When the time came, Ian Holloway could barely summon the energy to answer the many “b******t questions” about how much trouble Millwall were in.
The reality of the Championship is blindingly obvious and Holloway’s squad have entered the twilight zone. “I can’t keep saying we’ve been unlucky,” he said, “because time is running out.” It might have gone completely after another result which mattered more than the way Millwall played.
His club are down and out or thereabouts but the hour after Leeds United’s win at Elland Road brought the ironic sound of Holloway offering sympathy to someone else. Brian McDermott, he said, “deserves a medal the size of a dustbin lid for what he’s putting up with.” These days McDermott looks like a man who’s putting up with more than he can handle.
If Holloway felt the clock ticking before kick-off on Saturday, McDermott did too. “Everyone was talking about Millwall fighting for their lives but as a club we’re fighting for our lives as well,” he said. Fifteen points clear of relegation, the worry for him is not identical but many of the stakes are exactly the same: jobs, prospects and basic stability. “We needed a result,” McDermott said after nervous victory. “We definitely needed a win.”
Millwall’s problems revolve around results and the injuries and shortcomings responsible for them. There is far more to United’s strife, as Holloway acknowledged when he told a club consumed by takeover fever to “sort your life out” but form was on McDermott’s mind before the weekend: six games without a win and three defeats back-to-back. He oozed relief after seeing off a team who outplayed his and passed the ball better than his.
“The run of form we’ve been on has been difficult to say the least,” McDermott said. “When Millwall got it back to 2-1, the game could have gone one of two ways so I’m delighted we hung on.
“You can turn round and say we didn’t play silky football and I’d have liked us to finish the game off. When you’re a team at its best, you finish the game comfortably and win 3-0. At the moment we’re not in that position and there are many reasons for that.”
Some are football-related and some not. The “uncertainty” which McDermott has complained about constantly persisted over the weekend as the Football League’s projected timeline for a decision on Massimo Cellino’s takeover – a deadline which should technically have fallen yesterday – came and went without any announcement from the governing body, Leeds or either of the parties involved in the sale.
McDermott was asked when a ruling was likely to come. “I’ve got no idea,” he said. “Really no idea.” You wonder who actually does. But it seems inconceivable that the Football League will allow the Italian’s buy-out to hang in the air beyond the end of this week. Even a decision in his favour would be the end of the beginning in the context of restoring order at Elland Road.
McDermott has had sympathy in spades this season but criticism is being shovelled on him too. As it did with Neil Warnock, a protracted takeover offered less and less defence for a squad whose form was sucking them into trouble. Relegation has not been spoken of at Elland Road but the subject would have resonated had Matt Smith and Ross McCormack not poleaxed Millwall, the team in 22nd place. Saturday’s result killed it.
“I realised it was a very big game,” McDermott said. “But then every game’s big. People say ‘this is must-win, that’s must-win’. Really you want to win every game. But anything’s possible.”
He was pragmatic in the end, content with the result and prepared to accept that Millwall saw much of the game and had Leeds on the run for most of the second half. There is a way in which McDermott would like his side to play, the way in which Reading used to play for him, but he is unlikely to see it at Elland Road without composed feet on the ball in the centre of midfield. There was bravery when it mattered but no fluency and no control, a weakness Leeds have displayed for a while. Millwall played the football and Holloway knew it.
“Leeds were on their knees,” he said. “I’ve never sensed this place like that. They’re a wonderful club but that ain’t right. Stop causing havoc, support your manager and sort your life out. The frustration is that we let them slip out the bag.”
Holloway, in his own style, bemoaned United creating “bo diddly” before the opening goal but Millwall pushed Leeds back and cut them open with creating much themselves.
In the 18th minute, the first time Leeds had camped inside Millwall’s box, Connor Wickham aimed a long throw towards Smith who looped a back-header over David Forde and inside the goalkeeper’s far post.
“The gaffer mentioned to me that their keeper likes to come for everything,” Smith said.
“I saw him move and thought ‘I’m going to head this high and far’.”
Ownership permitting, the time will soon come where futures at Leeds are opened to debate. Among McDermott’s players, Smith has earned the right to stick around. His goal on Saturday was his 11th of the season – his third year as a professional and his first at Leeds – and he involved himself more than Ross McCormack. But the irrepressible McCormack scored United’s second in the 41st minute, anticipating a sliding tackle from Tom Lees which carried 40 yards and dropped in behind Forde’s defence.
McCormack ran for the ball, advanced on a back-peddalling keeper and slipped a cheeky finish through Forde’s legs.
Holloway waited a while and then went for broke, making three substitutions and putting four strikers on the field. One of them, DJ Campbell, pulled a goal back in the 72nd minute by beating Jack Butland with a sumptuous volley as Millwall attacked in waves.
The Alamo came but Butland got his leg to a goalbound effort from Stefan Maierhofer soon after and by the time five minutes of injury-time were up, Millwall were scrambling to clear shots from McCormack and Michael Tonge off their goalline.
It was, remarkably, the first win McDermott had seen in the flesh at Elland Road since December 4, a night when Leeds climbed to seventh in the league. They are at Millwall’s level now, fighting for everything but fighting nonetheless.
Leeds United: Butland, Byram (Wootton 90), Lees, Pearce, Pugh, Mowatt (Tonge 84), Austin, Murphy, Wickham (Hunt 86), McCormack, Smith. Subs (not used): Cairns, Warnock, Stewart, Poleon.
Millwall: Dunne, Robinson, Beevers, Lowry, Upson (Campbell 57), Garvan, Onyedinma (Jackson 59), McDonald, Woolford, Marquis (Maierhofer 57). Subs (not used): Bywater, Fredericks, Abdou, Powell.