Consider this as a starting XI for a Rovers side playing away from home; Neil Sullivan; Mustapha Dumbuya, Shelton Martis, Wayne Thomas, Matt Kilgallon, Joseph Mills; Mark Wilson, Simon Gillett, Martin Woods; James Coppinger, James Hayter; and the option to swap anyone of Martis, Thomas or Kilgallon with Adam Lockwood. It’s a solid Championship 5-4-1 formation, in which you could have confidence of achieving a result. Sadly that was not Rovers starting line-up at The Den, just their injury list. With a dozen first team players unavailable today’s result is very much a defeat filed in the box marked unfortunate.
The Den on Dockers Day; much more alliterative than it is welcoming, and not the sort of place to which you wish to rock up with a threadbare side. Throw in a swirling wind whipping around South Bermondsey and regardless of the two sides’ footballing pretensions this was always going to be a scrappy battle of a game, and that was exactly how it panned out. As recently as three weeks ago a battle is the last thing you would wish to see a Rovers side entering, but the forced changes have brought some steel to Doncaster’s line-up. Paul Keegan is a gritty midfield work, and Brian Stock is becoming equally unlikely to shirk a challenge, whilst up front Steve Brooker adds a physical presence to Billy Sharp’s general pain-in-the-arse-edness.
The opening exchanges were notably scrappy with challenges as loose as the ball control on display. Liam Trotter went into the referee’s book for a clumsy lunge at Brian Stock whilst Sam Hird’s robust marking of Theo Robinson helped him to get personally acquainted with much of the home crowd. Prior to the game Millwall had renamed one side of The Den as The Dockers Stand, the number of expletives flying from it in Hird’s direction suggested it had been named on the basis of the language used within.
Gradually Doncaster managed to get the ball down and find some space to play in, with George Friend in particular proving a useful outlet on the Rovers left. Indeed it was Friend who had the best chance of the opening quarter as he found himself on the end of Stock’s lovely chipped pass, but the left-back’s half-volley dropped just beyond the far post. Otherwise the match was characterised by blocked shots and over hit crosses. Only once in the opening half an hour did Gary Woods get his hands on the ball and that was from an ultimately tame header from Alan Dunne.
Millwall were gaining in confidence and just before the half hour mark James Henry curled a free-kick round the Rovers wall, but also beyond Woods’ left-hand post. Trotter was next to threaten for the home side as he got his head on to Dunne’s cross, but could only flick the ball over the bar. Though The Lions were enjoying more possession at this point Rovers were still impressively holding them out and also creating chances of their own on the break; Ryan Mason getting in space to deliver a cross from the right which Brooker could only head wide.
Five minutes before half-time Millwall had the ball in the net as Trotter headed home an inswinging free-kick from the left, but despite the home supporters’ celebrations the flag had long gone up for offside and the goal wouldn’t stand. There can be few more satisfying sights in football than seeing a gloating posturing Stone Island clad hooligan forced to make a rapid and embarrassing climb-down. Late in the half Rovers launched an impressive counter-attack as Mason, Friend and John Oster combined to give the former a chance to try his luck from distance, but Mason’s shot sailed over and the half ended goalless.
The second forty-five minutes would pan out in much the same vein as the first, bouncing, bobbling and ricocheting to a conclusion with all the fluidity of a breezeblock. The first genuine chance of the half came the way of Theo Robinson; the Millwall striker who’d had a torrid first half up against Sam Hird finding space in the right channel to hit a firm shot at goal, but Woods going down at his near-post did well to save and hold the strike.
Within a couple of minutes Robinson was in on goal again, released down the centre by a through-ball, and though he slotted past Woods confidently, the flag was already up meaning that for the second time in the afternoon a lot of jubilant Londoners had to pretend they were just having a stretch. A big celebratory group stretch.
Not long after the hour mark Rovers came close to taking the lead in spectacular fashion. Oster’s cross from the right looked to be travelling just behind those in the box only for Sam Hird to meet it with a perfectly executed overhead kick and force David Forde into a fantastic full length save to deny Hird’s future grandchildren the pain of the same bicycle-kick anecdote every Christmas of their adolescent lives.
Hird’s near career defining moment came in the midst of a decent spell for Rovers in which they forced two further decent chances. Firstly Mason, cutting in from the left pulled a shot just wide, and then Oster’s chipped cross from the bye-line needed a great defensive header from Darren Purse to take it away from Sharp’s head before Brooker fired the loose ball over the bar.
From then on, it was all Millwall. Rovers brought on Dennis Souza to counter the home side’s aerial threat and Rovers back-line continued to hold firm as the match came to a lively conclusion. Keegan had already gone in the book for a physical challenge on halfway when Oster followed him minutes before the end, the Rovers midfielder taking umbrage to the award of a soft free-kick against him on the edge of the box and duly lashing the ball into The Dockers Stand. Given the sort of characters lurking in some of those seats, a booking is probably the best he could have hoped for.
Despite packing the box Millwall failed to make the resulting free-kick count as Friend managed to clear with an excellent header, and it seemed as though Rovers had done enough to battle their way to a deserved point. Unfortunately though it was not to be and in the final minute of the game Henry whipped in a cross from the right which just glanced off the head of James O’Connor and found the far corner of the Rovers net. The Den duly erupted and despite a late free-kick and corner Doncaster were unable to force an equaliser.
Man of the Match: On the whole, the defence today was excellent, all of the back four delivering a collective performance of solidarity which deserved a clean-sheet. That said man of the match for us is Ryan Mason. It’s always good to see on-loan players throwing themselves wholeheartedly into a game like this and Mason was excellent on the ball and clearly had Millwall worried whenever he carried it forward. His ability to maintain possession also helped give the defence much-needed recovery time.
Millwall line-up (4-4-2); David Forde; Alan Dunne, Darren Purse, Tamika Mkanawire (Paul Robinson), Scott Barron; James Henry, Craig Eastmond (Neil Harris), Jimmy Abdou, Danny Schofield; Liam Trotter, Theo Robinson (Kevin Lisbie)
subs not used: Steve Mildenhall, Marc Laird, Jack Smith
booked: Liam Trotter (reckless early lunge at Brian Stock), Scott Barron (dissent at his own team’s free-kick)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-2-2-2); Gary Woods; James Chambers, James O’Connor, Sam Hird, George Friend; Brian Stock (Dennis Souza), Paul Keegan; John Oster, Ryan Mason; Steve Brooker (Dean Shiels), Billy Sharp
subs not used: Jordan Bradshaw, Byron Webster, Waide Fairhurst, Ryan Burge
booked: Paul Keegan (physical block tackle on halfway), John Oster (dissent, which involved almost decapitating a supporter in The Dockers Stand whilst leathering the ball away in disgust)