League One Manager of the Month for February Neil Harris leads his Lions into tomorrow’s encounter with Bury 14 matches unbeaten in the division; not since before Christmas have Millwall tasted defeat. As a result of their FA Cup exploits, they also have three games in hand on most of their play-off rivals and a maximum haul would take them level with Fleetwood in second place.
Harris can also boast a fully fit squad to choose from, which no manager at the Shakers’ helm has had for at least two years.
Goalkeeper Tom King, if selected, will be looking to make amends for the manner in which he conceded the sixth goal against Tottenham in the FA Cup last weekend. That error and his proclivity to punch the ball might be something Lee Clark instructs his front five to test him on, especially from dead ball situations in the latter case. To even get that far, they will have to breach one of the meanest defences of 2017 first.
Spurs aside, the above shows the platform on which Harris’ men have roared into the top six, including shut-outs against Premier League opposition in the cup run. King will be very well protected by a mostly conservative back four; the key battle in the game could centre around Tony Craig and Taylor Moore. Craig isn’t exactly the paciest of full backs but makes up for that with his positional sense. He will be more than ably helped out by his defensive teammates, not least of whom is Byron Webster, one of my picks for the League One Team of the Year (look out for that in a future blogpost). He normally manages to stay on the right side of physical and can outmuscle almost any striker in the third tier – another war of attrition could be fought with either James Vaughan or Tom Pope.
Shaun Cummings will look to bomb up the flank in support of an array of possible candidates. It could be Jed Wallace, on loan from Wolves. Wallace has struggled in the old gold shirt to make the right wing berth his own but he would give Greg Leigh and Cameron Burgess plenty to think about with his crossing ability and forays into the channels. On the opposite side, Shane Ferguson is more defensive minded and could be deployed narrower to make up a midfield three when out of possession to match Bury’s shape and win it back quickly. Central midfield duo Ben Thompson and Shaun Williams take turns to shuttle between the back four and front two and that dynamism is something else the visitors will have to be watchful of and contain when possible.
Up top, penalty expert Lee Gregory is likely to lead the line. It was his spot kick in the reverse fixture after Niall Maher handled at the near post that kickstarted Millwall’s comeback to win 3-2 after being three down with 20 minutes on the clock. Better in the air than with the ball at his feet, he is also quite agile and will rove between Antony Kay and Burgess in an attempt to be goal-side of them when the crosses come in (mostly from the right flank). Again, it’s uncertain who he will playing alongside but if it’s precocious talent Fred Onyedinma, as a pair they would offer a lot of movement for the London side.
There are also many options from the bench to consider, which is always the hallmark of a team gunning for promotion. Everyone at Bury is already aware of what David Worrall can do; alongside him are likely to be target man Steve Morison and versatile inside forward/support striker Aiden O’Brien, who each have 10 league goals to their names to complement Gregory’s 14. If things aren’t panning out too well, there is a lot of ammunition on the sidelines to affect the outcome.
As for the Shakers, I have a sneaky feeling we might see Kean Bryan start for the first time since being sent off in the derby debacle against Rochdale back in October (and he was subsequently injured in training during his suspension). He will add more bite to what is bound to be another hard fought contest and is more defensively inclined than any other Bury midfield option fit and/or still being considered for selection. That would allow Callum Styles to be a choice to have on the bench if a spark of creativity is required. Jacob Mellis might also return to the squad but I think this game will come too quickly for him to feature prominently.
Much like with my Bristol Rovers prediction, I suspect that the Lions will come out on top but not without a fight: I am going for a 2-1 victory for the home side. Exile Jr. has opted for a 1-1 draw, which I would take if offered it right now. All eyes down at the bottom will be on Port Vale’s tussle with Shrewsbury – a draw or win for the Shropside side would mean that even a defeat wouldn’t be too alarming for Lee Clark. There are bound to be a few more twists and turns yet
and a thousand other clichés.