STEVE Morison’s second-half goal was enough to give Millwall all three points after a fierce battle with relegation-threatened Fleetwood Town at The Den on Tuesday night.
After a close first half with few chances, Morison scored the winner in the 52nd minute to boost the Lions’ play-off hopes.
Lee Gregory had Millwall’s first half-chance when he turned in the box but shot over Chris Maxwell’s crossbar.
The home side struggled to really create anything of note before the break. Aiden O’Brien headed Mahlon Romeo’s cross wide after the defender had linked up well with Chris Taylor on the right.
But the best chance of the first half fell to Fleetwood. Lone striker Wes Burns was only denied the opening goal by the width of the crossbar after Antoni Sarcevic had broken into the box and the ball dropped to the attacker, who was leaning back as he made contact.
In added time, Fleetwood felt they should have had a penalty when after a swift break Jimmy Ryan went down under Mark Beevers’ challenge, but referee Ross Joyce gave a corner.
Neil Harris brought on Jamie Philpot for Gregory – who was struggling with injury – at the break. And just seven minutes later Philpot flicked a header towards Morison and the captain lifted a delicate left-footed effort over Maxwell from inside the box.
Moments later Jordan Archer had to spring to his right to save after Bobby Grant had found space to shoot.
Fleetwood continued to press as Harris introduced Ed Upson for O’Brien to give the midfield more defensive security.
There was a moment of panic in injury time when Archer dropped a cross in the box and Sarcevic attempted to capitalise, but the keeper pounced on the loose ball.
And right at the death the keeper produced a double save to deny Burns just as it looked like the striker was about to break Millwall hearts.
Youth provide the drive
Millwall will certainly hope every cloud has a silver lining for the rest of the season. Here, that was provided by Philpot and there now must be concern at the nature of the injury Gregory is carrying.
Philpot is highly rated by Millwall’s staff, and his header for Morison’s goal was clever and a moment of quality in a game that had been lacking in it up to that point. Morison’s finish was also perfectly judged.
This was a performance, after a poor first half, in which it was the youngsters who provided the impetus. Romeo was outstanding at right-back and again the mind drifts back to last year when he was without a club. But the defender’s focus has rarely drifted in a Lions shirt. His positioning was crucial with Fleetwood’s front three of Burns, Grant and Stefan Scougall always dangerous. And he showed composure when it was lacking in a defence that provided some stumble-on-a-tightrope moments to almost let Fleetwood through on goal.
Fleetwood will feel they should have got something after a ferociously fought second half. The tension at the end was unbearable for the home fans, and Millwall had Archer and a desperate rear-guard action to thank as they held on to claim three more crucial points.
Millwall’s attacking functions just didn’t quite operate properly in a first half generally low on quality. Passes went astray or were misread, and players just didn’t seem totally in tune with what was going on around them. And the home crowd let them know they weren’t happy with the disharmony on the pitch.
A couple of times Jimmy Abdou and Ben Thompson were caught in possession, O’Brien and Morison weren’t on each other’s radar and when Thompson won the ball late in the first half Morison was coming back from an offside position.
It all added up to frustration and an increasingly edge atmosphere.
Fleetwood, as at Highbury Stadium in November, didn’t look like a side struggling at the wrong end of the table. They were compact and then fluent when they had the chance to break, and if Millwall were unlucky Shaun Williams’ first rush of blood to the head happened in the promotion run-in, they were fortunate that Joyce decided Beevers hadn’t made enough contact when Ryan fell in the box and was convinced he’d earned his side a penalty. The rashness of the tackle perhaps summed up the edginess in the Millwall side in the opening 45 minutes. They really struggled to compose themselves.
The spark was eventually provided by the less experienced players, but it must also be a worry that Morison left the field in the second half to be replaced with Fred Onyedinma. The first-choice front two are certainly showing signs of wear and tear.
Bury secured their League One status last weekend with a 1-0 win at Swindon. Having relatively little to play for makes them a dangerous and unpredictable opponent.
Millwall’s away form has also dipped in the last two months, though there are mitigating circumstances for that, not least Williams’ sending-off at Coventry that roused a subdued home side.
Still, the fixture-generator could have turned out a more unfavourable run-in. Given the distance travelled – both physical and mental – Millwall will be glad their fate still rests in their own hands.
And if this is a taste for things to come there will be some frayed nerves between now and the end of the season, which looks like it will stretch beyond Gillingham on May 8.