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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lions Pride of Promoted Trio

After the opening weekend of the Championship, Nobes salutes Millwall - the only one of the promoted sides to win.

Danny Schofield celebrates his goal for Millwall against Bristol City

Amid all the talk about promoted duo Norwich and Leeds, the return of Millwall to the second tier after four years away was largely overshadowed in the build-up to the new season.

You fancy that's exactly how Lions boss Kenny Jackett would have wanted it though.

While Norwich and Leeds were given live television coverage of their opening games, Millwall's game at Bristol City attracted like attention.

Indeed, any talk about the game at Ashton Gate revolved more around City's summer capture of England's World Cup keeper, David James, than the Londonder's own Championship return.

Come full time, and the story was indeed of James's debut - beaten three times as Millwall racked up an impressive opening day victory in the Westcountry.

With Norwich and Leeds both going down to defeats to Watford and Derby respectively, it meant the club from the Capital were the only one of the promoted trio to get something from their first game.

One could argue, too, that it was the Lions who had the most difficult opening assignment of all three. Not only were they forced to travel, they were also pitted against a team who finished above both Watford and Derby last term.

It might well just be the first of a few surprises Jackett's side hand out over the course of the season though, as they aim to establish themselves back in the second tier of English football.

Millwall are a team as uncompromising on the field of play as their notoriously partisan fans are in the stand of their Den ground. Anyone seeking to beat them will have to match a side whose tempo and work ethic is key to their success.

These Lions aren't afraid to go into battle - pressurising opponents from the off, and using a direct style which immediately puts their opponents on the back foot.

In Jackett, too, they have a manager and coach whose attention to detail and work on the training ground is well known in the lower leagues.

It was no surprise that their winner in last season's play off final came courtesy of a corner - Jackett works on set pieces religiously on the training ground.

It was also typical of his ability to organise a side that saw Millwall have the tightest defence in League One last term. Just 44 goals - including a miserly 15 on home soil - were leaked in 2009/10.

However, it's not as though the 48-year-old is doing anything radical down in South London. Instead, an emphasis on the getting the basics right has been key to his success as a manager.

In 2005, he achieved promotion from League Two with Swansea in his first full season as a manager.

On that occasion, the Welsh side conceded just 43 goals over the course of the campaign as he constructed a compact, deep-lying, rearguard that gave them the platform from which to build.

He almost took the Swans to successive promotions 12 months later, too, as they were only beaten in the play off final by Barnsley on penalties.

After victory at the same stage over Swindon in May, he now has the chance to put his methods into practice at a higher level.

Millwall boss Kenny Jackett has a reputation for being an excellent coach

Jackett should receive much praise for his team's success at Ashton Gate at the weekend. In stark contrast to both Leeds and Norwich, the team he put out was largely the same as the one that brought them success last season.

Only striker Kevin Lisbie and on-loan midfielder Darren Carter were new to the set-up.

The defence in particular had a settled look about it and was rarely troubled by their opponents - albeit Robins boss Steve Coppell was missing some of his key attacking players.

That continuity contrasts hugely with both of the other promoted sides.

Norwich started with six new signings, and their sloppy start - finding themselves 2-0 down in the first half an hour - could arguably be put down to a slightly disjointed team trying to find their way.

Leeds, too, took to the field against Derby with a back four including three summer signings and a new keeper.

The number of times they were opened up by a fluid Rams attack suggested this was a backline not used to playing with one another - and the Elland Road side paid for it.

Of course, some of those changes were enforced on their respective managers Paul Lambert and Simon Grayson, but it perhaps lends argument to the thought that throwing too many new players in at the same time is a dangerous game.

Only so much preparation and understanding can be garnered in a few weeks of pre-season training and friendlies. It is only through regular competitive action that partnerships all over the pitch begin to gel and come together.

The lack of rhythm to Leeds' attacks was evidence of this as new wide men Lloyd Sam and Sanchez Watt struggled to really get into the game - not used to playing in the 4-3-3 formation Grayson selected.

Perhaps Millwall's success was to be expected therefore. A settled line-up, with players comfortable in their roles and used to playing with one another, producing a ruthless performance to see off their opponents.

Indeed, two of their goals came from centre halves Darren Ward and Paul Robinson from dead ball situations. With the work put into them by Jackett, that's probably not the last time those particular players will chip in with goals at the other end of the field.

They ensured their team got off to a flying start, however, which could go a long way to preserving the 16-year tradition of the League One play off winners avoiding relegation in their first season.

Of course, it is always folly to read too much into the opening day of the season. Millwall will face difficult challenges ahead and may well require strengthening as the season wears on.

Both Lambert and Grayson, two talented young managers in their own right,
should see their summer recruitment policies pay off and enjoy successful seasons with their clubs as well.

However, his experience and pragmatism ensured Round One belonged to Jackett.

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