An away day in the capital and a chance for City to stamp their authority on the division with title rivals facing some testing fixtures. Jon Punt spoke to The News at Den’s Lucas Ball to talk Ben Marshall, relegation fears, ‘no-one likes us’ and what we can expect on Saturday.
Jon: Ben Marshall – talk to me. We were delighted when he signed for City in the summer, fresh from helping you charge towards near the play-off spots last season. Then he didn’t really feature. At all.
It kind of feels like there’s a player in there, but he may not be suited to our style of play, and suffered from the fact positionally he couldn’t find a spot. He initially started as a right back, then the emergence of Max Aaron (potential future England player) and Ivo Pinto being at the club meant he didn’t really get a look in. In his more favoured attacking midfield role he perhaps wasn’t suited to playing in a more narrow formation and seems like more of a ‘head for the byline and get a decent cross in’ kind of merchant.
How’s he done since his loan move back to The Den?
Lucas: Yeah, I’d agree with that - he played at right back for us on the last day of last season and did well but it’s not his natural game. With Marshall, you have to have a couple of players that are good in the air getting into the box or will at least make a nuisance of themselves. His crossing is very good on the whole and, although he can cut in and take shots at goal, he’s much more effective further wide with an overlapping full back - allowing him to get back onto his right foot from left midfield.
In truth, Lions fans have been disappointed since he came back and he was substituted on Tuesday night just as he seemed to be getting into the game. Playing with just one up front for the most part since he re-joined has given him less targets to aim for in the box which probably hasn’t helped either, and I think confidence is low. We know there’s a player in there, but he needs to step up sooner rather than later.
With our squad so stretched and him unavailable on Saturday under the terms of the loan deal, it’ll be interesting to see who plays in Marshall’s usual spot.
Sounds like we're not missing much then.
You’re currently sitting 20th in the table and 18th in the form guide, just 4 points above the bottom 3. Do you fear getting sucked into a relegation dogfight and just how disappointing would that be, given how well you did last term?
It’s a huge worry at the moment. I think Bolton and Ipswich will go but then we’ll be fighting to avoid that last spot with Rotherham - much like when we were last relegated.
We just haven’t got enough firepower and are conceding poor goals - you can’t give teams a leg up at this level.
I think it’s been a reality check in that last season we got away without many injuries and our mistakes - which were few and far in between - weren’t being punished, particularly in the second half of the season (for the most part).
When you operate on as small a budget as us and with a small squad, injuries will catch up with you and given the woeful performances at times it’s been disappointing not to see a few more players given a real chance - the likes of Fred Onyedinma specifically who was enjoying a fruitful loan spell at Wycombe before being recalled in January.
I’m very much concerned that this FA Cup run could derail us.
I'd concur with Ipswich and Bolton, Rotherham can't buy a win either right now, but could see Oliveira's goals pulling Reading clear.
Do you think in some ways Neil Harris set the bar too high in terms of expectations last season? Were you ever really likely to compete in the top half this time around given how competitive the league is?
Reading need to stick with this manager long term, the likes of Oliveira should see them safe and then they can build from there.
In many ways, we’re having the season that we expected last year. No one expected another play-off push but to drop off quite as much as we have has been very worrying.
I don’t think anyone realised just how much we’d miss George Saville in midfield, whilst a number of players have dropped off. We might have got a bit lucky being an unknown quantity last season I guess.
It’s horrible being where we are but finishing mid table every year would be boring.
Too true, mid-table is awful, just ask Ipswich fans who've endured it for 17 years. Guess they might have some fun next year mind.
So what's the long-term plan at Millwall, is Harris' job safe regardless of where you finish, and do you regard yourselves as a club who should be competing in the Championship or that you're really destined to flit between divisions?
I think Harris will be here whatever happens next season. I’m not sure there would be too many clubs sniffing around given his tactical limitations at times and lack of attractive football.
On this budget, it’s hard for us to compete and I don’t know how we can solve that issue while maintaining the majority of the key elements of the club’s fanbase being working class and all that surrounds it. To play for us you need to have that grit and bit between your teeth which many of these multi-million pound players seen to lack as evidenced by the number of Cup upsets over the years at The Den.
John Berylson loses money year on year running the club and we won’t spend to break FFP rules and such given the relatively low attendances, so it’s a vicious cycle in many respects. As a result, I think we will struggle to ever really establish ourselves in the top tiers of English football for extended periods.
Interesting you touch on the fanbase. It's been an interesting one from outside looking in. One minute you see Millwall winning family club of the year, the next there's the unsavoury element of the old school support rearing its head. Is there a balance to strike between the 'no-one likes us' badge of honour and being a safe and inclusive environment for all, as it should be?
The Family Club of the Year Award was fully deserved and as someone involved in the media myself, the treatment that we get from sections of the press is disgusting.
So many people have worked so hard and if anyone comes to Millwall not looking for trouble, it’s hugely unlikely that they’ll get any. Everton, for example, didn’t go to their designated train station and were looking for a fight - which they got.
That’s all I’ll say on that specific element of it with the FA Cup game but we do still have to make The Den an intimidating, hostile environment for away teams to come into. We make up for our lack of talent with hard work for the most part but technical ability can overpower us sometimes and the crowd drives our players on.
That's brilliant, The Den has always been a cauldron and should remain so, it's sometimes hard to understand the origins of the cultural shift and how that's happened. Any work toward making clubs more inclusive and welcoming should be applauded.
Turning to Saturday, what can Norwich expect in terms of style and personnel? We play a possession based game with intelligent pressing in key areas, how have you fared against that kind of style in the past?
We’ve got a few injury issues and could be without any out and out full backs, which might not prove fun against your wide players.
A lot of teams play that way and it generally suits our counter attacking style though we haven’t fared as well against it of late, with Preston being the obvious example.
Defensive errors continue to cost us whereas last year we could rely on them staying strong for the most part, so it probably won’t suit us playing up against a side like that right now.
We won’t try to play out from the back particularly so the pressing isn’t quite as much of a worry that far up the pitch though we will have to be much smarter on the ball than in recent weeks.
Our use of opportunities to break has to be nigh-on perfect to get anything out of this one.
Knowing how bi-polar Millwall are though, we’ll probably manage to nick a win. (I’m not really confident...)
That's interesting, we tend to play in a narrow formation with the full backs getting forward at will, so we may expose you in that respect. If you're looking to play on the counter then our defensive midfield winning the ball back quickly, or via a high situational press, could be key.
Who should we be fearing in the Lions' ranks?
The danger man really is Jed Wallace - particularly if he plays centrally. His pace and direct running can cause problems and he scored in the reverse fixture at Carrow Road.
Jake Cooper is generally good in both boxes and is one of the highest scoring defenders in world football this campaign, so will cause issues for you at set pieces if the delivery is right. We haven't made quite enough of that recently.
Lee Gregory is our main striker but hasn't netted a league goal since December 15th and will be hoping to get back on track. He's already equalled last season's tally and now needs to kick on - our strikers simply don't net enough.
Very specific score prediction time then - I'm going 3-1 City, Gregory opening the scoring, Pukki levelling things before the break, before a Buendia brace in the 83rd and 87th minute keeps City top of the league. You?
I can't see us getting anything out of this one unfortunately - and think we'll struggle throughout. I think City will set the pace with an early goal and net again just before the break, before adding one or two more late on in the game with the Lions pushing forward. Millwall 0-3 Norwich.
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