By Gerry Prewett
For the fourth season in a row Bristol Rovers go into the final game of the season facing a game that will involve a promotion or relegation issue.
For the first time it is not the future of Rovers that is at stake, but that of opponents Millwall. The atmosphere at the Mem promises to be electric as the Lions need all three points to ensure they have a Play-Off spot and Rovers will be looking to finish off their season with a continuation of their fine home record.
Whilst Rovers were being given a lesson in clinical finishing by Peterborough, the South Londoners showed their nerves going down 3-0 to Oxford. The home team took the early initiative but it took just five minutes Oxford to hit the front when Conor McAleny fired in from the edge of the box.
The wide man shocked the home team when he netted a second before the tenth minute. The game then became bogged down in a mid-filed battle until 15 minutes into the second period when Aiden O’Brien could only hit his shot straight at Simon Eastwood in the Yellow’s goal when through on his own. A Josh Ruffels header from Chris Maguire's corner 10 minutes later sealed the Lions fate.
The Lion's Boss Neil Harris expressed his disappointment at the way his team played, “The overriding emotion after that, and I was honest with my group, is that we were really poor today. It was a poor Millwall performance. After 17 games of being fantastic here and overrunning team after team after team, including three Premier League sides, we perform like that in our last home game of the season.”
It was tempered somewhat by results elsewhere, “Then you get told you’re still sixth and you have to pinch yourself a little bit. As bad as we were, what a great position to be in. We’ll wake up tomorrow and analyse and say we can be so much better than that, and we will be on Sunday at Bristol Rovers. What a great opportunity we’ve got.”
“It’s hugely disappointing today, but our fate is in our hands. From probably November time onwards, if you had said to me we have one game to finish in the top six I would have snapped your hands off.”
“Maybe we were a little bit nervous, though I didn’t detect it before the game. On Thursday and Friday, we were really good. Maybe we lost a little bit of focus and were too relaxed. There was a sense of players not taking responsibility for their own performances, waiting for the man beside them to do something and score a goal.”
“I reminded the players you haven’t got to play well here, but you’ve got to play like a Millwall player. The first half we didn’t, the second half we competed better. Aiden had that chance and if we get it back to 2-1 we know what can happen here. But they go up the other end and score. It’s poor by us. Big moments change games.”
Looking at the history of games between the clubs the overall record favours Rovers who have won 34 of the 80 games, with the Lions winning 27. In London, Rovers have won 10 and the Lions 19. The last time the teams met the Bermondsey team won 2-0 at the New Den. Steve Morison on 62 minutes and a last minute own goal by Pat Baldwin sealed Rovers’ fate in front of a 10,000 crowd
The very first time the team’s crossed paths was on 14 December 1901 in an FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round tie where the teams fought out a 1-1 draw before 3,000, the replay at Eastville saw Rovers win 1-0 with a goal from John Jones. The following season the teams met again and after a 2-2 and 0-0 draw Rovers lost 2-0 at the Den. The attendance at the 0-0 draw is listed as ‘fair’.
The first League meetings took place in Rovers first League season 1920-21 and the Lions won both games, played a week apart on 28 August (at the Den) and 4 September (at Eastville). Bill Voisey and Jim Broad scored the home team’s goals in Rovers very first League game and Jim Dempsey scored a double for the away team in Bristol with George Chance replying for Rovers.
There have been some great games between the clubs over the years. Maybe one of the best was on 25th October 1965 at the Den. Millwall were defending a fantastic undefeated home record and Rovers away form wasn't the best. Within three minutes Joe Davis had turned a Barry Rowan ball into his own net. Rovers' hero Alfie Biggs hit a quick reply steering the ball wide of Alex Stepney.
After 20 minutes another Rovers stalwart Doug Hillard had Rovers in front when he hit one of his free kick specials through the Millwall defence. The match swung back in the Lions’ favour when Len Julians chipped in a short-range shot after 36 minutes.
The score stayed at 2-2 until 15 minutes from the end, when Mickey Brown robbed Hillard of the ball and beat an advancing Bernard Hall. However, Harold Jarman restored the balance between the two sides four minutes later with a close-range shot from a corner. The 16,151 crowd certainly saw an entertaining game that evening.
The game at Eastville that season was equally entertaining. Rovers took the lead 2 minutes before half-time when Alfie Biggs roared on by a 9,365 crowd gave Rovers the lead. It took Division Three leaders Millwall until 88th minute to conjure up an equaliser from Ken Jones. There was still more to come as that man Biggs blasted a last minute penalty wide to leave the score at 1-1.
Another memorable game was at Eastville on 8th May 1984. Goals by Brian Williams, Paul Randall and Mickey Barrett with a header secured a dramatic last minute 3-2 win. It was to be Barrett's last ever appearance for Rovers before he died so tragically that summer.
Neil Harris was in a reflective mood later this week as he noted, "We have to accept that we have had a little bit of luck in getting into this excellent position and we must make the most of it. It's bizarre. You play all season, more than forty League games and fifteen-odd Cup games and then it all comes down to one match. We have one final chance to get ourselves into the playoffs and we will have to be strong mentally.
"Nothing is going to be given to us, we have to go to Bristol Rovers and earn it. We beat Watford, Bournemouth and the Premier League champions. Not only that, my players got the experience of travelling to White Hart Lane and seeing what it's like to play Tottenham, one of the best sides in the country."
"Yes it's high pressure, but we have to embrace these moments. We embraced the Emirates FA Cup run, that was brilliant. We had another fantastic run in the Checkatrade Trophy last year, we embraced that. You go through so many seasons in your career with nothing to play for or you're at the wrong end of the table and fighting relegation. This season we have the chance to push for promotion and there's everything to play for on Sunday."
"The challenge I have is to strike the balance between keeping the boys relaxed and also firing them up and making sure they're ready to go to work. For whatever the reason, last Saturday against Oxford we didn't have the same energy levels that we've had in our other matches.”
"My players will be better than they were last week. It's about being aggressive and being on the front-foot like we have been over the last three or four months. We know what we need to do make it a special Millwall occasion."
Steve Morrison back’s his Manager’s thoughts, “There’s only one focus and that’s Bristol Rovers at twelve o’clock on Sunday. Their home record is just as good as ours, they’ve got twelve wins and it’s a tough place to go.”
“We need to put in a performance like we did against Fleetwood away from home. If we do, we can’t finish as badly as we did then and the goalkeeper can’t have as good a game as Fleetwood’s goalkeeper did. We know what we’ve got to do. We need to concentrate on ourselves and not really worry about anyone else.”