I Was There

Published on October 27th, 2019 | by Brandon Prangell

A day to remember for Gary Rowett

A win in his first match in charge, and over the club who sacked him earlier this year, plus getting the home crowd onside from the outset – it was a good day at the office for Millwall’s new manager Gary Rowett.

The 45-year-old came in following a caretaker spell under coach Adam Barrett who guided the Lions to a win, a draw and a loss in three games. Rowett watched the last of those – the 2-2 home result against Cardiff City – before succeeding club legend Neil Harris as Millwall boss.

Rowett may not have wanted to come against Stoke City – who fired him in January – before putting his stamp on his new team, and he had never won his first match in charge at any of his former clubs. So Saturday’s 2-0 victory over the Potters was the perfect start in more ways than one.

Proven track record

If some of Millwall harder-to-please fans were less than impressed by his appointment, one look at his managerial CV tells you why his new employers opted to hire him.

Rowett has a proven track record in the Championship, and joining Millwall could be seen as a step down compared to his previous jobs at Stoke, Derby County and Birmingham City, all clubs with larger grounds and fanbases.

After a decent playing career, he first caught the eye as a manager at Burton Albion, twice taking them into the League Two play-offs.

Having earned a move to Birmingham City, he took the Blues from 21st to 10th in his first season, only to find himself out of a job when new owners came in and appointed Gianfranco Zola as team boss. At the time, Birmingham were seventh in the league – a position they have never reached since dispensing with Rowett’s services.

It was Millwall’s Remembrance Day match

His good work at St Andrews had not gone unnoticed, however, and Derby owner Mel Morris took him from the West to East Midlands.

The Rams finished that season in ninth, and Rowett improved on that in the 2017-2018 season, guiding them to sixth spot and picking up two manager of the month awards along the way.

Despite winning the first leg of their playoff-semi-final, they lost to Fulham over two legs – no disgrace as the London side would go onto achieve promotion to the Premier League.

Rowett’s great run at Derby had got Premier League strugglers Stoke interested, to the point of wanting to recruit him mid-season, but he rejected their advances and signed a new deal at Pride Park. However, following Derby’s play-offs disappointment, newly-relegated Stoke came back and agreed to pay £2m in compensation to make him their new boss.

Things did not go to plan at the Britannia Stadium, though, and Rowett again found himself looking for work at the start of the new year.

Times are changing at the Den

He arrived at Millwall with the south Londoners in 17th place and five points off the relegation zone, having endured a shaky start to the season under Harris, their former striker and manager since an initial caretaker stint in 2013-14.

Rowett made two changes to the Lions side that drew 2-2 against Cardiff, which meant a switch from 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 as Matt Smith and Aiden O’Brien dropped out, with Shane Ferguson and Jayson Molumby given a chance to prove themselves under the new regime.

Both Harris and Barrett tended to favour 4-4-1-1, with the formation being used eight times out of 15 this season, so it was a simple yet straightforward change, using a system already familiar to the first team squad.

“That’s all it took to raise the noise at the Den, and choruses of ‘Ben Thompson, he’s one of our own’ blasted out of the home support.”

Millwall fans

Just over 14,000 were there to witness Rowett’s first match, designated by Millwall as the club’s Remembrance Day fixture, and it would certainly be one to remember for home crowd.

Whilst the Lions are known for having some workhorse players in midfield, the likes of Molumby, Shaun Williams and Ben Thompson worked tirelessly from the get-go and their energy levels were impressive throughout.

Despite the rain, which added to the thrills and spills at times, Millwall’s defence – a weakness in many matches so far this season – looked regimented and solid; clearly something that had been worked on in the training ground.

Barking orders

By the 28th minute, the hosts were ahead as Thompson latched onto a Jed Wallace cross to volley home from 10 yards and score his first of the season. That’s all it took to raise the noise at The Den and choruses of ‘Ben Thompson, he’s one of our own’ blasted out of the home support.

Rowett was barking orders from his technical area as he willed his team on to get that all-important first victory under his belt, and he seemed able to tactically deal with anything Stoke manager Nathan Jones threw at him.

View of the pitch

There could have been a penalty awarded as Thompson went down in the box just minutes after scoring, however the Lions got a corner instead, much to the displeasure of their fans.

The half-time break arrived, and for the first time in a long time, Millwall were cheered off the pitch. The second half was much more of a test for Rowett’s new charges, but they were able to adapt and deal with what was, in truth, a very weak Stoke side.

Thrilled

Not that the visitors did not have their chances, however, with Molumby and Williams needing to supply some defensive aid to the backline, but the Stoke’s attacks were mostly blocked and repelled with ease.

The home fans were also pleased to see a substitution in the 64th minute (Ferguson replaced by Conor Mahoney), as one of their criticisms of Harris was that he left it too long and too late to make changes.

Wallace scoring the penalty

Millwall gained a vital two-goal lead in the 75th minute after Jed Wallace went on an incredible solo run before being hacked down in the box. The winger picked himself up to scored from the spot, his fifth league goal of the season.

The win took the Lions to 15th in the Championship, six points away from the drop zone.

Players celebrating the second goal

By the end of the match, a large portion of the home support were singing ‘There’s only one Gary Rowett’. Will they still be belting out the same tune after next weekend’s away clash with struggling Reading?

If Rowett can win that one as well, it will stand him in good stead for the all-important derby against Charlton Athletics at The Den coming soon.

All photos by Brandon Prangell.

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