LEE Gregory hit a double and Mahlon Romeo scored on his debut as Millwall comprehensively defeated high-flying Walsall 3-0 at the Bescot Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The result means Millwall stay in the top six with 47 points from 29 games, nine points behind the Saddlers in second place in the Sky Bet League One table.
In difficult conditions, Gregory had a good chance to put Millwall ahead in the 37th minute but Liam Roberts was quickly off his line to block and then save Ed Upson’s follow-up.
Anthony Forde then saw his shot hit the woodwork just before the break after Romeo had a shot blocked by Roberts at the near post.
Gregory put Millwall ahead with a close-range finish in the 61st minute before defender Romeo doubled the advantage nine minutes later.
It was 3-0 to the Lions in the 77th minute when Gregory scored his 18th goal of an increasingly prolific season with a confident finish past Roberts.
Monkey off the back
Millwall hadn’t beaten any of the sides above them in the table before Saturday’s trip to Walsall. And if ever there was a game where the phrase ‘the side that wants it more’ could apply, then this was it. It really was a horrible afternoon in incessant rain and swirling wind.
Even before Gregory put Millwall ahead with his 17th goal of the season the side was performing with immense credit. And as the pitch became more cut up Millwall’s belief seemed to grow.
Gregory has an instinctive ability to find space in the opposition box and the way he slid in to finish Jed Wallace’s cross was probably as satisfying as any of his strikes this season. His second of the game was a composed finish one-on-one with Roberts from Shaun Williams’ pass.
In between those goals, in the 70th minute, there was a superb burst of pace and touch from Romeo before he planted a low shot to the far post past Roberts.
If Millwall aren’t to go up this season, and this is what a transition period looks like, then there is plenty that would give confidence. The performances of Romeo and a heroic effort from Sid Nelson only enhance that feeling.
Walsall shade first-half possession; Millwall have the better chances
At one point in the first half Neil Harris could be seen shouting to his captain Steve Morison to drop deeper as Jordan Archer prepared to take a kick-out. Facing the strong wind, the goalkeeper was just about reaching the halfway line and that was putting immediate pressure on the away defence.
Sean O’Driscoll’s side carried a significant threat in the wide positions. Left-back Andy Taylor tested the strength of Archer’s wrists when he drove a shot in from 35 yards. Archer then had to quickly readjust his feet to tip over the crossbar as Forde’s free-kick caught and dipped in the breeze.
Yet, with Walsall having more of the ball, Millwall should have been ahead at the break. Gregory had to stretch to get possession as he suddenly found himself one-on-one with Roberts in the box but the keeper slid in to divert the ball to Upson. The midfielder took a touch and shot left-footed but Roberts was behind that, too. Moments before that Archer’s clearance was half-charged down by Tom Bradshaw and spun away to safety. It was a game of uncertainties on an unforgiving surface.
Romeo, in for the injured Shaun Cummings, could have enjoyed a dream competitive debut even earlier but Roberts saved with his legs at the near post before Forde’s shot from outside the box hit the top of the crossbar and bounced away.
Defensive reshuffle – and youngsters’ composure
Millwall included six players who have come through the academy in their matchday squad. One of them, centre-back Nelson, was making his first start since the 1-0 defeat to Walsall on Boxing Day when it was his misjudgement of a long ball over the top that let in Milan Lalkovic to score the decisive goal. He more than made up for it with a wildly committed performance.
It’s probably fair to assume that Harris wouldn’t have chosen to give Romeo his senior first-team competitive debut away at the side second in League One before kick-off. Romeo was on international duty with Antigua & Barbuda in the summer when his teammates started pre-season training, but Walsall in February with the rain teeming down on the Bescot is a different challenge to Saint Lucia in the Caribbean in June.
Romeo joined Millwall in May from Gillingham where he appeared once for them, as a 17-year-old in a 3-2 defeat to Burton in League Two in April 2013. One of his team-mates then was current Millwall coach Andy Frampton.
Even without his goal the former defender and current coach would have been impressed by an assured and mature performance.
If the 20-year-old wanted to convey to Millwall fans in the away end what kind of player he is he delivered a good early indication when he upended Rico Henry with a robust challenge. It was risky, particularly with so long remaining in the game, and it drew a booking from referee Trevor Kettle.
Later in the half he showed the more subtle side of his game, delicately controlling an awkward bouncing ball before later intercepting with the dangerous Henry lurking outside him and chipping a neat pass onto Gregory’s chest.
Nelson was, as Millwall fans have come to expect, delivering a more blood-and-gut performance – literally so on 15 minutes, as he had to jog to the touchline for club physio Bobby Bacic to treat a bloody nose.
Romeo showed his instinct in recognising danger and intercepting a through ball midway through the second half when substitute Jordan Cook looked to scurry through.
And then Nelson showed the kind of determination and bravery that is sure to elevate him to hero status if he avoids injury and maintains his career focus. When it looked as though Romaine Sawyers was about to level for Walsall, Nelson flung himself at the shot and then blocked another before getting to his feet to shout encouragement at his team-mates.
It was that kind of day – and one on which Millwall laid down a marker for the rest of the season.