By Jake Sanders
MILLWALL boss Neil Harris handed debuts to academy graduates George Alexander and Billy Mitchell as the Lions’ Championship season ended in a 1-0 defeat to Wigan at the DW Stadium.
Joe Garner's 16th-minute strike proved the difference between the sides, as Alexander and Mitchell came on in the second half.
Millwall finished 21st in the Championship table after going without a win in their final seven matches.
Almost 10 years after his dad, Gary, scored twice for Millwall in the League One play-off final against Scunthorpe at Wembley, George made his first-team debut for Millwall.
At the end of a difficult season, Millwall fans needed something to lift them, and the sight of two players from the academy making their debuts did that. That’s not to put undue pressure on the pair, but it has to be hoped that they go on to have more successful and longer careers at Millwall than another duo Harris gave senior debuts to on the last day at Wolves four years ago.
Big things were expected of centre-forwards Jamie Philpot and Alfie Pavey. Philpot scored with his first touch, but got injured and was replaced by Pavey. Both players struggled to impose themselves on the first team in the next couple of seasons, and are now rebuilding their careers in non-league football.
Lions supporters will hope it was the passing of a striker guard. Alexander – wearing number 50 – came on for Lee Gregory, who was embraced by several of his team-mates and boss Harris after his 238th and last appearance for the club. At £250,000 from Halifax, there have been few better bargain buys in Millwall’s history.
Eighteen-year-olds Alexander and Mitchell are the future, but how successful it is and where the club goes from here depends on the rebuilding job Harris undertakes. There are still questions over a number of players who are out of contract. Not all those decisions have been made, though there will be news on some over the next few weeks.
The result today was immaterial. What was important was to give a sense the Lions are moving forward. Those debuts help that.
Harris named the same side for the second straight game. There was one change on the bench: Defender Danny McNamara – after signing a new deal last week – replaced Jesse Debrah.
And it was a big day for Alexander and Mitchell.
4-4-2: Martin; Romeo, Pearce, Cooper, Meredith; Tunnicliffe (Skalak, 62), Leonard, Williams (Mitchell, 78), Ferguson; Morison, Gregory (Alexander, 67).
Subs: Amos, McLaughlin, Elliott, McNamara.
Millwall started the brighter and Gregory came close to giving his side a dream start but couldn't divert his near-post effort on target after good build-up play involving Steve Morison and Ryan Tunnicliffe.
Morison was nearly the villain at the other end, gifting possession away and he was thankful for some sharp reflexes from Dave Martin to prevent Garner from putting Wigan in front.
However, less than six minutes later Garner broke the deadlock. Nick Powell played a neat one-two with Kai Naismith and fired towards goal and Martin saved again, though Garner was on hand to convert the rebound.
Morison searched for an immediate response but could only loop his header onto the roof of the net after good work from Shane Ferguson down the left to dig out an inviting cross.
Millwall thought they had equalised just before the half-hour mark as Ryan Leonard headed home from Ferguson's corner, but Andy Woolmer spotted a foul and disallowed it.
The visitors continued to dominate, with another Ferguson corner causing havoc inside the Wigan penalty area, but Jake Cooper couldn't take advantage as his poked effort lacked power and was comfortably hooked off the line by Powell.
Morison was in the thick of things and went close again just eight minutes before the interval but failed to take advantage of another wonderful Ferguson cross, heading just wide from eight yards.
The half-time break didn't stop the visitors in their tracks and they should have levelled just minutes into the second period. Gregory drilled an effort towards the corner from 12 yards that Christian Walton got down well to, and Tunncliffe couldn't convert from the rebound, blazing over the bar from close range.
Gregory went even closer seven minutes later but was unable to apply the finishing touch to Tunnicliffe's inviting cross from the left.
That was Gregory's final chance to end his farewell Millwall appearance with a goal as he was replaced and left the field to a standing ovation. On came Alexander, who was greeted to “He's one of our own” by the travelling fans.
Eight minutes later there was another debut as Mitchell replaced Shaun Williams, and though it was an extremely proud day for the club’s academy, neither could prevent the Lions from slipping to a 22nd Championship defeat of the season.
Image: Millwall FC