JORDAN Archer was sent off as Millwall lost 3-0 to rivals Gillingham at The Den and missed out on the chance to move closer to Sky Bet League One’s top six.
In a tempestuous contest, Dominic Samuel put Gillingham ahead before Archer received a red card for a foul on striker Cody McDonald.
Bradley Dack took the penalty and planted the ball straight down the middle past substitute goalkeeper David Forde.
Forde, playing in the league for the first time since August, was actually the less busy of the two goalkeepers in the second half as 10-man Millwall pressed the away side, but he was picking the ball out if the net again in added time as Samuel scored his second.
Before that, Lee Gregory had the crowd on their feet as he seemed certain to reduce the deficit only for Stuart Nelson to pull off a point-blank save.
Moments later Steve Morison headed over from a couple of yards out.
Millwall boss Neil Harris had brought on Shane Ferguson at half-time and he was also inches away from the target when he fired a 20-yard free kick just wide.
Harris might take heart from the second-half performance, but the Lions had given themselves too much to do after the disastrous opening 45 minutes.
Forde gets his chance in unideal circumstances
Forde said he was “opportunity-ready” when NewsAtDen spoke to him for the first time this season this week. But it’s doubtful he foresaw the circumstances in which that chance would come along.
The actual incident that led to Archer’s red card had been foreshadowed earlier when the keeper looked to have brought down Samuel after a defensive mix-up had allowed the striker a chance in the box. Instead, referee Darren Handley pulled a yellow card from his pocket and flashed it in the direction of Samuel for simulation.
If Samuel thought that was unfair he didn’t show even a hint of it. First, he glanced his header from Dack’s free kick past Archer to put the Gills a goal up and then he was running at the Lions backpedalling back four who weren’t aware of the lurking McDonald behind them. Archer came out quickly and upended the forward, with the red card – and with the way Dack was playing – the result of the spot-kick inevitable.
If the game was testy at the start when George Saville seemed like he needed a leash to restrain him, it all kicked off in first-half injury time. It started with Joe Martin, booed throughout by his former club’s supporters, and Saville trundling on Ryan Jackson to try to free the ball. Handley awarded a foul against Jackson but players from both sides converged on the incident area. There could have been a worse outcome for Martin, who was booked, while Jackson was harshly given a yellow card. Martin departed at the break with Ferguson coming on to replace him.
Forde said this week he hasn’t given up hope of being the Republic of Ireland’s first-choice goalkeeper for Euro 2016. He now has a little window with Archer suspended in which to impress.
Dack looks exactly like the kind of footballer Millwall need in their midfield. The way Justin Edinburgh set up his Gills side was designed to free Dack to get forward and pretty much control the game.
The midfielder plays with a maturity beyond his 21 years and seems to have everything in his game: bundles of energy and vision, and he can tackle and strike a fine dead ball. He has already played over 100 first-team games for Gillingham and if this is his regular level then it won’t be long before he finds himself playing at a higher level in the game.
Saville tried to upset him and after that melee went after him again in his own half, but Dack took the foul and calmly got on with it. It should also be noted that former Millwall player Josh Wright’s performance at the base of Gillingham’s midfield allowed Dack’s creativity to flourish.
Their system also required good support in wide areas from deep from their full-backs, and Jackson and Bradley Garmston proved impressive outlets for their side.
Up front, Samuel’s pace regularly troubled the Millwall defence.
At the same stage in the 2009-10 season, Kenny Jackett’s Lions had gathered 33 points, but from one more game played. Considering the extent to which Harris had to overhaul the squad during the summer, the current return of 31 points from 21 games isn’t actually all that bad.
However, to match that side’s run that started in January will take something special. Millwall picked up 43 points from the next 54 available, beginning with a 1-1 draw against Southampton on January 16 to almost claim an automatic promotion place.
Can this squad match that run? The feeling is there must be January acquisitions to provide the necessary boost going into the second half of the season when the fixture list, with no long Tuesday night coach trips, is kinder than it has been so far. And any transfer activity could be shaped by what happens with Saville and Ferguson’s loans.
There is also the question of their form against the sides in the leading positions in the league. This was their sixth game against a team above them before today’s 3pm fixtures kicked off and their fifth defeat.
That statistic needs to change if they are to mount a promotion push.