Six games that shaped Millwall's 2015-16 season

IT was a season that ultimately ended in disappointment at Wembley but one that contained promise and hope for a brighter Millwall future. 

Here, John Kelly and Mark Litchfield choose the six most significant games in the last campaign, games that also played a role in shaping Neil Harris' squad for the 2016-17 season.

Millwall 0-4 Coventry (League One, August 15)

It might seem odd to start with Millwall’s heaviest defeat of the season, but this game arguably did more than any other to shape the eventual make-up of the side.

Boss Neil Harris was at his most critical after this loss than after any other fixture in the season. "It really hurts to be honest,” he said. “And I'm not sure it hurts some of those players in the dressing room as much as it hurts me.”

Lee Martin didn’t start another league game for Millwall and it was almost a crucial moment in Mark Beevers’ season. He was taken off at half-time with Shane Ferguson coming off. Beevers, who was reportedly unsettled at the time and thinking of a move back up north, was dropped from the squad for the next game, a 3-2 defeat to Barnsley at The Den.

That could have signalled the end of Beevers’ Millwall career but instead his future was resolved and he returned to the starting XI as the Lions dug in to grind out a scoreless draw at Scunthorpe, their first clean sheet of the season.

The defeat to Coventry saw Harris lay down a marker to his squad about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable. It highlighted what kind of characters he would need to recruit, with George Saville the first loan signing to add bite to midfield.

Much has changed since and there are likely to be just four players who started against Coventry in the line-up on Sunday. JK

Sheffield United 1-2 Millwall (League One, October 24)

By now Millwall fans had seen glimpses of what kind of team Harris was building. There were still wobbles and a 5-3 defeat to Peterborough at the start of the month had suggested Millwall were a long way from getting it right defensively.

United were fifth in the League One table, six points ahead of Millwall before kick-off, and it only seemed a matter of time before they put one of those runs together that would sweep them all the way to the top. In Nigel Adkins they already had a manager with experience of the Premier League after back-to-back promotions with Southampton following one at Scunthorpe.

Harris was still very much in the rookie stage of his career.

He named three academy graduates – Fred Onyedinma, Ben Thompson and Aiden O’Brien – alongside the on-loan Saville in midfield. There were 19,617 supporters inside Bramall Lane making it one of the most intense atmospheres some of those players had ever faced.

United started by zipping the ball around rapidly, and Onyedinma had to race 100 yards back to his own goal to flick away a dangerous cross.

But Millwall settled and stunned the home side when O’Brien turned home Shaun Cummings’ cross with the back of his head. The Blades looked like they had turned it their way when Jose Baxter equalised in the 70thminute, but Millwall didn’t shrink and O’Brien slid home the winner from Shane Ferguson’s cross with ten minutes left.

“They really battled and there were some good warriors out there today,” Harris said afterwards.

That was the template. JK

Southend United 0-4 Millwall (League One, December 28)

After three straight league defeats, the Lions arrived at Roots Hall eleventh in the League One table, six points off the top six. They had already won at Southend earlier in the month – a 2-0 win in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy – but this was by far the more important game. Harris' side needed a performance – and they produced one of the highest quality.

Goals from Joe Martin, Cummings and Onyedinma eased Millwall into a 3-0 half-time lead and, with the travelling fans in a festive mood, O'Brien added a fourth 20 minutes from time, sending them home very happy. The victory took the club up to ninth, just three points behind Peterborough.

Despite being on the cusp of the play-offs, Southend's season went downwards from there. You have to wonder what direction the rest of the campaign would have gone had the Lions lost their last fixture of 2015. ML

Chesterfield 1-2 Millwall (League One, January 23)

The arrival of Jed Wallace on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers a fortnight before the trip to Chesterfield had given the Lions renewed hope. His dazzling wing play, pace and explosiveness had already benefited Lee Gregory especially; the striker had scored in the club's last two league games against Oldham Athletic and Port Vale and with eight goals in the league to his name already, he was one away from equalling last season's total with over three months of the season still remaining.

Eight-hundred-and-fifty-four fans took in the Lions' first trip to the Proact Stadium, but Sam Morsy's 25th-minute strike put Chesterfield into the lead, threatening to spoil the mood. However, just two minutes later, O'Brien levelled, nodding home Ferguson's cross.

The scores were level at the break but shortly into the second half the Wallace/Gregory combination came up trumps again, as the winger's through-ball found the run of the striker, who poked home past Tommy Lee, giving the Lions a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

The win sent Millwall into the top six for the first time in the season – a place they did not leave for the remainder of the campaign. ML

Walsall 0-3 Millwall (League One, February 6)

Sitting in second position in the table, Walsall were flying high and looking for a return to the Championship for the first time since the 2003-04 season.

With experienced manager Sean O'Driscoll in the hot seat, the Saddlers looked to be tightening their grip on an automatic promotion place – his side had passed the Lions to death at The Den just weeks earlier (they had 71% possession in the first half). This looked like it would be the toughest of tough tests.

However, in true Millwall style, they were not intimidated and went on to win three precious points, and to top it off a star was born, too.

With Cummings and Carlos Edwards out, Harris handed 20-year-old right-back Mahlon Romeo his competitive senior debut at the Bescot Stadium. Romeo had been earmarked for a season in the U21s but here was his early chance in the first team. And Romeo was outstanding. A crunching tackle early on endeared him immediately to the Lions fans present, but in the second half he garnished an already impressive performance with an outstanding goal.

After playing a one-two with Wallace wide on the right wing, Romeo surged through the Walsall defence and fired low into the net, sparking wild celebrations in the away end.

Gregory's two goals either side of that strike made it a comprehensive win and O’Driscoll wouldn’t last much longer in the Saddlers job. It was also a result that made the rest of the division sit up and take notice. ML

Millwall 2-0 Burton Albion (League One, March 28)

With the Lions not hosting table-toppers Burton Albion until Easter Monday evening, results earlier in the day meant the club’s top-six position was under threat.

Coupled with a 1-0 defeat at Bradford City two days earlier, the feeling that the clash with the Brewers was a must-win had grown stronger by the time the Sky Sports cameras arrived in SE16.

Nigel Clough's men were looking for a win to take them four points clear of second-placed Wigan Athletic in their attempts to secure second-tier football for the first time in their history. But, instead, they ran into a determined Lions side who wrapped up the game before the break.

Despite a bright start from the visitors, it took just twelve minutes for Harris' side to breach the Burton defence. A hopeful punt forward from Thompson was chased down by Gregory and after some clever hold-up play he found the onrushing O'Brien who fired into the top corner beyond Burton goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin.

Six minutes later, Shaun Williams' through-ball caught out Burton’s high defensive line, allowing Gregory to waltz past the goalkeeper and slot into an empty net, doubling the lead and securing all three points.

It was a third win in a row at home, and a fourth without conceding a goal. The Lions' Den form was peaking at the right time. ML

Image source: ©Millwall FC