ILLUSION, deflection, smoke and mirrors – all that was missing from the post-match press conference at The Den was a top hat and a wand.
This was a tale of two struggling sides that really needed a win. And a draw suited neither.
Standing centre stage were Dougie Freedman and Ian Holloway – two polar opposite characters with very different expectation levels resting on their managerial shoulders, but with a shared goal to avoid being in the bottom three in 10 weeks’ time.
On the basis of this 90 minutes, both should accomplish their target, but you sense in Freedman’s case, at least, he needs to pull another rabbit from his hat.
In classic jocular Holloway manner, his post-match rant about being “bored senseless” by Wanderers’ tactics deflected from the fact his side have now failed to beat two of their relegation rivals – Yeovil being the other – in their last two games. The Lions have won just once since he arrived in early January, but given their impressive attacking options and their infamous home advantage, it would be a major failure on his managerial CV if he did not keep the Londoners out of the bottom three.
By comparison, Freedman has been brutally upfront about his own side on occasion this season – too harsh, even. Other times, he has frustrated supporters by failing to identify his side’s shortcomings. This fell more into the latter category, and even the most rose-tinted of Wanderers fans would admit their side were defending for their lives at times.
There has been a shift in the manager’s demeanour in the last few games, and while that positivity seems to be getting a bit more out of his players, he could have killed Holloway’s case stone dead by simply stating the following facts: Wanderers scored one, hit the post, had a goal disallowed and then missed a penalty, all before Millwall got on the scoresheet.
Forget the bluster about “controlling the game”, for while Freedman’s 4-2-3-1 system might be suited to sitting and inviting pressure and hitting on the counter, the average Joe watching from the stand – and apparently in the opposition dugout too – looks upon it as a defensive ploy. Had Lukas Jutkiewicz shown similar ruthlessness with his penalty as he did with a superb first-half header, we would have been eulogising about this performance just as we did at Bournemouth back in November. It is also worth noting that Cherries boss Eddie Howe, a class act if ever there was one, recognised the tactical merits in his opponents that day rather than producing a cheap punchline for column inches.
If Freedman is to escape those over-defensive jibes then his first job is to recruit another striker, which he seems to have done in bringing Joe Mason back from Cardiff. His second must surely be to play him alongside Jutkiewicz next weekend against Watford.
The left-back problem is still there too, although Tim Ream has let no-one down in his last couple of outings.
Wanderers gave themselves something to hold on to when they seized the advantage 15 minutes in at The Den, Chris Eagles’ cross headed deftly home by Jutkiewicz past David Forde.
Millwall huffed and puffed, over-played on a terrible pitch, but should have been level.
David Wheater made a magnificent clearance on the line to bail out Alex Baptiste, whose weak headed clearance had set up a chance for Martyn Woolford.
Moments later, Adam Bogdan’s awful punch gifted an opportunity to Jermaine Easter but Baptiste was back on the line to redeem himself with another crucial block.
With such stubbornness being shown in the back line, the onus was then on the midfield to spring into life when they got the opportunity. And that’s where the gameplan failed.
Jutkiewicz worked hard to give his side a platform to play off up front but, once again, Mark Davies, Chris Eagles and Darren Pratley did not get on the ball enough behind him.
Jay Spearing and Medo had their hands full in a defensive sense and so when the ball was cleared out of defence, it too often fell on Jutkiewicz alone to try and make something happen.
That said, eight minutes into the second half Eagles curled a fine free-kick around the wall that bounced off the base of Forde’s post and out to safety. A few inches to the left, and it is game over again.
Holloway went for broke and introduced three attackers at the same time – Simeon Jackson, DJ Campbell and Scott McDonald.
That created a few more good chances, with Bogdan making one fine save from Woolford and Scott Malone fizzing his follow-up shot just wide from the edge of the box.
Wanderers got it right just once on the break – Baptiste starting and finishing an amazing move that stretched the length of the field, involving a dozen-or-so passes; boring indeed.
Sadly, the linesman’s flag denied the full-back his fifth goal of the season, and a stunner at that.
Ex-Wanderer Danny Shittu then appeared to have given his old club a lift when he handballed Baptiste’s cross from the right and gave away a penalty.
Jutkiewicz stepped up confidently but produced a tame effort, saved rather easily by Forde. The reaction from the home crowd was instant and deafening.
Freedman reached for defensive cover in Zat Knight to combat what was now a front four – but within moments of his arrival, Bogdan’s brilliant save from Jackson had been slotted home from an acute angle by Woolford for the equaliser.
Both sides pressed for a winner – Jay Spearing actually getting round keeper Forde at one point before squaring for sub Neil Danns, who was denied by an excellent challenge by Alan Dunne.
Millwall’s fans had worked themselves into a lather but even with five minutes of stoppage time, neither keeper was tested any further.
A few weeks ago Freedman identified an upcoming five-match run that he felt would decide whether Wanderers would be in a relegation dogfight or not. Two points and three games later, it is looking entirely likely.
Whether Holloway purchases the end-of-season DVD or not, this could still get worse. The current mood of disappointment will be hard to shift, but Freedman needs to make sure he addresses the problems that have been staring us in the face for a while now. No smoke, no mirrors.