There’s an old saying in football that you are at your most vulnerable when you’re ahead. So it was perhaps fitting that at the oldest professional ground in the world, Millwall equalised just two minutes after going behind to Sheffield United.
It was out of nothing really. A long ball launched forward more in hope than expectation, but Steve Morison answered to it in style. Some reaction to the delirium enthused from Leon Clarke’s opener. But surprising? Not a jot.
United had won the previous meeting at Bramall Lane last year in League One, finishing 27 points above Millwall, who had crept into the play-off places late on in the season.
This year the roles have somewhat been reversed. Both sides overachieving, but it’s the Lions’ who have taken the initiative. United weren’t too far behind though.
For a team to reach the play-off places it’s vital that the collective spirit of the squad emerges when it matters, and for United recently that came in the form of Lee Evans against Middlesbrough, netting twice, one a scorcher of a volley from 35 yards out.
So it was not surprising that during his purple patch, it was the Welshman involved in the first attack of the game, receiving the ball from the darting Enda Stevens on the left. This time, unlike last week, Evans opened his body up too much with the shot not able to curve enough to nestle in the corner.
Momentum is key to football and a myriad of opposition managers have commented in their post-match pressers this season, at the end of games against United, how they found it difficult to set up their team once the Blades opened the scoring.
After 15 minutes you might’ve been expecting similar remarks from Harris at full-time. In their traditional 3-5- 2 formation, United’s retention of the ball troubled the away side so much that Millwall struggled to escape their own 25 yard box.
With Evans and John Fleck controlling the midfield, and with a surplus of options around them, the Lions’ knew that they would have to concentrate on a consistent basis to keep the game goalless but they did just that early on.
A renowned blog called The Set Pieces is famous for its features on Millwall, so there was a certain irony that the away side’s greatest threat came from the aerial deliveries launched into the box. No doubt Chris Wilder would have planned from this but you wouldn’t have thought so after the defensive display from Millwall’s first corner, with Blackman called into action after Shaun Hutchinson found himself free at the back post.
Much of this match would be decided by the pace and power of the two forwards, Leon Clarke and Lee Gregory respectively. The pair had scored 27 goals between them this season, and with both in double figures, their influence could not be underestimated.
Yet it was Clarke looking for support from his teammates in a move where United, being blunt, should have put the ball in a net.
After picking up another Stevens pass from the left, the forward twisted and turned away from his marker, rifling the ball across the ground in the box, but the United players failed to react quickly enough much to the groans of the partisan home fans.
For a game of this significance it was scarcely believable how predictable both sides had become. With the two teams cancelling each other out in midfield the use of the width became ever present on almost every move.
And although constrained space limited the opportunities, United nearly pounced just on the stroke of half-time when John Lundstram found space around the edge of the box. His effort was pushed behind by Archer. It was the tale of the first half.
Lundstram didn’t last long. Wilder knew he had to enforce aggression into the game and did so through Mark Duffy. It nearly worked a treat.
With the attacking midfielder able to form intricate passes through the Millwall defence, the home side regained any confidence lost from a poor showing in-front of goal in the first half.
The defence pushed up, and when Jack O’Conell tried his luck with a curling cross he must’ve thought that George Baldock would find the net with a header from five yards out. Miraculously though Archer somehow managed to palm it over the bar with one hand. To say it was spectacular was an understatement.
Still, it wasn’t enough for the home side. In the context of the season Wilder, even with half an hour to go, knew it was now or never, so the introduction of Billy Sharp for David Brookes was not surprising one bit.
Millwall had not gone 16 matches unbeaten just to turn up though. After soaking in a barrage of pressure, it was now their opportunity to turn the screw. Again the danger materialised from a corner, and with United not learning their lesson from the opening 20 minutes it was down to Blackman to save the day, acrobatically diving to his right to deny a stunned Shaun Williams.
Yet the next time both keepers were called to action was to pick the ball out of their net.
