"They was good fighters, but they wasn't killers like this guy. He'll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!"
Like the 1976 classic, Rocky, Millwall have always proudly lived up to the moniker of an underdog. Whilst more established teams have bigger budgets, better facilities and higher expectations, the Lions have been happier locking ourselves in meat freezers, running up steps on a cold morning and have been made to catch chickens by our Mickey on the side-lines, who demands only the very best from our Italian Stallions. We had been eating lightning and crapping thunder, but that was until eleven Clubber Langs from the North-East of England who were hungry for three points came to South Bermondsey.
The game started well for our eleven Balboas, who after the first bell delivered some nice little jabs to the jaw of Lang. In the 2nd minute Lee Gregory was pulled back by the referee for a shirt pull, and the Lions circled our opponent with some lovely passing from Shaun Williams. Sensing that this was another one of the hand picked fighters to make our Rocky look good, Millwall managed to get Sunderland on the ropes and in the 6th minute a big right hook from Jake Cooper was goal bound, before being cleared off the line at the last minute.
Apollo Creed in previous months was beating us away from home. Even when we stood toe-to-toe and proved we could go the distance, Creed would still manage to get the points given to him at the end of the fight. But after knockout blows against Leeds, Reading, Birmingham, Sheffield Wednesday and Burton Albion, this seemed like another routine win for our Stallions. Millwall easily found space in the squared circle, continuing to jab away, and linking up well which led to a Mahlon Romeo cross in the 16th minute that was blocked by the gloves of Jason Steele.
Apart from a low cross in the 17th minute which caught Millwall off guard, Sunderland offered very little, and Clubber Lang looked like he was going to fall victim to Balboa's southpaw style. That was until the 28th minute...
Dusting themselves down, Sunderland came out of their corner and caught Millwall on the back foot. A high ball was awkwardly cleared by Jake Cooper when Jordan Archer had called for it, and a glancing blow by Lang had us on the ropes. We were rocked, but the Black Cats had not shown any signs so far that they could beat our World Champion fighter.
"I want Balboa! I want Balboa! Old man you tell Balboa to come here! I'M COMING AFTER HIM! YOU TELL HIM!" And with that threat, Oviedo pulled back his glove and smashed Rocky between the eyes in the 29th minute. Retrieving the ball from Aiden McGeady near the corner flag, Oviedo unleashed an absolute thunderbolt which sent Millwall to the canvas. The travelling fans roared with delight, and the Lions were laying on our back looking up at the lights.
With their inner Clubber Lang now growing in confidence, Millwall's punches weren't really landing. A long effort from Shaun Williams was easily parried away from Steele in the 39th minute, and the Lions continued to lower our gloves by cheaply giving the ball away. Steve Morison tried to connect with a jab, but his effort just went wide of the post. The midway bell rang and Balboa had lost the opening 45 minutes.
The Millwall fans made their voices heard as the players left the field. Channelling their inner Apollo Creeds and telling our Rocky Balboas to rise to the occasion, they demanded a better performance from the Lions. "He's hooking. He's hooking. He's hooking! Damn Rock, come on! What's the matter with you?!"
Realising that we needed to go back to the form that had defeated Apollo Creed and made us World Champion, the Lions must've said a prayer to their Padre as they came out a different side. The Lions had the Eye of the Tiger back in their performance, and although Sunderland hit us with a low-blow when Marshall was shoved in the box in the 50th minute, the referee did not award the penalty.
Lee Gregory had a punch nearly hit the chin of Sunderland, and his header was agonisingly pushed over the bar in the 51st minute. The Lions continued to skip around the ring and try to disorientate the Black Cats, and a Millwall corner that looked like it was destined for Jake Cooper's head was just cut out at the last minute. Millwall's blows were connecting, but Sunderland's glass chin was holding firm.
The fight was now turning ugly, into more of a brawl than a boxing match, but Millwall's Balboa continued to have the upper hand on Sunderland's Clubber Lang. Steve Morison's acrobatic volley was superbly blocked by Steele's gum shield and went out for a corner.
The fight remained a scrappy affair, with stray right hands coming from Millwall, but in the 69th minute our grappling finally paid off. The ball bounced around from a corner and ricocheted off a number of bodies before Balboa got in a lucky punch. Hutchinson was the one who managed to connect, and his strike wobbled Sunderland and left them sprawled on the canvas.
Sunderland managed to get back on their feet, and spent the rest of the bout locking up when Millwall got close to them. Repeatedly trying to slow down the fight with questionable head injuries, the Black Cats were just hoping this fight would go to the judge's scorecards. Lee Gregory came very close in the 78th minute, when he just slid the ball wide of the near post.
Sunderland were happy to get to the final round, and let the bell ring to signify the end of the event. One last cross from the Black Cats went too long, before the bell rang to indicate the fight was over. Both brave fighters embraced in the middle of the ring, and the judges had marked their cards as a draw.
Neil Harris said after the game that if Millwall are not at their absolute best, then they will be punished. This season for the Lions could perfectly be told in the first three Sylvester Stallone classics. Rocky showed great bravery against the very best, but coming up short. Rocky II showed inner belief that the impossible can happen, and that the best can be beaten with heart and togetherness. Rocky III shows if we rest on our laurels we can be punished, and humiliated. But lets not forget, Balboa learned from this and moved on, and from Neil Harris' post-match comments, he has learned too.
🏆 Man of the Match 🏆
A battling performance from our prize fighter, who fought like he was just sparring in the midfield with Lee Cattermole. A wonderful performance from the Millwall man.
💬 Fans after thought 💬
This week I ask Millwall Fan on the Board, and Football Manager star Micky Simpson what he thinks of today's game with Sunderland.
Name: Micky Simpson
Favourite player this season: Lee Gregory. He’s had some right grief from fans this season, and he’s never dropped his head. He has carried on and is going to be a great benefit for this end of season run-in. He looks so hungry for more each and every game.
All time favourite player: Paul Shaw - I liked him a lot, plus I still remember his chant to this day. “Baldy Shaw, Baldy Shaw. He's got no hair and we don’t care.” Still makes me smile saying it now.
Greatest Millwall moment: Seeing Gary Alexander’s wonder Goal at Wembley, and the fact it’s still the best goal scored at Wembley. Being Named in Football Manager 2018 😉
What did you think of today's game?: Good old fashioned battle. First half we were really bullied on and off the ball, but fought back second half and we were very unlucky no to get the win.
What do you think of the season so far?: Great season who’d have thought we would have been so close to the playoffs. Just to stay up would have made me happy. Harris is really growing and can’t wait for next season. 13/15 points in Feb is unbelievable.