Why Brighton will be 'Den' in by Milwall in the FA Cup
Background photo: Billy Batty, CC BY-SA 3.0
Millwall. Their name precedes them. Mired in the Championship relegation fight, they've turned to the FA Cup for glory. The Lions love to hunt Premier League clubs who enter their territory in cup competition. In 2017, they eliminated Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester City. This season, Everton fell victim. Can the London club scalp another top-flight side and perhaps make it to Wembley? Brighton are the latest to enter the Den.
If you are not a Millwall fan, you probably still know their reputation. Rough, dodgy, a hooligan's club. If you support the Lions, then gritty, dogged and relentless are probably more palatable locutions for what you'd term a solid working-class club.
Their notoriety makes Millwall that much more fascinating to watch. This year, the south London side disappoints in league competition. On 37 points, Neil Harris' squad hover a point above the drop zone in 19th. Immediately below them, Reading, Wigan and Rotherham all sit on 36. In the circus, the lion tamer usually sticks his head in the big cat's mouth. Instead, Neil Harris walks a tightrope.
The gaffer undoubtedly wants to keep his club pointed towards Wembley. On the other hand, staying in the Championship is critical. He is the first man to win a playoff competition for the club both as player and manager. That looks better on your CV than overseeing relegation to League One. He must decide whether Brighton is a distraction or an opportunity. Unlike Roberto Martinez, who moved onto Everton from Wigan after raising the cup and seeing the Latics go down, Harris will be harshly judged if he chooses wrongly.
Harris also played 75 minutes in the 2004 FA Cup final for Millwall. That result didn’t go to plan. Manchester United lifted the cup as 3-0 winners. The Lions already made history before the final, becoming the first lower-division side to reach Wembley since 1982. Cardiff City replicated the feat in 2008, losing to Portsmouth.
Harris will ask his players to listen to those echoes, hoping they can draw energy from the club's legacy to produce a performance in keeping with the club's fighting tradition.
Den by name, den by nature. Millwall inhabit a fortress other clubs loathe to visit. Even in a poor season such as this, the side has only tasted defeat in seven from 24 matches across all competitions. In the simplest terms, that presents Brighton with a 29% chance to progress directly from this match.
The Lions aren't intimidated by Premier League opposition. Ask Everton how they were worn down in a 3-2 defeat in late January. Lee Gregory, Jed Wallace and Jake Cooper found the target.
Opponents don't usually permit Milwall much license to express themselves. They must take the few chances that come their way, which they did to stunning effect against the Toffees. Richarlison opened the scoring on 43 minutes. Gregory responded in first-half stoppage time. Cenk Tosun restored Everton's lead in the 73rd minute. Cooper answered in less time than it takes world-record holder Hicham el Guerrouj to run a mile. Then, while fans were booking tickets for a replay at Goodison Park, Wallace struck four minutes after the 90.
Brighton comes into the game buoyant after their A23 derby victory away to Crystal Palace. It was just the fifth road victory in 21 efforts for the Seagulls. Chris Hughton's side also eked out five draws. That still leaves them losing more than half their matches away from the AmEx. A solitary clean sheet among those 21 contests doesn't bode well for this trip. By comparison, Millwall scores 1.4 goals every home game. Have the Lions caught the scent of vulnerable prey?
Brighton fans can point to their better league form but Millwall's cup run proves the old adage that league and cup play are very different beasts. In addition, Millwall enter on a high. Ben Thompson's brace powered a 2-0 win over Birmingham City to end a four-match losing stretch.
The international break allows both managers to field their strongest lineups. That, at least, works against Millwall. Premier League sides usually rotate heavily in the FA Cup. Overall, though, the factors favour the home side. It’s time for Millwall fans to start looking at travel plans for their away day at Wembley, even if it is just topping up their Oyster card.