A year ago today (April 28), Millwall Football Club suffered relegation to League One. The final nail in the coffin was Rotherham United’s 2-1 win over Reading, but the damage had been done long before that ultimately fateful night.
However, just one year later, the Lions sit on the verge of claiming a place in the play-offs and a shot at an instant return to the second tier.
The change in fortunes are down to reasons that I have explained in past blogs, but instead of looking back, let’s look forward to the immediate future.
Assuming that the club wins the solitary point needed from their final two league games, play-off football will make its way to The Den for the fifth time since its opening over two decades ago.
Of course, the final position in the league table will sort out who plays who, where and when, but who can the Lions come up against in the end of season lottery? Which teams would provide a perhaps more favourable draw and which teams would present the toughest of tough tests?
With Wigan Athletic having all but sewn up the title, Millwall may run into their old rivals in the Championship next season, but it is highly unlikely they will meet in the play-offs.
Below them, Burton Albion – who are having an incredible season, given their small stature – are clinging on to second place and look the most likely to join the Latics in automatic promotion on May 8. However, should they drop out of the top two and into the play-offs, there should be no fear for the Lions if they are paired with the Brewers.
Despite their lofty position, Nigel Clough’s men have stuttered in recent times and are perhaps suffering from end of season nerves more than most. On Easter Monday night, Millwall looked comfortable in their Sky clash and eased to a 2-0 win – over two legs, you’d like to think that Neil Harris’ men would have enough in them to get the job done.
Sandwiched between Burton and Millwall are Walsall. In spite of two managerial changes over the course of the season, the Saddlers have maintained their position in the top six and are now set for the play-offs at the very least. They will have their sights set on toppling Burton and moving into second place, but should a trip to the Bescot be in the Lions’ near future, their 3-0 win in early February will stand them in good stead.
Of course, Walsall themselves will point back to their 1-0 win at The Den on Boxing Day, in which they commanded 71% of the possession in the first half, but to say the Lions failed to turn up that day is an understatement. A two-legged affair against the Saddlers would present a challenge, but one that Millwall are capable of overcoming.
One place below the Lions are perhaps the hardest of challengers, Bradford City. In the two league games this campaign, Harris’ side failed to breach the Bantams defence and only took one point from a possible six from a team that has conceded just 40 goals in 44 games so far.
Phil Parkinson sets his teams up to be strong, rigid and unbreakable – most of the time, he succeeds. The match at Valley Parade was somewhat ruined by the disastrous conditions, but the initial tie in south London at the end of October was a war of attrition; Tony Craig’s block from James Hanson’s shot – which ruled the captain out for months – is testament to that.
Personally, I would be worried if the Lions met the Bantams in the play-offs. They are the only side that has truly had our number on both occasions and with Bradford’s big game experience in recent years, you have to wonder whether Millwall could overcome all those circumstances to claim a place in the final.
Whilst the five sides already named are assured to be within a shot of promotion in May, the battle for sixth place is hotting up by the game.
In Barnsley and Scunthorpe United, you have two clubs that are in good form and have the momentum with them. Trapped in between those are Gillingham, whose season has gone from bad to worse in 2016 and they now face missing out altogether, despite being in the automatic promotion slots before Christmas.
Past years show that the team which breaks into the top six at the final moment are the most dangerous – Scunthorpe, a team that like Bradford, the Lions have failed to score against this season – could be that team.
Barnsley have done the double over Millwall this season whilst any contest with Gillingham will be a one-off derby match (well, in this case, with the clubs meeting on the final day, a three-off) – none of them will present an easy challenge.
All will be revealed in the next fortnight – but who do you want in the play-offs?