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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Hot-Headed Baker Burns Coventry

Millwall have started the season very well. Though I am yet to work out at what stage the nation’s league tables cease to be ‘embryonic’ – what are they now, foetal? – three wins from four for Kenny Jackett’s side leave them sitting in fourth. And nine points from 12 is decent form in anyone’s book.

The normal blueprint for survival in the Premier League is ‘win your home games, be difficult to beat away’. In the Championship though, arguably a more competitive league, it could easily be a blueprint for promotion. The Lions’ home form, too, with two wins from two – seven scored and one conceded – is formidable. For an embryo.

To be honest, there are other football experiences I thought I’d be enjoying this season before tackling the away end at Millwall. Especially as I had no particular desire to watch Coventry for a second week out of three. As it turned out, there was little cause for concern, as a crowd member at least. The hail of abuse, bottles, bricks, seats and small children never materialised as the effusive and exaggerated rumours suggested they would.

The Coventry players appeared to be having a far worse time of it. Say what you like about Millwall fans, they know how to get behind their team. Or if not that, they know how to make yours feel extremely unwelcome. There’s every chance the City players may have escaped the worst of it by gifting Millwall an own goal after 17 minutes.

Aidy Boothroyd though, clearly fresh from reading our assessment of Coventry’s game at Watford a couple of weeks ago, had elected to start with Clive Platt as a lone front man, also including Aron Gunnarsson and attempting to encourage Gary McSheffery to get up alongside Platt as Coventry sat deep. Platt impressed me again, giving Millwall’s defence all sorts of problems, but lacking any support whatsoever as Coventry competed in the midfield, but barely troubled the Millwall defence until the stroke of half time, when Gunnarsson couldn’t quite convert from a McSheffery cross.

The problem for City – and where Millwall were able to capitalise early on – was that when they did get the ball down and play, or pick up on Platt’s knock-downs (of which there were many), they ran up against a brick wall in the final third. David Bell and McSheffery didn’t take on the full backs once and they needed to with such a big target man in the box as Platt. By contrast, Millwall, helped by the fact they were playing two up front – though Neil Harris floated all over the place – were able to manipulate the channels far more easily and scored their first goal as City centre back Nathan Cameron was dragged wide and then rounded by Steve Morison.

Boothroyd’s game plan looked to have paid off when Aron Gunnarsson equalised from a route one clearance and a Platt flick-on, but then Coventry imploded as their sub Carl Baker was sent off for two yellow cards, the second not immediately obvious, but apparently for kicking the ball away. Not only was this a real shame, as it all but ended the game as a contest, but it was also the most ill-conceived display of passion since I got hit by Sarah Michelle Gellar’s car.

After Baker’s dismissal, the excellent Liam Trotter lobbed Iain Turner and Morison scored a penalty after being shoved over by James McPake. Millwall probably just about deserved their win, but the game definitely turned on the sending off, particularly as Boothroyd had displayed admirable intent by throwing Freddy Eastwood on to support Platt and go for all three points.

Coventry had improved on the last time I saw them, but Millwall did enough for the points. Which at home in the Championship, is about as much as you can ask. As the fan at the station reminded us – ‘thanks for coming, thanks for the goal, thanks for the penalty’ – the visitors had perhaps been a bit too hospitable. Certainly getting yourself sent off with 20 minutes to go goes above and beyond the traditional Ferrero Rocher. But the New Den, while not such a difficult place to watch football as a visitor, will certainly be a difficult place to play as a visitor throughout the season.

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