MILLWALL are through to the second round of the FA Cup, but it was far from straightforward against an AFC Fylde side that did their best to make it an awkward afternoon at The Den.
After a fairly insipid first half the game burst to life in an eight-minute period in the second.
Sky Bet League One player of the month for October Aiden O’Brien gave the Lions the lead in the 54th minute when he burst onto Steve Morison’s flick to finish right-footed low to Matt Urwin’s right-hand post.
Lee Gregory doubled the lead six minutes later when he slotted the ball into Urwin’s opposite corner after some neat play in midfield from Shaun Williams.
But Fylde were not done and left-back Alex Whittle pulled a goal back in the 62nd minute.
Millwall sealed their passage through late on when O’Brien raced into open space to feed Morison lurking on the left, and he drove his sixth of the season past Urwin.
Neil Harris didn’t dramatically alter his side for this encounter.
Keaton Wood, who has been in excellent form for the U21s this season where he has shown his leadership and goal-scoring threat from centre-back, was one of seven homegrown players in the Lions squad on Saturday.
David Forde was handed a first start since he was dropped after the 3-2 defeat to Barnsley on August 18. Both Harris and Jordan Archer, who was on the bench, have spoken of Forde’s positive influence in the dressing and the advice he imparts to his younger rival.
Forde got his first touch of the ball in the seventh minute when he took a cross at the second attempt. That was a bit of rust, understandably, and the blustery conditions and drizzle wouldn’t have done much to smooth that away.
In the second half the goalkeeper inexplicably came for a cross that could have resulted in a worse outcome for Millwall than the concession of a corner, but he did produce a fine save in injury time from Danny Rowe’s free-kick.
After a number of injury problems since he joined from Wycombe last January, winger Paris Cowan-Hall finally got his first start in a Millwall shirt. He had made 10 substitute appearances for the Lions, but was picked on the right of midfield with Fred Onyedinma on the left.
Cowan-Hall’s early efforts to take on left-back Whittle ended in failure, and he just never got into the game in the opening 45 minutes. His frustrating performance was summed up in added time when instead of crossing with the clock almost run down he delayed and dallied before referee Stephen Martin blew the half-time whistle.
It would’ve been a surprise to see him in the second half, and he made way for O’Brien at the break.
Fylde find confidence
You would expect a team 65 places above their opponents to impose their own style and authority on the game but that just didn’t transpire in the first half.
Millwall had six attempts on goal in 45 minutes but just one of them, a Joe Martin free-kick that almost surprised Urwin at his neat post, was on target.
At the other end Fylde came closest to going ahead when Rowe beat Shaun Cummings way too easily to slink into the box to fire a low, left-footed shot wide with Forde static.
Josh Wilson also clipped a free-kick wide at the near post with Forde not moving from the side protected by the wall.
After O’Brien had opened the scoring it should have cleared the way for a comfortable route to round two and when Gregory finished off Williams’ through ball it certainly looked like it would.
But Fylde rallied and Whittle was allowed two bites to halve the deficit when he whisked the ball to the far post after Byron Webster had blocked his first attempt.
O’Brien’s importance to his side was illustrated further when he scampered up the pitch to play in Morison, and if Millwall can possibly add another striker on loan it would only increase their potency as well as providing insurance in the case of another injury.
Millwall go to Plymouth on Tuesday night for their area quarter-final clash in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
The form guide makes satisfying reading for the Lions: After such a disastrous start they have now lost just two games in their last 14 and are unbeaten in seven.
They will also be buoyed by the goal-scoring returns of their three primary strikers.
Fylde fans placed a banner at the back of the away stand that read ‘2022: STOP US IF YOU CAN’. If they didn’t quite have the quality or experience to stop the Lions from progressing, they certainly showed the ambition that has driven their rise up the divisions.
And on this evidence they might not have to wait another seven years to hit their target of reaching the Football League.