Millwall are football’s great disruptors – and their next target is the Premier League
There is a picture on the wall of Millwall’s training ground which serves as a daily reminder to players and staff: “If you want to be a winner then be fearless like a Lion.”
That bold approach and ability to upset the odds has been truly adopted by Millwall this season, with the club in contention to end a 33-year wait to operate in the top division.
Under the management of Gary Rowett, the club is sixth in the Championship with eight games remaining, and supporters are daring to dream of a fairytale ending.
The Lions have secured some big scalps along the way, including Sheffield United, Middlesbrough and a double over Watford, and the mood at their training base this week was buoyant.
“People don’t expect to see us in the top-six but we’ve embraced that underdog mentality,” says Rowett, just in from a training session with rain dripping off his shorts.
“We’re disruptors and we will use what we’re good at to stop a few of the big boys getting in there. The expectation is for the types of Watford, Norwich and West Brom to be in there – not us. We want to make one or two of those teams a little bit annoyed at the end of the season that they haven’t got in there.”
Rowett, 49, is the second longest-serving manager in the division, behind Coventry’s Mark Robins, and his three years in charge have been a tale of continual progress.
His coaching journey began 18 years ago with Derby County’s under-14s, where he earned £60 a session. He is now tantalisingly close to securing a path to the untold riches of the Premier League.
“I enjoy the challenge of punching above your weight, I think it suits me,” he says. “Millwall is a unique club and it’s only now that I’m starting to understand what it’s all about. I’ve been in the play-offs three times before [once with Derby, twice with Burton Albion] and I’d love to make it a fourth.”
Millwall did start the season poorly, but have been on an upward curve since tweaking the formation to 4-2-3-1. There is now a more expansive side to their game, and in Zian Flemming they have one of the Championship’s best players this season, with 13 goals and two assists.
A record £1.7 million signing from Fortuna Sittard, the Dutch midfielder was a target for Rowett across three seasons. Rowett watched hours and hours of Flemming’s matches, including Eredivisie games away at bigger clubs such as Ajax to see how he performed with less possession.
Another shrewd recruit has been forward Andreas Voglsammer, signed from Union Berlin last August. Known by fans as the BFG (the Big F------ German), Voglsammer is going to stay for another year after passing a set number of starts.
The arrivals of Flemming and Voglsammer has resulted in an extra 650-1000 fans from the Netherlands and Germany attending home games.
Other stand-out players include leading scorer Tom Bradshaw, who played in Wales’ Euro 2024 qualifier against Croatia last week, and defenders Jake Cooper and Danny McNamara.
There are also high hopes for winger Romain Esse, an England U18 international and a product of the club’s revered academy.
“This is the best squad we’ve had since I’ve been here,” says Rowett. “We’re not going to pass teams off the pitch but we’ll get in people’s faces and use that little bit of aggression and physicality in the right way, with some quality to strike a balance. You don’t get to sixth place with eight games to go without good players.”
Recruitment is vital for clubs like Millwall, who do not possess the budget or parachute payments of many others in the division. Preparations for next season are already advanced, whatever division they find themselves in.
Targets are scouted for years and while Millwall are reliant on data and statistics, they cannot afford to make mistakes so players are always watched live. Recruitment can also be frustrating: in January, moves for Stoke’s Jacob Brown, QPR’s Lyndon Dykes and Hibernian’s Kevin Nisbet all fell through for different reasons.
Millwall’s daily operations are overseen by Steve Kavanagh, the club’s chief executive and a strong advocate of financial regulations. Millwall’s wage bill is around the 15th highest in the division.
Kavanagh speaks daily to owner John Berylson, who is based in the United States and has invested more than £100m since taking over in 2005. Plans are in place to move into a new training ground for 2025, plus development of the Den.
“This club has always been about progression and this year we’ve made that extra step,” says Kavanagh, who is also on the EFL board.
“If you look around the Championship, there are car crashes everywhere. Football is about sustainability and acting in appropriate ways, though we all lose money. We’re trying to move the club forward and change perceptions.”
That battle to alter perceptions has felt never-ending for Kavanagh. Millwall’s troublesome reputation has been difficult to shift outside Bermondsey, but there are tangible signs of progress. The Den is now one of the safest stadiums in the Championship, and Millwall were the first club to appoint an Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee.
Millwall Romans, the LGBT team, are supported by the club and run by the community trust.
“It’s a phenomenal story and we’re slowly getting the message across that we are a good club and do the right things,” says Kavanagh. “Nobody really wants to know what we’re doing off the pitch as it doesn’t make headlines, but we’re extremely proud of what we do.”
Kavanagh makes regular visits to the club’s training ground, near Ravensbourne station, and this week the atmosphere was vibrant in the players’ canteen.
Down a corridor is Rowett’s office, a big whiteboard on the wall with plans for the weeks ahead.
Training sessions are mapped out in advance – a typical week will include extensive work on Tuesday focusing on possession, defensive phase and fitness. Match preparations crank up later in the week with concentration on set-pieces and three-team SSG’s (small-sided games).
A key member of Rowett’s staff is Dave Carolan, the head of performance. Statistics are Whatsapped to players after every game detailing distance, running bursts and physical data.
During the 1-0 defeat at Middlesbrough in January they covered the team’s most distance this season with 111,000 metres for the 10 outfield players.
Millwall are now in a chase to the finishing line: they face West Brom this weekend with a five-point lead over their opponents. They also have a potentially pivotal match against Luton on Easter Friday, while they travel to Wigan and Blackpool – the current bottom two – before the end of the season.
“We want to gatecrash the party,” says Rowett. “We’re all ready and there’s absolutely no pressure on us at all.”