MILLWALL missed out on an immediate return to the Championship after defeat to Barnsley in the Sky Bet League One play-off final at Wembley on Sunday afternoon.
The Tykes ended their two-year stay in the third tier, but it will be at least as long for the Lions before they can climb back to the Championship.
Barnsley took the lead in the third minute when Ashley Fletcher latched onto Sam Winnall’s flicked header to beat Jordan Archer with a low drive.
Fletcher was then clear through on goal in the 14th minute but with the angle tight Archer spread himself to make the save.
There was nothing the goalkeeper could do five minutes later when Adam Hammill cut in from the left wing before curling a spectacular shot into the top corner from 25 yards.
Millwall needed something and got a break in the 34th minute. After Shane Ferguson’s corner fell to Tony Craig, the captain’s mis-kick found Mark Beevers who held off Marc Roberts to spin and fire past Adam Davies.
There was another blow for Millwall just before half-time when Joe Martin went down off the ball and had to go off, with Aiden O’Brien coming on in his place.
Lee Gregory was almost through on goal in the 58th minute following Josh Scowen’s mistake, but Davies was quick to cut out the danger.
Hammill continued to look a threat every time he was on the ball, but when he shot low from inside the box in the 62nd minute Archer easily collected the ball.
Minutes later Millwall had a great chance to equalise, but after Steve Morison got wide of Davies to cross the ball, O'Brien shot straight at the goalkeeper after Jimmy Abdou had mis-cued his effort.
Barnsley went 3-1 up in the 74th minute when Lloyd Isgrove nipped in front of Archer to head in Conor Hourihane’s corner.
With five minutes left Taylor was through in the box but Davies sprung low to his right to make a superb save.
And Barnsley saw the game out relatively comfortably to claim their place in the Championship.
Webster withdrawal upsets defensive balance
There was a huge blow for Millwall before kick-off. Byron Webster was named in the starting XI, but then left the pitch with club physio Bobby Bacic during the warm-up.
That meant Craig started his first game since October and it was a worry that the right side of the defence was missing its two most consistent performers this year, Webster and Mahlon Romeo. Webster’s withdrawal also meant a place on the bench for 19-year-old striker Jamie Philpot.
It clearly affected Millwall’s defensive organisation and they were behind within three minutes, Fletcher moving unopposed into the box to score.
It again directly led to Fletcher’s chance to make it 2-0. Craig was late to step up to play offside and the striker was through. Archer did well to save his captain’s blushes.
When Barnsley went 2-0 up, the move originated down that side normally occupied by Romeo and Webster. Hammill picked up the ball deep but Carlos Edwards stood off him to allow the winger to advance towards the box. Ben Thompson was also covering but neither Millwall player got close enough to prevent Hammill shooting majestically past Archer.
Craig was certainly having an eventful afternoon. In the 34th minute Scowen’s header from Ferguson’s corner fell to Craig’s weaker right foot. He scuffed his shot but Beevers used that big frame to shield the ball and fire home his fifth goal of the season.
The defensive balance was disrupted further in the 43rd minute when Martin went off. That meant Millwall were without three-quarters of their first-choice back four.
That also probably played a part in the uncertainty when Archer came for Hourihane’s corner only to mis-judge it, allowing the smallest player on the pitch to score Barnsley’s third.
Despite outstanding performances from Beevers and Morison, ultimately Millwall had given themselves too much to do with the concession of those early goals.
Lions fall just short
A season that built to such a thrilling climax ends in heartbreak.
Barnsley, after their stunning form this year, are heading back to the Championship. Millwall will have to wait at least one more season.
After the disappointment leaves there will be reflections on how far the club have come this season, even if it couldn’t take that final step.
There won’t be wholesale changes to the squad next season, even if likely interest in players such as Gregory will force certain moves in the transfer market.
But it’s a young squad and the likes of Abdou, 31, and Morison, 32, still have plenty to offer.
Millwall will be favourites to achieve promotion next season and though it seems a long way away, they will approach it with optimism.