Tuesday, 23 May 2023

Millwall (U21s) 2-1 Sheffield United (U21s)

Millwall (U21s) 2-1 Sheffield United (U21s)
Professional Development League National Play-Off Final
Monday 22nd May 2023

After a pulsating game on Saturday where South Yorkshire triumphed over South London in the U18s PDL National Play-Off Final, this encounter in the U21s age group was equally as absorbing and tense and it could have gone either way.

But in emotions which were the polar opposite to Barnsley’s game with Charlton at the weekend, there was to be no ‘double’ for South Yorkshire as Sheffield United were beaten 2-1 in extra-time by Millwall - and thus a long bus trip back home afterwards.

It’s been an absolute pleasure watching Sheffield United at U21s level this year; they’ve got good players, incredible depth, they absolutely romped to the PDL North title, and of the 142 games I’ve seen (can finally have a break now) some of the best football I’ve seen and which I’ve enjoyed the most has come from these lads.

They are class - so it’s for all those reasons that I really wanted to be at this game, to give them their support on the biggest night of their careers (up to now) and in the most hostile and notorious surroundings of them all at The Den too. I just wasn’t going to miss it.

Millwall is renowned for being a tough place to go and even though the feelings of being beaten will rankle for a while to come - it’s the start they made that will particularly linger (and where the lads will spend a lot of time reflecting on this game).

Backed by their noisy home crowd who were given a reason to get excited by the aggressive start Millwall made, the Blades just weren’t ‘at it’ in the opening minutes and after a couple of close shaves as the Lions signaled their intentions and all looked like terrific players, they finally made that breakthrough on 10 minutes when Aidomo Emakhu’s low drive from the edge of the box was parried by Luke Faxon and the rebound was gobbled up by Romain Esse.

The start the Blades made wasn’t good at all.

It looked disjointed; it lacked intensity. The passing (so often so crisp and sharp) was awry. It just wasn’t clicking and the lads rode their luck at times in keeping it to just 1-0 - especially when Kyle Smith (I think) went to ground under a challenge inside the box and the referee appeared to point to the penalty spot at first, only to change his mind and give a free-kick right on the byline outside the box and it was a relief that whole incident was defended properly and came to nothing.

As half-time approached, the Blades finally started to get on top, look threatening and dangerous and show what they’ve done so well at times this season.

Sydie Peck had a good game anyway and with a couple of crunching tackles, plus a whack in the face which left him with a bloody nose that temporarily had to be plugged, even in the early stages he was something of a driving force and probably the best player in a United shirt - aggressively trying so hard to create a tempo and some momentum. Miguel Freckleton (three good passes out from the back to feet) was another who looked bright early on, and then as Louie Marsh (some neat touches), Andre Brooks (got the ball more after a quiet start) and Will Osula (some flashes of what he’s all about) all started to get more involved, it brought about a sustained spell of pressure just before half-time.

It nearly culminated in an equaliser as Andre Brooks cut inside, silkily moved the ball onto his stronger foot and unleashed a thunderous drive which rattled off the woodwork, before the rebound was blocked and Louie Marsh’s eventual follow-up was parried over by a back-peddling home ‘keeper.

A few other balls went low into the box and just wouldn’t quite drop for anyone in a red and white shirt as Millwall defended well - in particular Chinwike Okoli (No.6) who was tremendous, strong and solid and Kyle Smith (No.5) who also did well, but they did ride their luck too.

It was frustrating that the half-time whistle went when it did. Millwall looked dangerous whenever they went forward and their front players (No.7, No.9, No.10 and No.11) all looked a proper handful (and Connor Barratt had so much to do in that first half), but in the last 10 minutes before the interval, all the momentum was with the Blades. Millwall were being pushed back. They were on the back-foot, soaking up the pressure and fortunate to have had the little bits of luck to ‘hang on’ and preserve their 1-0 advantage.

