"This circus games aspect has existed since the beginning of my career."
Standing high above the audience, he can hear the murmurs echoing around the arena while the spot light is focussed solely on the tightrope only a few feet away. He is ready and prepared, conscious of the fact he is the main attraction and after the madness earlier on in the circus, this was the moment to show all those in the seats that he is in control of this perilous stunt.
The performance started with a lot of promise and in the 5th minute the home fans were already celebrating. Lee Gregory was at the end of an Aiden O’Brien cross and the ball rippled the back of the Sheffield United net. Unfortunately for the Lions, this effort was judged to be offside and the goal was cancelled by the whistle happy ringleader in the middle of the park. Feeling slightly aggrieved by this decision that went against the Lions, Millwall continued to look forward and was focussed on the finish line at the end of the steel rope.
Only a minute later, our circus performer felt his feet wobble when a long ball was played over the back line and Billy Sharp was away and racing towards goal. The rope was shaking and as Sharp rounded the ‘keeper and looked to score, Amos recovered superbly and got in a crucial block which saw the ball go wide for a corner.
After some back and forward action, there was a moment of controversy in the 25th minute that caused major unbalance and the potential to fall back to the stage floor. The crowd roared with disapproval as the ball hit Shaun Williams’ hand from close range. A penalty was awarded, and this act looked like it was destined for failure before we had even reached halfway. Billy Sharp stepped up and struck the ball powerfully, however we regained our balance and Ben Amos superbly tipped the ball onto the cross bar.
The Lions were galvanised by this moment of heroic and marched along the tightrope with the purpose and desire that had been missing in previous fixtures. In the 29th minute the ball teed up perfectly for Shaun Williams, but his long-range thunderbolt was held comfortably by the Sheffield United ‘keeper.
Just when we thought our funambulist would make it half way through his challenge, disaster struck, and he looked destined to fall in the 40th minute. Mark Duffy lofted in a beautiful cross into the penalty area and stood in yards of space in a striped shirt was Billy Sharp. The forward rose superbly and headed the ball perfectly into the bottom corner of Ben Amos’ goal. The Millwall ‘keeper was helpless as the rope violently rocked and this would be another routine which would end in disappointment. Although Lee Gregory had a half chance in stoppage time to bring the scores level, his effort was easily saved and Millwall went in at the break 1-0 down.
The wire underfoot had gone slack, lacked stability and our navy clad artist was stood just at the halfway mark, but he knew that a big second act was needed if we were to restore the faith of those in the home stands. Fortunately for the Lions, Jake Cooper’s towering header from a corner in the 47th minute was just what we needed to regain our stability, and the crowd roared with approval as the ball soared into the top corner.
Not too be outdone by the centre half’s goal, Lee Gregory took the opportunity to put the home side ahead only three minutes later and in the 50th minute raced onto the end of a long ball from Ryan Leonard. Finding his footing and soaring along the thin wire towards his target, Gregory calmly slotted the ball past Henderson in the United goal and the ‘keeper could only look on helplessly as the Lions went 2-1 up.
Sensing we would make it to the end of the rope unscathed, Jake Cooper had another effort from six-yards out after a lovely through ball, but the giant defender could only put his shot over in the 59th minute.
The Blades weathered the storm and the next few efforts of note fell to the Yorkshire side. Ben Amos superbly palmed away danger in the 59th minute from close range and bravely put his head where the action was to stop another United goal in the 76th minute, but just as our tightrope walker was nearing the end of their routine, the ringleader pointed to the penalty spot again in the 79th minute after a Shaun Williams foul on the edge of the box. It was McGoldrick this time who stepped up and as the ball hit the back of net and the away fans cheered, we were starting to wobble more aggressively towards the cold, hard floor. The scores were level and the Yorkshire side were back in the game.
Only a minute later Billy Sharp again had the ball in the back of the net, but as with the effort for the Lions in the first half, the striker’s tap-in was ruled out for offside. Our showman on the high-wire thought he had survived a scare and the game would end all square, but Millwall hearts were shattered again in the 88th minute. A cross was cut back into the penalty area after some lovely build up play and McGoldrick easily rolled the ball into the back of the net from close range. After four minutes of added time, the final whistle sounded, and the South London side were defeated 3-2.
After another game at home without victory, the tightrope under Neil Harris and the Millwall side’s feet is starting to get unbearable. It was a better performance from the Bermondsey side, but with the Lions dropping further into the bottom three, our balance will need to rapidly improve before we plummet further away from those above us, and there will not be a safety net below us if this continues.
Millwall: Amos, Meredith (Bradshaw 89'), Cooper, Williams, J. Wallace, Gregory, Romeo, Webster, Morison (Elliott 83'), O'Brien (Ferguson 80'), Leonard.
Subs not used: Archer, Tunnicliffe, M. Wallace, Skalak.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Stevens (Johnson 75'), Fleck, O'Connell, Basham, Sharp, Egan, Norwood, McGoldrick (Clarke 90+3'), Freeman, Duffy (Stearman 90').
Subs not used: Lundstram, Coutts, Washington, Moore.