The date is 29th May 2010. The final whistle has just sounded and everyone around me is screaming and shouting in joy and ecstasy. I have a different feeling. I have relief. Relief that we are no longer in the third tier of English Football. Relief that we are now back in the Championship after what has felt like a lifetime of disappointment, struggle, and bruiser like football where the ball spends more time being hoofed over the top rather than skimmed around the grass. Millwall have just beaten Swindon Town 1-0 and all I could do was sit down and soak it all in.
2006 was not a good year for Millwall. We did not know who wanted to manage our football team so the reigns of our football club were given over to Colin Lee, who later decided he wasn’t that interested and handed them over to former Millwall player Dave Tuttle, to see if he could steer this runaway train of disaster. The Fat Controller behind this chaotic time was one Peter de Savary, who on his arrival came on to the pitch with a Millwall top over his office suit and tie. There was an odd feeling when de Savary arrived, not one of positivity, but more of curiosity of how would he manage to get full grown Lions to be paraded before every game to stir up the crowd and not be frightened by a home support who had spent most of the season watching Lee and Tuttle argue over who would be in charge.
Relegation followed and Dave Tuttle and Colin Lee were amongst those who leapt from the runaway train like Hendley and Colin did in the Great Escape when they realised they needed to get off. The one difference in this scenario was that it seemed like both members of the coaching staff were blind and not just one of them. League One, the FA Cup early stages and the Football League trophy were what the Millwall faithful had to stomach for a year at least. Two years before, Millwall had made the FA Cup final against Man United and now we were entering at the same stage as teams who play in front of a few thousand. No manager, a seemingly mad chairman, our best young players leaving and now staring League One football in the face. The runaway train was picking up serious speed.
Nigel Spackman jumped on board like Keanu Reeves in Speed. Keep us under control Nigel, we begged. Just keep us around 50mph on the straight and narrow and results will soon pick up. But they didn’t. We actually had some pretty good players but somehow it seemed to have gotten worse. Lenny Pidgeley had just signed from Chelsea after impressing in a league cup game the year before, Darren Byfield who was proven in the lower leagues had signed and we had a number of up and coming players who had impressed pre-season like Filipe Morais, Chris Hackett, our top scorer from the year before Ben May and Tom Brighton. Spackman however could not get us back on track and was sacked early in the season. Willie Donachie stepped in to his shoes and managed to do what all those previously had not been able to. He had pulled the emergency brake on this speeding locomotive and managed to steer us back towards 10th in the table. Start of the season, some Millwall fans would have expected higher. At the end of the season, some were calling for Donachie to get a knighthood. The DVD summary of the season was “From Despair to Donachie” and they were right. The train was now slowing down and the passengers that were the Millwall fans were a little happier.
2007-2008 started and unfortunately, the emergency brake had come loose and the train was losing control again. Willie tried to re-apply, but unfortunately was unable to and was replaced by the man who had interviewed and originally turned down the Millwall role, Kenny Jackett. Jackett was not an inspired choice, was the reserve team manager at Manchester City but knew the league from his time at Swansea City. Jackett, like Donachie before, managed to get everything at the club stable again, but unlike Donachie, he managed to keep it that way and we were now on a new path.
2008–2009 was a magic season for Millwall. With players like David Forde, Paul Robinson, Zak Whitbread, Gary Alexander, Neil Harris, James Henry, Dave Martin and Jimmy Abdou, there was a real buzz around The Den for the first time in years. After a relatively slow start, Millwall picked up some form and finished the season in the play-offs and after beating Leeds United in the semi final, met Scunthorpe United in our first ever Wembley play-off final appearance. After seeing the greatest goal at the new Wembley and going in at half time 2-1 up, there was serious belief we would return. Alas, heartbreak followed and we were beaten 3-2 and we were left wondering what could have been.
The next year was one better. After a season where Millwall missed out on automatic promotion by one point, we got back to our new second home and played Swindon Town in the final. Paul Robinson scored the only goal of the game and we had done it. The runaway train had finally reached its destination safe and sound. We were back at the station we wanted to be at: The Football League Championship.
Good times were back at The Den. All of our team had played a part and were united. A new Millwall with some order, structure, team discipline and a better, more attractive way of football was to follow. The good times were back. The runaway train was now Casey Junior rolling down the track and the Millwall fans were happily topping up their Oyster cards and
travel cards, ready to climb on board. Higher league, exciting football, better standard. Or so we thought….
Some of the reliable train crew had been tampered with and we saw the ever reliable Andy Frampton go out on loan as well as Gary Alexander never getting the chance to play for Millwall in the Championship as he joined Brentford. The season started well however, with notable wins against Bristol City, Hull and Coventry City. We were back in the Championship and here to stay. Major engineering works were required when we were totally out played and destroyed 6-1 at home by Watford, but after the occasional hiccup and being held at a red light for a while, Kenny Jackett had guided us to ninth place. A great achievement on our first season back. The football though, hadn’t been as flowing as we would have predicted, but some great results which included a league double over Crystal Palace.