That said, even though the Blades started the second half in the same aggressive tone and continued to have the territory for the first five minutes or so, Millwall went within a whisker of making it 2-0 - and a goal which really would have been huge in the context of the game as Nana Boateng flashed a ball into the box and Aidomo Emakhu somehow struck the post before the ball ricocheted across the goal-line and somehow span wide of the opposite post. How did he miss? Another shot soon afterwards also drew a save from Luke Faxon and now the Blades were hanging on a bit.

Games often ride on those big moments and the second goal was always going to be crucial but having overcome that little spell where the Millwall crowd got noisy again, soon enough United got on top again. The passing was improving. The intensity was improving. You sensed something was coming and soon enough, the equaliser arrived as Will Osula’s took a touch, moved inside and unleashed a curling drive with venom which clipped the post, hit the ‘keeper on the ground and left Sydie Peck with a simple tap-in as he was quickest to react for a follow-up.

BOOM! 1-1 - and having got back level, this was the moment to really take things by the scruff of the neck, go at Millwall, attack them whilst they were like a wounded animal and really seize the initiative and turn things around. A quickfire second goal - similar to what happened in the win over Barnsley in March, was exactly what was needed now.

And even though there were a couple of chances; Jili Buyabu (who was given the ball much more to get involved in the second half) cramping up after he lashed one over on the back of an intense move where the ball was moved really well around the box, and Will Osula and Andre Brooks going close, that ‘momentum’, that ‘intensity’ seemed to fizzle out a bit as minutes passed.

A turning point in the game came when United won a cheap free-kick near the touchline, took it quickly, ultimately lost the ball and Finley Potter had to bring down his man right on the edge of the box for which he was booked. It woke the Millwall fans up again! And even though he blocked the free-kick (ball straight into his already bandaged head), with some visibly tired legs and 4-5 players in red and white shirts cramping up or struggling at different points, as the game went into extra-time, it was Millwall who now seemed to have that bit more bite about them.

Again, games always rest on certain moments - and it could have been different had Levis Pitan not seen a header kept out by Millwall's keeper in extra-time whilst it was still 1-1. The connection was perfect. The save was superb. Had it gone in then who knows?

But losing Finley Potter, just prior to that chance, through injury was a major setback. Connor Barratt (someone else who gave everything) cramped up and couldn’t carry on around a similar time, early into extra-time. There were other tired legs as well because the lads had given everything.

And when Sai Sachdev gave away a free-kick right on the byline and then received treatment straight after it - thus meaning he was unable to come back on before it was taken, it proved critical as Nino Adam-Malaki’s free-kick was clipped to the back-post where Chinwike Okoli rose highest and powered a header into the net. 

A moment he’ll remember for the rest of his life but a horrible, glum feeling if you didn’t want Millwall to win!

As the home fans exploded into raptures, it seemed like they had it in the bag. They had the momentum again, they had the spirit, they had the lead, that little adrenaline-rush to fuel an extra spring in their step, it was in their hands and it was always going to be difficult for United - and although I don’t think Millwall’s players particularly wasted time or anything in extra-time (which, in the same position, I certainly would have done), they just put men behind the ball and defended just as they’d done throughout to hold out in the second period of extra-time and get their hands on the trophy.

The emotions and feelings after the final whistle amongst the Blades players will rankle for a while and if there’s one bit of advice I’d give them, it’s just to remember it, store it, never forget those moments - the frustration and use it as fuel for the future.

Louie Marsh was in his zone; shirt over his head in his own world - gutted and wondering what might have been (some nice touches, bits of involvement but not able to get the chances he’s buried all season or the slices of luck at times throughout the whole 120 minutes). Just not his night. Likewise for Will Osula. Sydie Peck - a driving force who played his heart out and had one of his best performances I’ve seen in a while and epitomised all the heart you’d want from a captain, stood alone and watched the celebrations - absorbing it, hurting. Oliver Arblaster; another with so much talent. But just not his night either.

