BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Gary Rowett reckons it will take 72 points to land the final Championship play-off spot – and concedes that Millwall cannot afford any slip ups in their final 10 matches to keep their dreams alive.
The Lions are five points behind sixth-placed Preston North End ahead of tonight’s trip to promotion-chasing Nottingham Forest.
And Rowett knows there can be zero blips by his side if they are to mount a late surge.
“It’s ironic because in the last two or three games we’ve felt as though they were all must-win and then we haven’t managed to win but still ended up getting closer to the play-offs,” said the Millwall manager.
“I’ve spoken to a few people about it over the years and statistically the bottom teams tend to win more than the play-off chasing teams because you’re just at that desperation stage of the season. You’re certainly seeing that this year.
“While I don’t set any targets for the players to hit I think it’s still going to be 52 points to stay up and roughly 72 points to get in the play-offs. But who knows? Some teams go on a late run. Before the last game we had the most points that Millwall had in the Championship at that stage of the season in the last seven seasons. I know Neil’s [Harris] team went on a fantastic run to nearly get in it [in 2018].
“Villa had less points [at this stage] and got in the play-offs [in the previous campaign]. It is so unpredictable, so difficult to tell.
“But I think it will be a slightly higher points total to stay up and a slightly lower one to get in the play-offs. – that just sums the Championship up.”
Millwall have won nine and drawn nine of their 23 league matches since Rowett replaced Harris as boss at the end of October. February was a lean month in terms of scoring, with just three goals netted.
“We’re pretty aware of that and we’ve tried different ways to change that,” said Rowett. “We’ve played
5-2-3 and 4-2-3-1, we have been more direct and also had two out-and-out wingers. We’re trying everything within the squad to find a solution.
“We’ve played 23 games and if you doubled the amount of points we had then we’d be pretty much in the play-offs – but we can’t afford a wobble because we were starting a little lower down the league than a lot of the other sides up there.
“West Brom went six games without winning and Leeds lost four out of five. We’re in a position where we can’t afford to have that lack of performance levels, because there is no room for error at this stage of the season.
“I think most people can see that we’re trying to win matches. I don’t think we have made a defensive sub since we’ve been here – we’re trying to put attackers on.
“Looking back at the weekend [a
1-1 draw with Bristol City] I probably took Matt [Smith] off too early. I was a little disappointed at the weekend that when I made the changes the game kind of fizzled out.”
There were fears that Millwall were going to be in another pressurised scrap to stay in England’s second tier when Rowett took charge in SE16.
“When I came into the building I spoke to the club about where I saw the team this season and the next two seasons,” said Rowett. “To a certain degree we have outperformed some of those targets.
“What I felt was that in the first season it was about trying to be a stable Championship club, not fighting relegation. But that was the minimum aim. What is nice is that we have shown a lot of ambition this year.
“Every now and then you have got to try and be realistic as well to what some of our challenges are and how can we improve long term as well? We can all see at the moment it is just that extra bit of creativity at times that we need.”
Rowett has spoken about the cost of game-changers, many of them carrying a price tag that can be out of Millwall’s reach.
“What I would say is that the players have done absolutely brilliant,” he said. “It’s hard because when you talk about things it sounds like a negative to the players you have got. But they have given everything they can to try and get us to where we want to be, so it’s certainly no slight on them.
“It’s just as you build a bigger squad you build in different parts. We brought Mason [Bennett] in because we felt he would offer a bit more out and out pace and power, when he is fully fit he will do that.
“Thommo [Ben Thompson] being out has left us a little short of a natural number 10 player.
“We’ve got big players coming back. Ryan Leonard has hardly featured for us and Willo [Shaun Williams] has not been available much of February and had been in such good form.
“It’s adding in one or two players to give the squad a different balance – that’s how you do it.
“We know we’re not going to spend massive amounts of money on players. We’ve got to find players we can develop, or work very hard to find players who might offer us that for less finances really.”
Millwall arguably find it easier on the road – with a Den date not seen as an easy assignment by any opposition.
“Teams are recognising that we’re a good side who don’t concede many goals,” said Rowett. “We’ve probably conceded the fewest goals since we’ve come in, but we’ve struggled to score them.
“So when a team decides to drop in and be very compact against us it is sometimes tough to break down.
“Birmingham had no shots on target, so for me they came for a draw. Bristol [City] played very well in the first 20-25 minutes but Lee Johnson said he was really happy with a point. If we created nothing I would be really concerned but we’re still creating quite a lot.
“We are struggling to score goals from nothing whereas in the first 10 games Jed [Wallace] was producing something from nothing to win us matches. We can’t expect just him to do that every week when we’re in tight encounters.”
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