BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Gary Rowett reckons he has got his strongest squad yet at Millwall – and that’s got to be a big positive after the South Londoners went so close to reaching the play-offs last season.
The Lions get their 2020-21 campaign off and running tomorrow when Stoke City head to The Den.
And Rowett is seeking more gains from his side, who only finished two points behind sixth-placed Swansea City in July.
Millwall have not lost any of their main men – the likes of Jed Wallace, Shaun Hutchinson and Jake Cooper – and have boosted their striker options with the additions of Troy Parrott and Mason Bennett.
Ryan Woods, so impressive anchoring the midfield after he arrived from Stoke City in January, is signed up from the start this time around. Scott Malone marked his return to SE16 with the opening goal in Saturday’s 3-1 EFL Cup victory at Crawley Town.
“I’ve probably got the biggest and best squad since I’ve been here,” said Rowett, who succeeded Neil Harris in October. “We’ve not been here that long but there is a lot more depth – particularly in the forward areas.
“I like to normally run with 20 senior players and four U23s who can slot in and out of the squad. It means everybody is usually involved most weeks as you’re probably going to have a couple of injuries at any one time.
“Common sense tells you that this season we might need to run with a couple of extra bodies, just because of the way the season is going to be. What that will mean to someone like myself is I have got to juggle a few personnel to keep them motivated and happy.
“To switch our budget and make it a lot bigger would be very irresponsible for a club like ours.
“We had to make sensible additions. We felt we needed more goals and Troy is a really, really good signing. He has got that little bit extra finishing quality.
“Mason gives us a lot of flexibility in the front three areas, plus he is powerful and quick.
“I wanted to add a more attack-minded left wing-back and we did that in Scottie and we brought Woodsy back.
“We’ve got to be pretty pleased with what we’ve done so far. Performances were good last season, it doesn’t need a massive overhaul.
“I know every single transfer window that people want to see new player after new player but it is not always easy in that regard.”
Rowett, 46, is an experienced operator at this level. He has taken Derby County to the Championship play-offs – they lost to eventual winners Fulham in 2018 – and Birmingham were seventh in December 2016 when he was replaced by Gianfranco Zola.
There are no bullish statements by the former Charlton and Leicester defender – despite the fact their form after his arrival would have put Millwall in the top six over the course of a 46-game marathon.
“What the players proved last season is they can perform consistently to a level that is in the top-10 of the league,” said Rowett. “Our challenge this season, and by no means am I using the last one as a barometer on what will happen, is that we need to try and improve.
“That’s our target. We need to improve the way we play and the efficiency of the way we play. If we do that then we’re going to be in those top-10 positions.”
One thing that counted against Millwall when football resumed in June was the absence of supporters.
The Lions took one point from a possible nine in SE16 but did defeat Blackburn 1-0 and dispatched Huddersfield 4-1 on the final day.
The intimidation factor at The Den is a definite plus for Millwall, who had been expecting up to 8,000 fans to be allowed in from October – but that looks almost certain not to happen with the government reviewing their plans due to a spike in positive Covid-19 tests.
Rowett knows it won’t have the same intensity as a home fixture before the pandemic – with social distancing still employed – but said: “When you’ve not had an atmosphere for long I think everyone is desperate to get some people back in there. Whether that is 1,000 or 5,000, I don’t think it really matters. It will be so nice to walk out for the first game with fans back – being able at last to share the ups and downs of a game with them is going to be huge.
“We tried having noise coming from the speakers in the stand [against Derby in the first match back] and it was really loud and off-putting for me and my staff on the sidelines.
“The first few games were horrible to be a part of, I wasn’t enjoying it at all. What was really interesting is that after that it didn’t become normal with no fans, but you got used to it.”
Millwall tuned up for the Stoke opener with a comfortable victory in West Sussex against League Two opposition. The Lions host Cheltenham Town next midweek with the victor facing either Burnley or Sheffield United in the week commencing September 23.
That could mean six fixtures this month and the same total again in October – with eight in December.
“The players have only had three weeks off and they look fitter and stronger now than they did after the last break,” said Rowett.
“They had nine games in quick succession and almost built their fitness back up after a long lay off.
“But you’ve got some heavy fixture schedules this season – there are two or three of those when you might only have one in more normal circumstances. That’s going to be the challenge for a few teams without bigger squads,
“We need to be very resilient and we also need to avoid long-term injuries – that is key to any team’s ambition. You’ve got to rotate the right areas but also have a little bit of fortune to make sure you keep everyone healthy.
“If you speak to players, a lot of them would much rather play than train. We’ve got a pretty robust squad. I don’t see a massive problem but it will be difficult at times for them to go out there at top intensity.
“We’ve got to be clever and not over-demand with certain players.”
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