The lads gave it everything. They tried. They wanted it. They had spells. But, overall, it just didn’t click and sometimes things are just not meant to be - no matter how hard you try! 

However, as I said right at the start - win or lose, these lads have got my support for the long haul. They’ve got quality within them, flashes of brilliance which has been evident at so many points during the season, it’s been a pleasure to watch them - individually, collectively and they’ve got so much to be proud about. This result doesn’t define them. It hurts, but they have to react from it now and, even though it didn’t click by and large in this game, they ought to take comfort from playing their part in a quality football match where the standard was so high. 

I’ve seen 1,700 games (and a few more) and when I look back at the team-sheet from this night in 4 or 5 years down the line, I’ve got no doubt in the slightest that a significant number of the players who featured (from both teams) will be playing at a decent standard. This is just the start for them all, they will get better - it doesn’t change the glum feelings of disappointment or the frustrations at what went wrong during the game itself, but when the dust settles, they ought to be happy with some of the things they’ve achieved this season.

And in 2023/24; with first loans likely for some, a chance to ‘put right’ this wrong and go for the PDL National title again, chances to establish themselves potentially on the horizon for some of the others, they all have so much to look forward to.

The last word must go to Millwall though.

Although Sheffield United probably had more possession and territory and played the better football, the Lions had a clear blueprint in how they played, were competitive, were physical, gave a very good account of themselves and created the better goalscoring opportunities and they’ll be delighted to have won the title infront of their own fans and friends and families and they’ll treasure these memories forever. Had they not won, the first half ‘penalty’ incident or that miss in the second half (which can be laughed about now) will have been the key moments they’ll have been left pondering.

Right across the team they were strong. Nino Adom-Malaki (No.3) got up and down the flank quite well, was good on the overlap at finding space and a good player in the first half. Kyle Smith (No.5) was involved in the ‘penalty’ incident (of sorts) in the first half I think which came about through clever play and he defended very well at the other end when he was up against Louie Marsh. Chinwike Okoli (No.6) was absolutely rock solid; the person I’d give any ‘Man Of The Match’ award too (even before he scored his goal) - and nearly every time Will Osula got the ball, he had his back to goal and it was difficult for him. That’s all because Okoli showed him away, marked him so well, stuck to him tightly and just gave an outstanding contribution. Then he went and scored the winner, and anyone who watched this game will certainly have been impressed by him - and I’ll certainly remember his name and be checking on his progress over the next few years. And further up the pitch, the whole attacking quartet - if you include the No.7 (Romain Esse) and No.11 (Nana Boateng) posed problems, were direct, in torturous form during that first 30 minutes where they really had the grit between their teeth. It’s obvious why they’ve scored so many goals as a team this season and they possess so much quality.

Fair play to them because they didn’t mess about and waste time in extra-time by feigning injury when that tactic could quite easily have been adopted. It takes a good team to stop these lads at Sheffield United and Millwall’s spirit and togetherness and collective performance - even by the lads I’ve not mentioned specifically was good and of a high standard. The result could have gone either way (that’s football) but enjoy the memories, cherish the medals and good luck in the careers which I’m certain quite a few of you boys will have! 

And after a season of 142 games (the most I’ve ever done) I’m now having a little rest for a few weeks!

Millwall: Joe Wright, George Walker, Nino Adam-Malaki, Shamar Lawson, Kyle Smith, Chinwike Okoli, Romain Esse, Alfie Allen, Aidomo Emakhu, Abdul Abdulmalik, Nana Boateng. Subs: Frankie Hvid, Dillion Addai, Josh Stephenson, Finley Cotton, Frankie Baker.

Sheffield United: Luke Faxon, Sai Sachdev, Jili Buyabu, Finley Potter, Connor Barratt, Miguel Freckleton, Sydie Peck, Oliver Arblaster, Will Osula, Louie Marsh, Andre Brooks. Subs: Levis Pitan, Callum Yam, Charlie Staniland, Josh Smith, Theo Williams.

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