‘Did you miss us?’ asked the banner in the one corner of the New Den and needless to say the answer was no.
There is nothing about Millwall which warms Leeds United and it turns out that this fixture has not changed since its temporary suspension three years ago.
Saturday brought missiles onto the pitch and upheld the old mood of antipathy throughout but the abiding theme in Bermondsey is Leeds’ inability to survive in Millwall’s waters.
Unintimidated by an unbeaten record or a defence which was edging towards 10 hours without conceding in the league, Millwall followed the usual script and jammed a spoke in the wheel. Eight of the last nine visits have ended this way.
In that, and the list of other coaches who have felt their wings clipped at the New Den over the years, there was some consolation for Thomas Christiansen. Saturday was his first experience of Millwall, a first taste of how United are welcomed there, and he maintained at the end of a 1-0 defeat that he and his squad were suitably prepared. Over in the opposing dug-out, Neil Harris was ready for it; a Millwall manager who understands this game from the days when he was up front, sniffing for goals and needling Leeds’ defence.
Harris spoke specifically about the “rivalry” beforehand and did so again with a win in his pocket. Millwall played the occasion, a first home meeting with Leeds since David Hockaday and 2014, but played it perfectly, swamping Leeds until an immense defensive record creaked and gave in. Aiden O’Brien’s winner took 73 minutes to come, Felix Wiedwald’s first concession in the Championship in more than 600 minutes, but defeat was on the way from the moment Steve Morison rifled a disallowed shot into the roof of United’s net early in the first half.
Leeds came to regard Morison as a limited, uninspiring centre-forward in the two-and-a-half years he spent at Elland Road but long balls and throw-ins were drawn to him like a magnet, playing to his strengths and allowing Millwall’s game to flourish. United had no way of countering him or their hosts’ boundless energy, despite the predictability of it all.
“He could have finished with the matchball,” said Harris, though Morison, who last week described himself as “for a time the most hated man in Leeds”, insisted he had taken no satisfaction in doing over a club who remember him less than fondly. “I couldn’t care less about that,” he said. “I ain’t bothered. It’s what you lot (the media) want to talk about.”
Christiansen, for the first time in his short spell as head coach, held his hands up and accepted that arguing with the result was pointless. Leeds were roundly applauded for destroying Burton Albion a week earlier with 30 shots on goal to Burton’s one but Saturday reversed the roles as Millwall produced 20 and Kalvin Phillips missed United’s only chance with a flicked header which bounced past the far post on 54 minutes. When O’Brien struck from close range, Leeds’ seven-match unbeaten run was over.
“We expected another (match without defeat) but we have to accept that we didn’t play a good game,” Christiansen said. “Millwall deserved this win.
“They took the game as they should, making their way of playing. We knew they would do that but you have to respond and combat that situation, giving at least the same and being at least as aggressive as the opponent.
“The plan for this game was clear. We knew it would be a direct, aggressive game with fast transition in attack. We were not able to stop it or go into the battle with the same intensity. The performance on the pitch was not the right one but we knew this moment would come.”
Christiansen said as much after Leeds skipped to the top of the Championship last Tuesday, warning that the season could not be as easy as his players were making it look. The club are still there after eight games, part of a three-way tie with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Cardiff City, and Christiansen stood by a beaten squad at full-time.
“I cannot complain with the players about anything,” he said. “If we are in first position still then it’s because of them. I will not complain about one loss in a very bad game. We didn’t do things right but everyone has the right to make mistakes.”
Leeds were without captain Liam Cooper, whose back injury suffered against Birmingham City last week proved more problematic than Christiansen indicated on Friday, but Cooper alone would not have altered the outcome. Christiansen refused to compromise with his line-up, fielding what passed as his strongest team before quickly facing up to the one-sided game in front of him and substituting Pablo Hernandez and Gjanni Alioski at half-time. Harris, in the traditions of a club who prefer cold beer to bubbly, told his players to cut the supply lines to Leeds’ creative assets and break their rhythm. Games of this nature were a problem for Hernandez last season.
Millwall ran the first half, cutting into the left side of Leeds’ defence and bypassing Christiansen’s midfield with high, direct balls. Morison drove home a seventh-minute chance after Wiedwald spilled Conor McLaughlin’s shot but was pulled up as he celebrated by an offside flag. Objects were thrown at the linesman responsible. Conor Shaughnessy, Cooper’s replacement, was in the right place to clear another shot from Morison off the goalline and Shaun Williams beat Wiedwald and the post with a free-kick last in the half.
Christiansen tried at the interval to re-enforce his team with Stuart Dallas and Kemar Roofe but to no avail. Harris stuck to his plan and Millwall crawled all over Christiansen’s defence. Morison and Shaun Hutchinson drew last-ditch saves from Wiedwald and Jed Wallace struck the base of a post with a cleanly-hit volley before Leeds pushed their luck once too often in the 73rd minute. A bouncing ball inside the box was won by Fred Onyedinma who prodded it to O’Brien at close range. Marginally offside but allowed to play on, O’Brien’s low, unmarked finish gave Wiedwald no chance. Leeds, with all their substitutions used, finished with 10 players after Pontus Jansson suffered a suspected hamstring strain but they had not threatened with Jansson on the pitch and did not come close to an equaliser without him.
Christiansen was asked afterwards if the result was a reality check after the best start to the season the club’s Spanish-Danish coach could have asked for. “We should not believe in these things (the hype surrounding his team),” Christiansen said. “We should believe in work, which brings us to where we are.
“These days will come and sometimes you have to work very hard to get a result. Today many things went wrong.”
He is not the first Leeds manager to say so at the New Den and he will not be the last. There is something about United which lights Millwall’s fuse at their own stadium and something which suggests the truth about who really missed whom lay much closer to home.
It was left to Morison to remind everyone that the Championship, eight games in, remains in its infancy.
“When we play like that, if you don’t fancy it and you don’t want to have the scrap, you’re going to come unstuck,” Morison said. “That’s exactly what happened.
“But they’ve been very good, don’t get me wrong. They’ve been fantastic. This shows what the league’s about and it’s a bit soon to relegate anyone or for anyone to say they’ll win (the title).
“A top of the table team can get beaten by a bottom of the table team, and quite comfortably as well.”