MILLWALL will have the advantage in the second leg of their League One play-off semi-final with Bradford at The Den next week after a 3-1 win at Valley Parade on Sunday afternoon.
The Lions went behind to an early Bantams goal but recovered to claim the win and are now strong favourites to reach Wembley at the end of May.
Tony McMahon put Bradford ahead from the spot in the 13th minute after Joe Martin had handled in the box.
Millwall equalised two minutes later when Lee Gregory swivelled in the area and fired home Steve Morison’s knockdown.
There was concern when Gregory then went down and needed treatment as the game inevitably took on a physical edge.
Filipe Morais went close to putting Bradford back in front in the 26th minute but dragged a left-footed shot wide.
Two minutes later Gregory teed up Morison but the captain lifted a left-footed effort over the crossbar.
But Morison was on target in the 34th minute when after winning a corner with determined work down the left he powered Shane Ferguson’s cross past Ben Williams.
Millwall made it 3-1 in the 45th minute when Martin made up for his earlier misjudgement by firing a free-kick past Williams after Gregory had battled to win the ball before being fouled.
Bradford should have pulled one back in the 51st minute but Morais missed an open goal after Jamie Proctor had won the ball from Carlos Edwards and crossed for his strike partner.
The Bantams were getting the ball into Millwall’s box much more directly and Jordan Archer had to tip Nathan Clarke’s header over the bar in the 78th minute.
A few minutes later Lee Evans curved a free-kick just wide.
In added time Evans found space on the edge of the box but fired his shot over.
Lions get a leg up
Most of the pre-game discussion agreed that this would be tight and tense, similar to the previous two fixtures this season.
Instead, Millwall took a significant step towards Wembley with a blistering first-half display.
Neil Harris and his side spoke during the week about treating this as just one more game. Harris would likely have emphasised the importance of making a composed start but they achieved the opposite of that to the manic delight of the home fans in Valley Parade’s Kop end.
Harris had also wanted his more experienced players to set the example but it was difficult to think of anyone who didn’t make a significant contribution. Ben Thompson was typically energetic and is growing in confidence. One moment in the first half illustrated that when he danced around a couple of tackles after some neat footwork to win a free-kick.
After giving away an early goal Millwall’s back four were secure against the battering ram of Proctor and later substitute Steven Davies. Byron Webster showed how much he has come on this season by dummying a clearance under pressure in his own box in the second half before providing significant relief. Webster and Mark Beevers were always aware of the danger and always covering for each other. Up front Gregory and Morison’s quality made the difference.
This was a contest in which Millwall showed their two sides: Counter-attacking and clinical in the first half; dogged and cute in the second, Gregory and Martin strolling off the pitch when they were substituted to heap more frustration on the home side.
Veteran replaces Romeo
As expected, Carlos Edwards had started in place of the suspended Mahlon Romeo.
And Millwall received a huge boost an hour before kick-off when it emerged James Hanson and Billy Clarke were not in the Bradford squad. It looked like that reserve firepower that turned the game in March was significantly reduced.
Meanwhile, Harris was able to pick his first-choice front pair with Gregory fit to start for the first time in almost a month.
And that was almost the perfect narrative for the first half, though early indications pointed to a different story.
Millwall looked relaxed in the warm-up so it was odd to see Martin so nervy in the opening exchanges. He had already given away possession and then a free-kick on the edge of the box before he handled after Proctor had headed McMahon’s free-kick back across goal. Few would have predicted then after McMahon had raised the noise levels in the stadium that Martin would be putting his side 3-1 up before the break.
One of the reasons Millwall were in that position was down to the brilliance of Gregory and Morison. After the captain struggled to get anything from Clarke and Rory McArdle in the opening stages his header down for Gregory was clever and Gregory’s spin and finish for his 26th of the season clinical.
In the 33rd minute, Morison spun away from a couple of defenders on the left to take the ball into the box to win a corner. He had just shot over in a good position but he connected perfectly with Ferguson’s corner to head home his 19th of the season.
And Martin enjoyed his own mini redemption when he expertly curled the ball over the wall to beat Williams at his near post.
Bradford made the majority of the running in the second half, but Archer was rarely stretched and Millwall professionally saw out the game to the final whistle.
It’s advantage Millwall for the second leg next Friday.
The Lions have reached the final of the last two play-off campaigns they have been involved in and the experience of David Forde, Tony Craig, Jimmy Abdou and Morison, all involved before, in setting the focused tone from Monday will be key. Although the Lions are two up Bradford have enough quality to pull the tie back.
Millwall will get their biggest crowd of the season in five days for the return fixture.
The Lions are unbeaten against Bradford in seven home games since 1988. Extending that with a draw will do next week.