although midweek games tend to feel a bit quieter, there was a wave of empty blue chairs in the home stands of the stadium. Was this due to the level of optimism for the visit of The Cherries? Was it the dropping autumn weather? Perhaps because we were one of the featured games on Sky Sports? But, whatever the reason, The Den was certainly quieter in the opening passages of the game then it has been previously, and it was AFC Bournemouth who started the opening passages of play with some nice football and slick passing. The movement of the ball from the back line to Bartosz Bialkowski's penalty area was slick and quick, although played at ease, and Millwall were trying to catch their seemingly superior opposition. What made matters worse for The Lions, was every time possession was in our grasp, we would lazily misplace passes or over hit balls that would allow our South Coast opponents another attack.
Luckily, for Milwall, this period was only brief and after some of the cobwebs and shackles of playing an unfamiliar 4-4-2 had been released, we were back on the front foot, flying into challenges and chasing down every cause; with Mason Bennett, Danny McNamara and Billy Mitchell in particular showing their determination to keep every passage of play alive for as long as they could. Benik Afobe, who has had his critics since joining on loan, was exceptional: plucking the ball out of the air with relative ease, looking every inch the player he was a number of seasons ago and finally showing the talent that he has been promising. This was not an accurate reflection of Afobe himself as a player, but the style of play the club were playing since he re-joined from Stoke City, and against Bournemouth the game was played to his strengths and he shone.
The officiating of the game had many fans in attendance scratching their heads and although this was an entertaining game of football to watch, there was very little goal mouth action from both sides; that was until the deadlock was broken by the away team. A ball was lofted in to Millwall's far post, and there was a questionable shove on Mason Bennett from Dominic Solanke, but this was ignored by the match official and Solanke poked the ball home as Bennett was left in a heap on the floor just before half-time. Boos rang around the stadium as the half-time whistle blew... but this was indicated at the man with the whistle and his assistants, not The Lions who had put on a brave display against a side with an expensively sqaud that still receives parachute payments following a recent Premier League relegation.
Bournemouth came out slightly more dominant in the second half, but again, Millwall quickly regained the game by the scruff of the neck and dominated. The back four were solid, Billy Mitchell was relishing in a more free role in the middle of the park and Afobe was exceptional, with a first touch that killed the ball stone dead and drew gasps of admiration from the Cold Blow Lane stand.
The Lions' equaliser was a fantastic take from Afobe, who was rewarded with a goal for the quality of the shift that he put in, when his powerful run and shot nestled into the bottom corner of The Cherries' goal, causing pandemonium in a fan base that felt wronged from referee's whistles and assistant official's flags. It was the least that Millwall deserved against a team who promised so much, but were clearly on the back foot and unable to deal with their more spirited opponents.
The huffing and puffing from Millwall was getting louder, and the front door to Bournemouth's house was being blown in, with the excellent Billy Mitchell coming close with an amazing long range effort from the edge of the penalty area, but his chance went agonisingly over the bar, when the ripple of the net in the top corner was what the prize should have been for the young midfielder.
There were a number of other chances that had Millwall fans' heads in their hands, but a second goal was just not to be, and the final whistle after four minutes of added on time saw the game finish a draw. Millwall's players looked exhausted and left everything on the pitch for the club, and the likes of Billy Mitchell, Benik Afobe, Mason Bennett, Shaun Hutchinson, Daniel Ballard and the returning Danny McNamara were all in for a shout of being Man of the Match.
There have been question marks over Gary Rowett, his selection, his desires and dreams with Millwall and the players he picks, but last night was a game that inspired hope into thousands of fans in blue and white and with a team performing at that level, who's to say that The Lions won't roar their way higher up the table and start dreaming of playing Premier League football next season?...