Classic Match: Millwall 0 Blues 1

By Brian Cartlidge
Last updated : 06 January 2011

This is how Singing The Blues match reporter Richard Barker saw the game back in May 2002:

Stern John's injury time strike sent the travelling fans into ecstasy, and broke Millwall hearts, when the game seemed destined for extra time. All that stands between Blues and the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, oh, and Aston Villa now is Nigel Worthington's in-form Norwich City on May 12th in Cardiff.

Blues boss Steve Bruce had built the game up all week as a 'one-off cup tie'. The maths were simple - Blues needed to win. Strangely, after 3 years of disappointments, Blues had actually won one leg in each of the previous 3 semi-finals, and as long as they did the same in this two-legged semi, they'd be back in Cardiff for the second time in 15 months.

The atmosphere was understandably tense. Millwall did everything they could to build up an intimidating environment for Blues, but playing the likes of Pink and Roy Chubby Brown before kick-off lent a feeling of a friday night out in town, rather than a hostile cauldren of noise. There's certainly an irony that the lyrics of the Pink song comment 'I'm going up so you better get this party started!' I suspect that the home side felt it would be their party getting started later that evening, and not Blues'.

When it came down to the football, both sides were very tense and very nervous. However, Blues settled the quicker, adapting well to Bruce's surprise team selection. As expected, Paul Devlin replaced Damien Johnson. Somewhat less expected, however, was Steve Vickers coming in for Darren Carter, and Olivier Tebily being moved alongside Bryan Hughes in central midfield.

Blues created the better chances of the first half, most notably through Tebily from corner kicks. On one occasion his powerful header was chested off the line by Millwall left back Ronnie Bull, and on another, Tebily was just wide of the mark. Millwall had a fair bit of possession, but didn't really create, and Nico Vaesen enjoyed a fairly quiet first 45 minutes. Vickers' experience certainly helped in shackling Dion Dublin who had proved a thorn in Blues' side at St Andrews on sunday.

The pattern of the second period was much the same, in truth, although Millwall did test Blues a little more - notably when Vaesen spilled a long cross, and Dublin fired wide from merely two yards out. A series of long throw ins also threatened to punish Blues, who looked rocked for about 20 minutes of the second half. However, if Dublin's miss was bad, John was certainly doing his best to match him. Firstly, he ran the length of the Millwall half with the ball after a good interception, and when completely free, and just with Tony Warner to beat, he fired high and wide when rounding Warner seemed the best option. Then, a few minutes later, when the defence opened up in front of him, and he had the choice to either lay the ball through to Stan Lazaridis (who had again replaced the ineffective Tommy Mooney) or bury the chance himself, he sliced the ball wide. When Geoff Horsfield's withdrawal from the game for Andrew Johnson was greeted by boo's from the travelling fans, it wasn't any criticism of Horsfield's tireless work, but was a reflection that John was still on the pitch.

How wrong could we all be?

Dead on the 90th minute, Blues won a corner. As Martin Grainger wandered over to swing the ball in from the right, the fourth official held up the board indicating that we were 3 minutes away from a nail-biting additional half an hour. We were now in injury time. Grainger swung in a deep corner, which the Millwall defence were unable to clear fully, and the ball dropped to Vickers - of all people - just to the left of the goalmouth. Jaws dropped as instead of shooting just yards from goal, he controlled the ball, before driving it across goal with his left foot. Suddenly John had connected with his left foot, the back of the net had bulged, and we really were on our way. The players and the bench's celebrations said it all.

Blues played out the remaining injury time with little to worry them, and subsequently finally cleared this particular hurdle of the play-offs for the first time. As several Millwall fans rushed to the pitch, Blues fans danced and celebrated with Tebily, Vaesen, Devlin and Vickers - the only Blues players not to run down the tunnel (and rightly so) for fears of their safety. Millwall's shock and frustration turned to pure anger outside, as around 1000 home fans clashed with riot police. Thankfully the Blues fans were kept well clear from this, being held back in the car park area behind the away stand for around 2 hours by police, who, from what I know at the moment, did an excellent job in keeping the two sets of rival fans apart.

The weird thing is that the Blues fans celebrated as if we'd already won the play offs, which is understandable after the previous three years. No one minded being kept back until around 11.30pm, such was the joyous mood amongst those brave enough to travel. Perhaps the relatively clean operation conducted by the police will encourage some of those stay-aways to travel should we ever need to visit The New Den again. Importantly though, the job is only half done. Blues now face a bubbling Norwich City side, fresh from an impressive two-legged victory over Wolves, for a place alongside English football's elite. The worrying thing is that Blues are the only side in the country to have beaten Norwich twice this season, winning 4-0 at home, and 1-0 away recently. Obviously hopes will be high that such a record will continue, but this is Blues we're talking about...

Still, Blues just don't score injury time winners in crucial semi-finals, do they? It's just not the Blues we know and love to do a thing like that. Surely they can't win a play off final for a place in the Premier League, can they? It just wouldn't be Blues. Then again, tonight wasn't either - and what a night it was.

Millwall: Warner, Lawrence, Bull, Nethercott, Ward, Ifill, Cahill, Livermore, Reid, Dublin, Claridge. Subs Not Used: Gueret, Harris, Kinet, Bircham, Dyche.

Blues: Vaesen, Kenna, Grainger, Purse, Vickers, Devlin, Tebily, Bryan Hughes, Mooney (Lazaridis 62), John, Horsfield (Andrew Johnson 84). Subs Not Used: Bennett, Damien Johnson, Carter.

Booked: Bryan Hughes, Purse, Vaesen.

Goals: John 90.

Agg (1-2) Att: 16,391

Ref: G Laws (Whitley Bay).

 

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