MILLWALL boosted their top-six chances and avoided matching their longest winless run this season by beating Scunthorpe United 3-1 at The Den on Saturday.
The Lions hadn't won in five games in all competitions but prevented the Iron from completing the double over them this season and moving 10 points clear of them in the table. This was a significant win.
That gap is instead down to four, and Millwall have a game in hand on Graham Alexander's side, who have won just two of their last 13 in the league. Millwall need only pass out one team to seal a play-off place and the smart money is on Scunthorpe being the one after this result.
Millwall boss Neil Harris wrote in his programme notes about the need to "re-energise" and "re-focus" as well as calling for the home support to "get right behind the team".
Harris also acknowledged the responsibility on the players to ensure there was something to get excited about. And after goals from Shaun Williams, Shane Ferguson and Aiden O'Brien, they certainly fulfilled that. It hardly mattered that Matt Crooks headed a consolation from the last action of the game.
The Millwall line-up had appeared without Lee Gregory's name in it, so when Shaun Hutchinson – making his first start since February 21 – was upended in the box by Paddy Madden following a corner, eyes turned to who would take the spot-kick.
Williams immediately grabbed the ball, and though goalkeeper Joe Anyon got a hand to his shot, it had sufficient power and direction and Millwall were in front within three minutes.
That energy Harris had asked for was evident in the first half. O'Brien never stopped chasing lost causes, and then there was a two-minute spell that really roused the crowd. It started when Steve Morison mischievously half-volleyed a drop-ball into the corner after referee Nigel Miller had stopped the play when Crooks went down holding his head.
Moments later Ben Thompson clattered into Crooks, Morison left centre-back David Mirfin on his backside, and Crooks must have been wondering what he had done to upset the home side as he slowly rose to his feet following Hutchinson's robust tackle.
Before that Iron fans thought Josh Morris had levelled with a free-kick that had Tom King scrambling across his goal, but the ball went wide before rippling the wrong side of the net. Millwall fans enjoyed the away section's premature celebrations.
Morison then showed his finesse when he cushioned a volleyed pass to Jed Wallace whose shot was blocked and then cleared.
Millwall constructed their best move before the break, Wallace, Mahlon Romeo and Morison exchanging quick passes on the right before the latter crossed to the far post, but Ferguson, stealing in behind right-back Levi Sutton, blasted wide. Ferguson would have more luck later.
At the other end Ivan Toney's trickery – and his tendency to hit the turf when he felt a touch – meant Hutchinson and Byron Webster had to be careful, but Scunthorpe were barely an attacking force before the break.
Before a minute of the second half had elapsed, though, Toney showed his quality on the ball again, and King was at full stretch to tip over the striker's half-volley. From the corner Millwall cleared and counterattacked, O'Brien made space for a cross in the box and when Morison's header came off Mirfin, Wallace couldn't keep his left-footed effort from eight yards under the crossbar.
The sun was in King's eyes now and when Morris hit another free-kick – after yet another foul on Toney, this time by Wallace – the goalkeeper palmed the ball out before Tony Craig headed it away for a corner. Millwall were being warned about their opponents' ability to shoot accurately from distance.
It was probably Scunthorpe's best spell of the game, but then Williams released Morison with a superb ball down the left. Morison won a throw-in before the play moved to the right and after Wallace saw a shot blocked he crossed to the back post where Ferguson finished first-time for his fourth goal of the season.
Eleven minutes later O'Brien scored his 14th goal of the campaign, and it was arguably his best so far as he impudently flicked the ball home with the outside of his right boot from Craig's cross.
Scunthorpe were nothing like the vibrant side they were in December in that crushing 3-0 win over Millwall. Madden scored twice that day, but his and Scunthorpe's afternoon was summed up with 15 minutes to go when he was taken off. He had barely touched the ball. The contrast when O'Brien went off to a standing ovation after one of his best games this season also told its own story.
Millwall's win meant the story of their season is more likely to have another chapter in May, especially if this performance indicates their recent slump is over. In the context of how their form has come and gone in cycles this season, they will be regaining it at just the right time.
Image: Millwall FC