The last few years of Jackett’s time at Millwall were not as successful as he or the fans would have liked. With the exception of a few months of having the goal machine Chris Wood up front, the level of football that the fans were expecting was just not there. It wasn’t that Jackett was out of his depth or that he did not know what he was doing, Kenny had stabilised the train and it was running steady, but at times it seemed like it was breaking down and unfortunately Darius Henderson, Hamer Bouazza, Josh McQoid and Dany N’Guessan were not the coal our steam engine needed to really spark life back into the crowd. It wasn’t just the Millwall side that had lost a bit of its spark, the Championship did not seem to have the skill or class it had when we were on the outside looking in. The Leeds, Norwich, Southampton and Leicester games seemed more special and magic with moments of class when we were in the division below with seemingly poorer players.
Kenny Jackett stayed until 2013 when after managing to keep us in the league by the skin of our teeth, finishing 20th. John Berylson stated when he left that “He has played a major role in creating a stable environment at Millwall which hadn’t been the case prior to his arrival” which all Millwall fans can agree with. Kenny did a fantastic job for Millwall and I’ll be the first to say that Kenny Jackett is the best manager I have seen at Millwall for at least the last 20 years.
Steve Lomas jumped on board for a short while and was following the Nigel Spackman book on how to drive trains as his tenure was absolutely catastrophic. Being an ex-West Ham man was never going to work at Millwall and once again, we were noticing a decline in the standard of football. Balls over the top, clueless runs down blind alleys and seemingly no direction was what Millwall fans had to look forward to and Steve soon terminated his train journey at the next job centre. Lomas brought in Neil Harris to try and be a steady influence in the carriages, but unfortunately for train driver Steve, it wasn’t to be. The second tier style of football we had craved for years was not there and again, it wasn’t just Millwall, we were being beaten by poor teams who were only really getting results because we were so much worse than them.
All aboard the Holloway Express to safety as Ian Holloway was appointed our new manager and made an instant impression. Millwall were doomed before Ollie arrived, but somehow he managed to turn it all around and after a lovely unbeaten run at the end of the season, we stayed up semi-comfortably. The standard of football was not great, but Ollie was a breath of fresh air after the horrors of Lomas and the last year or two of staleness from Kenny Jackett. Were we playing good football? No. Was the Championship a good standard? No. Were we winning and staying up? Yes – so we didn’t care.
Ollie was the man who was going to take us to the next level. A manager who had gained promotion with Blackpool and Crystal Palace, he would sort it out in his mad way and lead us to better things. Casey Junior was back on the track, but going faster and madder than under Jackett. This was, however, until Ollie accidentally short circuited every single switch and operating tool in the driver’s cabin. Getting smashed at home turned into a regular occurrence, making 18 year old Sid Nelson captain after a handful of games, playing four up front when we were only 1-0 or 2-0 down and signing the worn out train parts in Taylor-Fletcher and Michael Tonge showed the desperation. On his final shift, Ollie refused to turn up for work and spent his time in the dugout. Berylson blew his whistle and the final train left with Ollie on board. We were back down in the repair shop of League One, but Super Neil Harris knew exactly what needed to be done. A major overhaul of staff and within two years and two play-off finals we are now back in the Championship.
Neil Harris is now our driver and has done a wonderful job. Unlike Lomas and Holloway before who decided to attach worn out tyres to our vehicle. Harris has gone for a test drive and managed to buy some wonderful parts in Jake Cooper, Jed Wallace and the excellent George Saville. Millwall is playing with an air of confidence that we haven’t had for years, not since the first season back in the Championship under Kenny Jackett. There are two main differences between the 2010-2011 league campaigns that makes Harris’ Championship run already exceed Kenny’s.
Firstly, the squad seem more capable to compete at this level and not operate on nostalgia. Acquisitions have been excellent; the way we are moving the ball around is quick, dangerous, threatening. When the likes of Saville, Wallace, Williams, and Onyedinma are on the ball, Millwall fans are on the edge of their seats. We have depth in three wonderful centre halves and Tom Elliott who is chomping at the bit to start a game in place of either Morison or Gregory who do not look out of place at this level. Also, more importantly, Millwall are now in games for 90 minutes and so far this season have been by far the better team, although results do not suggest that.
Secondly, what also shows the level we are at now is that the standard of the Championship is now a lot better than it was when we were last here. A few years back, we weren’t as punished for our mistakes as heavily as we are now. Under Jackett, Lomas and Holloway, we were under constant bombardment and it was a case of the opposition would score eventually. This year, you can count on one hand the chances Forest and Bolton had which they scored one from and against Ipswich we really just made four real mistakes which they scored from.
Is it the extra money from parachute payments? The youth systems in the Championship or the fact the bigger teams can afford Premier League quality players? Who knows, but the Championship is a cracking league this year and we will hold our own in it. Neil Harris has taken a team that resembled the Dymchurch Rail Network and turned it into one of the most reliable services in the country. The Championship is a wonderful thing to watch, but also, so are Millwall Football Club.