BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Bart Bialkowski has got his career back on track at Millwall and puts it down to one main thing – enjoying his job again.
The goalkeeper, 33, arrived in South London 14 months ago after a morale-bashing Championship relegation with Ipswich Town in a campaign where he failed to keep a single clean sheet.
But Bialkowski, 33, recorded 16 shutouts in the 2019-20 season as he won the Lions’ Player of the Year and also picked up the divisional Golden Glove accolade as well.
It begs the question, what changed for the veteran stopper?
“I just enjoyed training from the first day with LT [Lee Turner] our goalkeeping coach,” said Bialkowski, who has won one senior cap for Poland.
“That is the main part for me – I need to work hard and enjoy it every day. If I do that then I’m going to enjoy the games.
“If I make hundreds of saves during the week then I’m confident I’m going to make those kind of saves in a match.
“I needed a change when I left Ipswich. I knew this was the right place for me and that I’d enjoy my football again.”
Bialkowski gives plenty of the credit for his impressive stats to the personnel in front of him.
He averaged 3.1 saves per league fixture – a figure only bettered by Charlton’s Dillon Phillips and Reading’s Rafael Cabral (both 3.4).
“The first thing the gaffer [Gary Rowett] said to me when he came in [to replace Neil Harris in October] was: ‘I’m going to try and make your life easier’. He certainly did that. I had less saves to make and kept more clean sheets.
“It’s shown you that the job we did on the training ground worked on a match day.
“For me that is a team award. I wouldn’t do that without my team-mates – because there were so many games where they helped me out as well. Or I didn’t have a save to make and came away with a clean sheet.
“Being happy and confident mentally is absolutely massive. When I was at Ipswich we just couldn’t win a game or score a goal.
“We knew as a defence that as soon as we conceded a goal that we’re not going to score one, two or three goals to win it.
“When you know you don’t have that quality in the team it was hard to do something.
“Going into the match you’re thinking ‘please let’s try to win or keep a clean sheet’ but you just knew there was a lack of quality.
“I played nearly 30 games that season and I didn’t keep a clean sheet. I kept 16 last season.
“We’ve got such good defenders and we defend as a team. We’ve got such honest lads who are willing to work hard during training and games.
“They never give up – and that can take you all the way.”
Bialkowski was unable to pick up his Millwall award in front of the supporters who voted for him because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Lions might be able to let a vastly reduced number of fans into matches from October.
Millwall played crowd noise through the public address system for their first fixture back after lockdown – a 3-2 loss to Derby County.
Bialkowski said: “It wasn’t good – let’s put it that way. I found it difficult to concentrate because it was just a constant noise. It was irritating at some points and I just couldn’t focus.
“I didn’t like it and most of the boys didn’t – you can tell that because we didn’t have it the next game. We said we didn’t want that for the next game, and it was better. I’d much rather play without any noise than the noise coming out from the speaker.
“But the real fans are so important – we need them. Especially at our place. They are our 12th player, whether we’re attacking or defending.
“It’s an unbelievable atmosphere when they are there and I can’t wait for them to be back. I’ve got a good relationship with the fans. I always have time for them and will go and sign for them, because I know how crucial they are.
“We truly miss them.”
Millwall do not disclose the length of contracts but one usually reliable site states Bialkowski’s deal could run out in July 2021 – although there appears to be an option of another 12 months.
The Lions’ number one is emphatic his future lies in SE16.
“I’m 33, I’m really settled here,” said Bialkowski. “I love playing for Millwall. I’m not looking to go anywhere else. We’ve got the best changing room I’ve been involved in. This one is definitely top of the list. The bond we have is tremendous and the banter is flowing every day.”
Bialkowski, who won Player of the Year at Ipswich three times, is striving to be better.
Millwall narrowly missed out on the play-offs last time around but don’t find themselves being touted for a top-six finish in the coming campaign, despite keeping all of their key men.
“I don’t really care what people are saying,” said Bialkowski. “As long as you set yourself a target, follow that path – there will be ups and downs along the way – and keep trying to improve then you’ll be okay.
“We set ourselves goals for this year, it’s only up to us to improve on next season.”
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