LIKE he times his marauding runs forward from right-back, Mahlon Romeo tends to time his runs in the first team quite well, too.
Up until the 3-1 win over Sheffield United at The Den in December, Romeo had played just three minutes in the league this season.
That was down to the form of Northern Ireland international Conor McLaughlin, who slipped seamlessly into the side following his arrival from Fleetwood last summer.
Lions boss Neil Harris doesn’t change his side much, and he is certainly never going to rotate, so if players perform they stay in the team.
Unfortunately for McLaughlin, he picked up a suspension after five bookings and Romeo was in. The Antigua & Barbuda international couldn’t have taken his chance in more impressive fashion, scoring against the Blades and looking like he was so suited to this level.
Romeo, 22, was never likely to get too down when he wasn’t getting a look-in earlier this season. After all, it was just three years ago this month when he was told by Gillingham that they would be releasing him.
He was only 19 years old, which for some is a late enough age to mean their dreams of a professional career are over.
But Millwall’s head of academy Scott Fitzgerald had contacts at the Gills and had heard good things about the defender, those raw attributes of power, pace and good finishing ability when he gets within range of goal. It was enough to convince Fitzgerald to give him chance, and he was brought in to train and play for the under-21s, whose previous boss Harris had only just taken over the first team from Ian Holloway.
It wasn’t exactly last-chance saloon for a player who had also been in Arsenal's youth set-up, but it can’t have been far away from it.
And he had to quickly put his disappointment after his release by Gillingham behind him and make an impression with Millwall as he tried to earn a deal.
“I’m thinking all sorts of negative things at the time when I left Gillingham,” Romeo said. “That was a really tough time, but I was grateful for getting the opportunity here from Scott Fitzgerald, the gaffer, Livers [Dave Livermore], Andy Frampton when he was here.
“They took me in and I really loved it here.
“When you’re young and get knockbacks the thought is always in the back of your mind that it might not work out, but I knew I had to keep going. I had my friends and my family encouraging me to keep going.
“I had finished school so essentially I had to make it at football, and if anything that gave me extra drive.
“I was training with Scott because at the time the gaffer had just taken over the first team. I had a few games under Scott, he gave me the chance. I’m grateful to him.
“I wanted to prove what I was good at, prove what I could do. They made it easy for me here, the players, the staff. The gaffer [Harris] was up front with me which is something I really respect and appreciate. He said, ‘you’re a young man coming in, do your best for the underage team and if you’re good enough you’ll get the chance’.
“He’s really fair with the chances he gives you and that’s all you can really ask for.”
Romeo earned a one-year deal, his signing going well under the radar at the time, with most focus on the Lions’ relegation from the Championship and how Harris would rebuild the squad.
Romeo’s performances for the under-23s went under the radar as well most of the next season, and when he made an unexpected debut in February 2016 due to injuries to Carlos Edwards and Shaun Cummings, few Lions fans would have seen him play before that League One trip to Walsall. But he gave more than a glimpse of what they could expect, bursting forward regularly from right-back and then scoring a stunning goal after an assist from Jed Wallace.
Everything went smoothly until his first real blow in a Millwall shirt, a red card at former club Gillingham on the last day of the regular league season, the subsequent suspension meaning he missed out on the play-offs and a Wembley appearance.
Romeo came back and worked hard over the summer and won his place back for the first game the following season. He is thankful that under Harris players are allowed to make mistakes, as long as they try to respond in the right way.
Romeo’s early error against Cardiff in February allowed Junior Hoilett to run through to score, before the young defender composed himself to have a solid game as his side came back to gain a point.
Harris praised Romeo for his reaction afterwards, and that had a big effect on the player, as did the backing he received from the fans.
“You literally can’t ask for anything more as a player than for a manager to have your back like that, especially when you’re still young-ish,” Romeo said. “For the gaffer to have my back, as well as the staff, the players, all of the fans, that’s exactly what you need.
“Things like that mistake against Cardiff happen in football and it’s up to you to get through it. I’m just glad that I could repay the manager’s faith in me.
“It was easy for me to move on from that. If you give 100 per cent at this club the fans are always going to have your back, and that’s something I really appreciate as well.
“Working hard is something I’ve always done from a young age because I’m passionate about what I do, I don’t like to do things half-heartedly.
“I had a tough time at Gillingham. The manager at the time had the young boys working really hard so he drilled that into us. It was quite harsh discipline but I think it helped me.”
Romeo says this season has been a “mad journey”, and that is a description that could easily apply to his own career over the last three years.
Millwall will still be pressing for a play-off place by the time of their next home fixture, against Fulham on Friday night, April 20.
Their home form had been the basis of stabilising in the league before their away record from January fuelled their surprising top-six push, and there is a quiet determination to keep the challenge going all the way until the end of the season.
“We can’t get too ahead of ourselves but if we keep going like we have been going then who knows what might happen,” Romeo continued.
“At The Den I feel like we always have an advantage no matter who we are playing. That helps us. We know what to do against what opposition and we are ready for every challenge.
“It’s been a mad journey. We had to wait so long to get our first away win and then went on a run. To be in this position is great.”
Image: Millwall FC