A mildly entertaining, robustly contested game appeared to be heading to a goalless draw, which neither side would have complained about, when a late Sorba Thomas corner was headed in by Jonathan Hogg, arriving at the near post with immaculate precision.
Following their chastening defeat on the south coast last weekend, all be it inflicted by an excellent Bournemouth side looking certain to run away with the league, it was important to react in front of their own fans. An in-form and very awkward Millwall team, who had won 4 of their last 5 to join Town and a plethora of other clubs on 21 points, provided typically stiff Championship opposition.
A cagey opening 15 minutes handed the visitors the initiative and though they were unable to turn their superiority into chances, they easily thwarted Town’s attempts to gain any momentum and a long, attritional afternoon beckoned.
The similarities to the stalemate with Birmingham were glaringly obvious yet, somehow, this encounter proved more entertaining despite neither side creating enough goal-scoring opportunities nor troubling either keeper much.
When Town finally began to look forward with their passing and introduced an element of pace and movement, they engineered a chance for Ward in the box only for him to volley it high and wide. The busy Holmes had fed Thomas who picked out the striker from the right with a great ball in and Town should have taken the lead at that point.
Ward did make the Millwall keeper work with another effort which was struck well but straight at him and contributed well overall against a resilient Millwall backline.
Both teams moved the ball well at times but the lack of penetration where it matters blunted their efforts, and a goalless first half rather limped to its conclusion and Town’s drought stretched over the 3 and a half hour mark (though it should be said that the goal scored by Ward at Bournemouth was perfectly legitimate and not offside).
If Town were to win this one, the most likely source of a goal would be a set-piece and within minutes of the restart Pearson latched on to a flick-on at the back post only for his effort to be cleared off the line by the keeper’s legs.
After this brief flurry of excitement, the game settled back into attrition with personal battles taking place all over the pitch and, to the credit of the participants, it rarely boiled over despite the physical intent.
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Hogg, unsurprisingly revelling in this full-blooded contest, set Holmes on his way after winning possession and the much-improved midfielder set up Toffolo for a strike which was fairly close but not particularly troubling for Bialkowski.
O’Brien then made an excellent run past three attempted challenges through the middle before laying the ball off to Sinani who fed Holmes before Thomas fired wildly over from a decent position.
The defining moment of the game arrived immediately after Thomas’ effort as Millwall broke effectively and played in Tom Bradshaw behind the Town defence. Pearson recovered and put in a crucial tackle to stop the considerable danger and almost certainly prevented the visitors from taking the lead.
Bradshaw was replaced by Benik Afobe shortly afterwards and Pearson was to thwart the ex-Town man as well later on to cement his man of the match status.
Town also made a change with Koroma replacing Sinani. The Luxembourger seems to divide opinion with his performances, but he has an undoubted ability that doesn’t come off quite enough during games despite useful contributions to the team effort. He is worth persevering with, however, and the extra couple of percent he needs to add will create a very useful creator, which the side rather lacks.
Koroma’s introduction added urgency and a more direct approach and Town’s ascendancy in the final quarter of an hour became pronounced. Corberán also switched things around with Turton replacing the excellent Colwill to form a back 4 and Campbell replacing Holmes and joining Ward in a rarely seen front two.
The changes paid off with a period of pressure creating a series of set pieces, still the most likely source of goals for this side.
Ward had a fierce effort blocked following a free-kick delivery and Millwall began to creak under the pressure.
Perhaps their growing discomfort allowed Jonathan Hogg to get in front of the South Londoners’ defence to divert yet another Thomas assist into the far corner. The unlikely scorer was fantastically delighted with his winner and his performance fully deserved the accolades which would follow.
First, however, Town had just over 10 minutes to cling on to their lead and, perhaps understandably, retreated a little too deep for comfort. However, the defensive resilience of this team is well established now and despite one or two moments of concern, notably a strike by Afobe which a less lenient referee may have called handball by Toffolo, the 3 points were secured.
A typically tight Championship game, settled by fine margins, produced a decent level of entertainment by both sides with Town just about deserving the win on chances made.
Fifth in the table and miles away from the wrong end of the table, Town enter the winter in very good shape.
The elevated league position feels a little flattering to the actual ability of the squad, but it is also encouraging that there is room for improvement in some areas, particularly creativity and conversion, and with a January window on the horizon, a good platform is in place.