He would say it quietly these days but Millwall, like Leeds United, were Noel Whelan’s type of club.
His career there was short lived, ending for personal reasons before it got going, but he saw enough of the inner workings of Millwall to understand why it is that the New Den has given Leeds such a complex.
“When I got the first call about going there I thought ‘yup, that’ll do nicely’,” Whelan said. A physical striker with a robust personality, the rough-and-ready sales pitch from Bermondsey appealed to him. “On the day I signed I met some of their supporters in the car park. It was so old-school, a throwback to the 80s, and they had this expectation of you as a player. Millwall was supposed to be horrible for the opposition and you were supposed to be a part of that.”
Whelan signed for Millwall from Middlesbrough in 2003. Since then, Leeds have taken 10 points from 11 games there and lost the first leg of a play-off semi-final. Millwall away was the fixture which broke their unbeaten start last season and through coincidental timing it is the match which will be used to gauge whether Marcelo Bielsa’s squad – unbeaten after six games in the Championship – have a stronger constitution than Thomas Christiansen’s.
Visits to Millwall have been on a repeating sequence for some time: predictable defeats in predictable circumstances as an aggressive crowd get on top of Leeds and Millwall feed on the sparks from it. The hostility of the New Den has long been a factor in Millwall’s favour and last season their home record was better than all but five sides in the Championship.
“The atmosphere there is almost a tradition,” Whelan said. “It’s passed down by the old school to the younger supporters and the crowd love riling you, abusing you and looking for weakness.
If you show fear or if you’re soft, they’ll see it and go after you.Noel Whelan
“If you show fear or if you’re soft, they’ll see it and go after you. It definitely works in Millwall’s favour but it meant that as a player joining the club, you had to have the same mentality. However talented you were, you had to be up for a scrap. I was into all that. It suited me. I liked the environment and I’d have stayed longer if it hadn’t been for some personal things I had to deal with at the time.
“Every time you played at home, the players looked for the atmosphere and we tried to make it work for us. It’ll be no different now. On Saturday every one of Millwall’s players will be wondering if Leeds will go missing again.”
Leeds went missing badly last season, failing to return any fire during the first defeat of Christiansen’s reign as head coach. Millwall struck late with a suspicion of offside but Stuart Dallas, a half-time substitute, admitted afterwards that Leeds were “lucky to only come away with a 1-0 defeat”.
Bielsa – doubtless aware of the history of this particular match – will get his first experience of it this weekend. He won in Argentina with Chile, the first Chile coach to do so in an official fixture, and at Old Trafford with Athletic Bilbao and is hardly unaccustomed to difficult venues.
Whelan, the former United forward and BBC Radio Leeds’ matchday summariser, said the organisation seen in a goalless draw with second-placed Middlesbrough ahead of the international break was evidence of the squad’s ability to manage Saturday’s game.
“The physical element against Boro was what stood out,” he said. “They had the odd chance but in terms of crosses and set-pieces, the areas where Boro are very strong, Leeds stood up to them and coped well.
“It’s inevitable that you’ll get more of that on Saturday and concentration is everything. Bielsa will want to play his way because he always does but the chances are that Leeds will need to fight for at least 20 minutes, just to calm things down. Over the years that’s always been the way to win at Millwall – limit your errors, stay in the game and then look to play as it opens up later on.
“I can’t see Bielsa making too much of the record there publicly but he’ll know about it and he’s too clever not to give it some thought. The difference with him is that I think he demands a level of respect which wasn’t really there with Christiansen. There’s a fear factor which the players at Leeds will be feeling but also the opposition too. It’s impossible not to think about what he might throw at you.”
Millwall’s managerial structure is far more conventional and domestic: Neil Harris at the head of it – “Mr Millwall” as Whelan calls the club’s manager – with David Livermore as his assistant and Adam Barrett, formerly Southend United’s captain, working as first-team coach. Harris arguably understands Millwall-Leeds better than anyone, having played in, managed and won this fixture numerous times.
His team, though, are on a low-key run and lie nine points behind Leeds after three defeats in a row. Harris spoke earlier this week of “getting back to being really nitty-gritty and at our best.”
“A lot of what goes on down there is in the head,” Whelan said. “There were times when I likened it a bit to fighting Mike Tyson – you’d get some teams who’d turn up at Millwall, see what was in front of them and almost throw in the towel.
“You’ve got to rise to the atmosphere and, if anything, as an away team you’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to thrive on the idea of going against that atmosphere.
“If Leeds do that, the quality is there to win the game. I don’t think it has to be any more complicated.”