HARRY Smith scored a hat-trick as Millwall survived a scare to see off Braintree Town and secure their place in the third round of the FA Cup.
Michael Cheek put Braintree ahead before Smith immediately levelled for Millwall and the striker scored his fifth goal in six games four minutes later.
Shane Ferguson extended the lead in the 25th minute but Braintree struck back as captain Jack Midson took advantage of a defensive mistake to break into the box and finish low past Jordan Archer.
Smith completed his first professional hat-trick in just his sixth game at this level when he prodded home three minutes after the break.
Millwall were still giving away chances, though, and winger Simeon Akinola almost scored his side’s third goal of the afternoon but volleyed over Archer’s crossbar. And Cheek should have made it 4-3 minutes later from Akinola’s header but Archer was quickly off his line to block.
Millwall's passage through to the third round was never in real doubt in the second half and substitute Aiden O'Brien made it five when he tapped in Fred Onyedinma's cross in added time.
Neil Harris said in his programme notes that for him the FA Cup “has never lost its appeal”, and the team he picked for Millwall’s 335th appearance in the competition reflected that.
The Lions were going for their 133rd FA Cup win against a Braintree side that had conceded 42 goals already this season. Exploiting that leakiness would have appealed to Lee Gregory, back in the side having missed the last two games.
Sid Nelson was also starting for the first time since October 4 and there was far too much space between him and centre-back partner Byron Webster when Cheek broke through in the 16th minute to fire high past Archer.
In the 34th minute Webster was in possession under pressure from Midson but instead of clearing he was robbed of the ball and that allowed the attacker a clear run on goal. Midson showed composure to clip a finish past Archer and reignite a game that Millwall had looked like running away with.
They were 3-1 up when Webster made that mistake and it could have been more given the space the National League side were giving their opponents.
Millwall equalised when Gregory squared the ball to Smith who stretched to slide a finish past Sam Beasant, son of Wimbledon’s 1988 penalty-saving goalkeeper Dave. Smith showed superb technique to put Millwall 2-1 up as he drove home a half-volley after Ferguson’s corner flicked off the head of Calum Butcher.
Braintree’s back four were staying narrow in a bid to combat Smith and Gregory and have enough players on hand to sweep up second balls. But when Gregory picked up possession in front of the away defence he had time to wait for Ferguson’s surge forward into space and the Northern Ireland international beat Beasant with a low shot to the far corner.
Gregory perhaps should have picked out Smith instead of trying to wriggle through and after Midson cut the deficit Monty Patterson had two chances to equalise, from the second forcing Archer into a low save to his left and Millwall were lucky no Braintree player had read where the ball would land.
That’s exactly what Smith did in the 48th minute. Again it was poor defending, a feature of the afternoon, as Butcher attempted to get his head to David Worrall’s cross, Gregory’s presence put off a defender and Smith spun in the six-yard box to beat Beasant.
But if Smith was clinical at one end Millwall’s defence wasn’t exactly giving him firm indications his goals would be enough to secure a place in the next round. After Akinola blasted over, Cheek should have scored but shot straight at Archer when a flick either side would have been enough. Joe Martin then rescued his side when his instincts took him inside to nick the ball off the toe of Patterson a few yards out.
That was a critical mass of Braintree chances for Harris who took off Nelson and replaced him with Tony Craig. Still Millwall were ragged at the back, and Webster had to be alert to block another effort from Akinola from 15 yards.
But the afternoon belonged to Smith and it’s a measure of the impact he has made in six games that he could be rested against Wycombe on Wednesday given his importance to the side in Steve Morison’s absence.
Smith came off to a standing ovation with 12 minutes left, though, disappointingly for the home side, there were only 3,345 at The Den on Sunday afternoon to witness his big moment. Harris also took off Gregory in the 85th minute after the centre-forward's successful return to competitive action.
O'Brien scored his ninth goal of the season with the last kick of the game and all eyes turn now to the third-round draw on Monday night, and the hope it throws up a lucrative tie.
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