BEN THOMPSON’S first-half double ended a run of four consecutive league defeats as Millwall comfortably beat Birmingham City at St Andrew’s on Wednesday night.
Thompson’s goals, both assisted by Lee Gregory, were reward for a brilliant team performance in the first 45 minutes to put the visitors in control by the break.
And they never looked like relinquishing it as they won for the third time away from home in the league this season.
Millwall were unrecognisable from the team that were so feeble against Bolton at the weekend, playing with energy and confidence against promotion-chasing Birmingham to go 2-0 up with two sensational Thompson goals.
Thompson’s spell at Portsmouth allowed him to develop a much more rounded game. At Pompey he played right-back, defensive midfield and off the striker. He looks so comfortable now at this level, albeit it’s been a relatively short period of time to judge him. His finishes were those of a seasoned striker.
Every Millwall fan knows about Gregory’s quality but it would be hard to exaggerate just how good his touch was for Thompson’s second. It meant by the 32nd minute Thompson had the chance to become the first Lions player to score a hat-trick since Gregory against Derby in 2014-15. It didn't happen – but his goals won this game.
Ryan Leonard was used in a new role for him at Millwall, the anchor in midfield allowing Thompson and Ryan Tunnicliffe to get forward. Leonard looked like he enjoyed it, covering over and back across the pitch and directing those around him. Tunnicliffe was typically dependable.
The atmosphere, in the dressing room and among supporters, will be so much more positive now going into the FA Cup quarter-final against Brighton on Sunday. Instead of the psychological burden of five consecutive defeats, the Lions will have real confidence after this result. Cup-tied Thompson will be a big miss but the competition has shown there are always opportunities for others to be heroes.
Yes the league is the priority but recent form had threatened to spoil the occasion at The Den against the Premier League side.
This has given everyone connected to the club a lift.
The big team news before the game concerned Jordan Archer, who was dropped to the bench. That meant a second league start for David Martin, his only other the 0-0 draw at Aston Villa in December 2017.
There were three other changes. Ben Marshall, Tunnicliffe and Leonard were recalled, Shaun Williams, Tom Elliott and James Meredith were among the subs.
Alex Pearce, who was superb throughout, was Millwall’s fifth captain this season.
4-1-4-1: Martin; Romeo, Pearce, Cooper, Ferguson; Leonard; Wallace (Hutchinson, 90), Tunnicliffe, Thompson, Marshall (Meredith, 84); Gregory (Morison, 66).
Martin had his first test in the fourth minute and for a moment it looked like referee John Brooks would point to the spot when Isaac Vassell went down in the box. But the goalkeeper hadn’t touched him and instead Brooks gave a free-kick to Millwall and a yellow card to Vassell.
Martin was eager to get involved and missed one punch but then saved Che Adams’ shot with his legs.
That came after Thompson’s superb goal. It was a classic counter-attack, Marshall finding Thompson who slipped Gregory into the inside-right channel and continued his run. Gregory chose the perfect time to cross, and Thompson arrived to crash the ball low past Lee Camp.
Marshall then had the chance to double the lead from Gary Gardner’s loose pass but his lob over Camp just cleared the crossbar.
If Millwall’s first goal was good then the second one rivalled it.
Jake Cooper drilled the ball hard down the line and Gregory, under pressure, produced an utterly brilliant touch to flick the ball with the outside of his right foot to Thompson in support on the left touchline. Thompson picked up possession and kept going, Blues somehow failing to cover across, and the midfielder finished low again past Camp.
Conor Mahoney had the ball in the net and the crowd on their feet three minutes into the second half after Vassell had slipped him in, but the offside flag had gone up.
Half-time substitute Craig Gardner then sent a vicious dipping volley just over as Blues showed the hustle they had lacked in the first period.
Gardner was just wide again in the 59th minute, after Blues boss Garry Monk had sent on Jacques Maghoma and Lukas Jutkiewicz, all the home substitutes used with over half an hour to go.
Gregory had run himself into the ground by the time he went off with 24 minutes left. As he rounded the perimeter of the pitch the away fans chanted, ‘”Gregory, Gregory what’s the score?” The striker obliged by raising two fingers, to cheers from that corner of the ground.
Gardner had sent another effort wide and then Jutkiewicz headed just off target but Martin had his angles covered.
Blues fans started to stream out with 10 minutes left. Their side were well beaten.
Image: Millwall FC