BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Millwall faced a physical battle in their first two Championship matches – but Ryan Woods is expecting a different challenge against his old club Brentford tomorrow.
The Lions are unbeaten in the league and withstood an aerial bombardment in last weekend’s 1-0 victory at Rotherham United.
But Brentford, who lost in the play-off final last season, will be a completely different test with their slick interplay.
Woods, on loan for the season from Stoke City, reckons that Millwall can now mix up their approach as they transition away from the direct football employed by former manager Neil Harris.
“We can be really pleased with how we’ve started the season,” said the 26-year-old. “We’ve got three wins and one draw from our first four matches. I’m sure there’s a lot more to come performance wise from us as well.
“Rotherham are pretty similar to Stoke [who the Lions drew 0-0 with on the opening day] – a big, physical team. This season we’re trying to play a lot better football than perhaps Millwall have been known for over the years.
“But we’ve also got a side that can be aggressive when we’re up against big teams.
“I’d be silly to disagree we’ll face something different against Brentford. They’ve lost Ollie Watkins and will probably lose Said Benrahma, but they are still a very good footballing team and they don’t sign players unless they fit into the culture.
“If we can use our new football style along with the big physical presence we’ve still got then we stand a very good chance.
“I always look out for Brentford’s results. It is a club that I hold dear to me. I had three great years there. I moved on to go to probably a bigger club in terms of stature in Stoke – hoping to play in the Premier League. It didn’t work out that way.
“I think you have to put Brentford up there [as one of the favourites for promotion] after the success they had last season. They have lost two of their best players, but how many times have you seen that over the years? They’ve always gone out and found more golden nuggets.”
Woods was one of those players who excelled and developed with the Bees and was sold at a big profit.
He arrived from Shrewsbury in September 2015 and won the Players’ Player of the Year award for the 2016-17 season. Then he took the supporters’ accolade in the 2017-18 campaign.
“I joined after Mark Warburton left,” said Woods. “I don’t know what happened between him and Matthew [Benham, owner] but there was a parting of the ways.
“I was signed when Marinus Dijkhuizen was there [as head coach] but he only lasted six weeks. Lee Carsley took over and that’s when I started playing a lot of games. Once Dean Smith came in I never really looked back.
“I started playing my best football. Dean had a lot of belief in me and tried to get me on the ball as much as possible.
“Brentford wanted to bring in young players they felt they could improve and sell on for a much higher fee. Their culture and style was very important for me. The Shrewsbury team I was in played the best football in League Two and perhaps even in League One. I wanted a club that had the same philosophy of how I like to play.”
It was Gary Rowett – now in charge at Millwall – who moved for Woods in August 2018 to take him to Stoke.
And he’d only been in the Lions hotseat for three months when he took the player again – this time on loan – in the January transfer window.
“I probably had my best two seasons [of his career while at Brentford],” said Woods. “I seemed to be getting seven or eight out of 10 performances week in and week out.
“I found a lot of consistency. I got that big move to Stoke but it tailed off quite quickly. It was a tough 18 months for me.
“Since I came to Millwall I’ve started to find my feet again and play the football I feel like I can. Hopefully I can get better and better, then who knows what will happen?”
Woods’ future – until the summer of 2021 – lies in SE16.
But beyond that, there are questions. Stoke manager Michael O’Neill recently talked about having too many senior pros on their books and wanting to scale down a bloated playing squad. Woods’ contract there runs until 2022.
“I’m looking to build and build each game to try and get back to my best,” he said. “If I do that it is only going to help Millwall and Millwall will help me.
“I’m only looking at this season and anything else will take care of itself.
“This is the place for me to be, because the previous 18 months had affected me confidence wise and what not.”
Rowett believes in Woods. But the feeling is mutual.
“The gaffer’s record speaks for itself. The amount of clean sheets we’ve had and Bart [Bialkowski] was the Golden Glove winner as well.
“We know it’s about sticking the ball in the opponent’s net more often than we did last season. But he’s brought in players who can add that.
“If we keep as many clean sheets as we did last season and add goals on top we can be in a good place come the end of the season.”
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