It was a moment to test the optimism of even the most hopeful Millwall fans.
At the end of a half dominated by the Lions, Dominic Solanke’s opening goal in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at Bournemouth had the slap-you-round-the-face potential to send Gary Rowett’s side en route to the type of defeat the division’s top scorers have inflicted on a number of teams this season.
It wasn’t just the timing of the goal which would’ve taken the wind out of Millwall’s sails, but the context: the visitors could – in fact should – have scored at least three times against a side beaten only three times this season.
A look down the Bournemouth teamsheet would have been enough to put a pre-match knot in the stomach.
It was a starting 11 packed with top-flight experience from hundreds of appearances accrued during the Cherries’ five years in the Premier League, with an added dusting of international caps – more than a hundred of them, in fact.
They are a side virtually undisrupted by their relegation last summer, with suitors lurking for the likes of David Brooks and Josh King – a substitute – should Bournemouth fail to be promoted in May.
And yet, beyond a breathless opening 20 minutes in which the Lions held their own despite their opponents’ dominance of possession, it was not the illustrious Cherries who had the better of this game.
The first of Millwall’s trio of golden opportunities arrived when Ryan Woods turned smartly inside his own half before perfectly finding the run of Jed Wallace who, after hurdling Jack Simpson’s challenge, was denied by the legs of Asmir Begovic – owner of a large chunk of those caps – in the hosts’ goal.
The next chance was not far behind. Back-to-back Scott Malone corners led to panic in Bournemouth’s area, with the first setting up the unmarked Ryan Leonard for a chest-and-volley that was desperately blocked and the second finding the head of Shaun Hutchinson only for his looped effort to be cleared off the goal-line by Lerma.
Opportunity three came just a couple of minutes before Solanke’s opener, with Malone prodding into the side-netting after Wallace’s free-kick had been parried by Begovic. The goal was a sickener – the result of confusion between Hutchinson and Alex Pearce, and fired past Bartosz Bialkowski at his near post.
Capitulation at this point would have perhaps been understandable, but – as their manager affirmed post match – this is not a Millwall team short on character.
The second-half performance, built on self-discipline and patience, was as good as the first. The visitors did not abandon their defensive principles, instead striking at the right time – within seconds of Rowett introducing a trio of attacking substitutes.
One of them, Matt Smith, had the crucial touch – his first since entering the field – when he got a boot to Jake Cooper’s flick-on from Hutchinson’s punted free-kick, levelling 11 minutes from time to secure a deserved point.
It was the big centre-forward’s fourth goal of the season as he once again underlined the impact he can make coming off the bench.
It was a half that could have gone in a very different direction without the bedrocks of Millwall’s eighth-placed finish in 2019-20 – a staunch defence and a knack of scoring at opportune moments, often with Smith at the heart of the action.
After the game, alluding to some recent self-reflection, Rowett admitted that in trying to build on a promising if unspectacular start to the current campaign, he had perhaps allowed his team to lose sight of what they’re good at.
It is easy to see why the Millwall boss had been tempted into another play-off push. No team outside of the top six has lost fewer games than the Lions but, conversely, only the division’s bottom three have won fewer. The key, Rowett jested, to converting his side’s league-leading 11 draws into victories is to “beg the chairman for £20million in January”.
It was a dose of realism from a man clearly wrestling with his own ambitions, based on a knowledge that – when things click – Millwall have enough defensive resolve, coupled with splashes of pace and quality, to compete in the upper half of the division.
His side’s autumn slide seemingly arrested, Rowett will know that, besides a surprise cash injection, converting the types of chances that preceded Solanke’s goal will be crucial to the Lions’ hopes of a strong second half of the season.
Should they manage that in the coming matches then even the most pessimistic of Millwall fans would find cause to look up the league table, rather than down it.
Danny McNamara. Making his Championship debut against an outfit with the potential to terrorise defences, the right-back looked like he had hundreds of league appearances under his belt. Mahlon Romeo has a battle on his hands.
Rowett’s triple change. Millwall might have been fearing that their chances of an equaliser were slipping away until he threw Smith on with Mason Bennett and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson alongside him. It was the injection of urgency that the Lions needed – although even Rowett was shocked that it paid off so quickly, as Smith scored with his first touch.
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