First United pounced. Another corner. Another opportunity. But this time they made the most of it when Jack O’Connell somehow managed to arch his body at the back post from a looping cross. Clarke this time couldn’t miss, a tap-in from just three yards but one which sent the home supporters into joyous celebration.
One minute later those cheers had converted to tears. One of Harris’s greatest assets this year has been his ability to install resilience into Millwall’s footballing soul, and once again that was on show at Bramall Lane, with Morison capitalising on a long through ball to provide an instant reply in emphatic style.
Those three minutes summed up United and Millwall’s season in a nutshell. In this manic play-off battle the question is how significant will that be come the end of the season?
Sheffield United: Blackman, Baldock, Stevens, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Lundstram (Duffy 46’),
Clarke, Stearman (Lafferty 69’), Evans, Brooks (Sharp 58’). Subs not used: Moore, Donaldson, Wright, Leonard.
United- Yellow card:
Ben Marshall (44’)
Lee Evans (90’)
Millwall: Archer, Meredith, Hutchinson, Williams, Gregory (Elliot 89’), Romeo, Wallace, Morison,
Saville, Cooper, Marshall (Onyedinma 83’). Subs not used: Cahill, Martin, Tunnicliffe, O’Brien, Shackle.
Millwall- Yellow card:
Shaun Williams (45’)
Ben Marshall (75’)
George Saville (79’)
Referee: David Coote
MOTM: Jordan Archer (Millwall)
Attendance: 27,454 (1,624 away fans)
“I thought there was edginess on the pitch, natural for the end of the season. It’s a good point for us. To be one down here and to comeback so quick means it’s an excellent point.
“[Steve] Morison has been rested and [Tom] Elliot had fantastic form in training and the players have performed so well. Steve’s leadership and mind-set was going to be key so I’m pleased I made that decision [to pick Morrison] this week.
“Sheffield United put us under huge pressure today and I was extremely proud on the side watching two teams massively overachieving this season, and they can be proud of what they can achieve.
“Me and Chris [Wilder] have had time to build up our squads which is rare but that helps us. You have to get it right at key moments and it just goes to show if you are given that time to get it right then there can be a bit of reward at the end.
“We had to be a strong Millwall side today and we needed to throw our bodies on the line but when they do get those shots away you need your goalkeeper to stand strong.
“To come here and not be phased by going behind shows the character we have had installed in our squad. Will we get in the play-offs? Time will tell but the atmosphere before the match at the hotel, during the dressing room was incredible and we’re lucky to have that.”
“They’re a tough team to beat and they’ve recruited well, with a freedom and a confidence. We believed that if we played the way we can that we can win this game and stick our noses in-front in a tight game- that was the position we wanted to be in.
“It’s very very naive of us as players not to think then when it comes to their left centre half it’s
going nowhere else down the pitch but it was a great finish to be fair.
“But we came back strong. It was tight game and in tight games that result comes out, but it’s a better result for them than it is for us.
“I think a lot’s talked about the Championship in terms of quality and movement, and we wanted to drive the game forward as we have done all season, but we couldn’t find that extra bit of quality to open them up.
“There was a real honesty about the game. I think it was a fair result and we’ll look back – and I’m a bit bored of saying it – but we’re talking about missed opportunities and dealing with not holding a lead again.
“I’ve been involved with that referee for a long time, I’ve had a pop at him for about 25 years since my early days at Halifax. He’s got a memory like an elephant. It was even a penalty for them, that’s the truth.
“The players deserve a lot of credit, what they’ve done for the club, what they’ve done for me in my 100th game but we have to be in better position to what we are.”
“It’s one of those where you’re desperate for the three points but we’ll have to take the point and then move on and try and win the last three games and get into the play-offs.
“Coming from promotion last year it’s pushing everyone in the future to do something like that again, but the lack of concentration we had was disappointing.
“The fans know it, we all know it and we know we should do more and give 100%. We’re still new to the league but showing things that are all good.”