How did Millwall end up with the nickname ‘The Lions’? It’s the least accurate nickname in the Football League. For a start, lions are brown, whereas Millwall turned up at Fortress Madejski in a horrible Second World War grey that made them look like a German infantry division in its underwear.
They played Germanically, too, a team of big hulking blokes who invaded the Reading half for the first 20 minutes or so, and just stayed there, bombarding us with high balls. For throw-ins, they put Jake Cooper on the near post. It was like having the Eiffel Tower to aim at. The same happened with corners.
Reading, meanwhile, just stood back and let them come at us in wave after wave. (It seems to have become the new norm for the beginnings of games at the Madejski!) For the first 20 minutes, we barely touched the ball. Luckily, we had our own hulking big bloke in the team, Anssi Jaakkola, who kept us in it during this dire opening quarter with a string of brave and instinctive point blank saves. The fact that it was still 0-0 after 20 minutes was entirely due to Anssi.
If Jaakkola was the first surprise on the team sheet - where was Sam Walker? Where was Vito Mannone? - the second was Garath McCleary who’s been away so long we’d almost forgotten he was still a Royal. How excellent to see him back. With our snowflake midfield of Leandro Bacuna, Liam Kelly and John Swift being blown away by the invading Germans, Garath wasn’t getting many touches, but when he did get on the ball it usually resulted in a centre. From the first of these, Kelly should have scored and so should Yakou Meite, following up. Saving those efforts was the first time Ben Amos in the Millwall goal touched the ball. It was the 21st minute.
If Paul Clement’s strategy is to allow teams who come to the Mad Stad to tire themselves out at the start of games by giving them the ball all the time, you have to say it worked. On our second attack, in the 28th minute, we scored. And what a goal it was. Tyler Blackett, who’d been putting in a decent defensive shift at left back, got himself to the byline and sent in a low fast cross which Meite glanced past Amos at speed. Top header.
This being Reading - at home - a Millwall equaliser felt inevitable. Sure enough, after five minutes of carpet bombing, it duly arrived. Simple corner. Goalmouth scramble. Hulking centre back prods it in from close range.
I must admit, I thought that would now be that, and Millwall would go on to bombard their way to victory. But blow me down if, just before half time, the ref doesn’t give us a penalty for what looked from my seat like a hard but fair tackle on Blackett. Whatever. Sam Baldock slams it in, and we go in at the break leading 2-1 in a game for most of which we’d been bullied, battered, bombarded and bashed.
The second half felt slightly different. Millwall didn’t change. The poor befuddled beast has no plan B. Their route is get it to the winger, get it in the middle, get Tom Elliott on the end of it, and watch him miss. Reading, however, were playing with a bit more presence and nous. Baldock on the left was noticeably muscular in his support of Blackett. On the right, McCleary put in more centres in his 74 minutes on the pitch than Sone Aluko has managed in his entire Reading career. Kelly, ordered to chase forward every time the ball got out of our half, was suddenly more penetrative.
As for Meite up front on his own - the Yak was dishing out as much as he was getting. He missed a sitter when set free by Swift, one on one, but if anyone was a true lion on this pitch it was Yakou Meite. How fitting and fabulous that he it was who rose unchallenged for a Bacuna corner, and bounced in the third goal. Marc McNulty meanwhile, who’d replaced Kelly in the 84th minute, cleverly obstructed their goalie to make sure it went in.
But to get back to this Lions thing. Lions are noble, and lots of people like them. Millwall are ignoble, and nobody likes them, but they don’t care. Lions live in the savannah. Millwall live in a particularly dank bit of London. What’s grey, unloved and lives somewhere dank? A rat, that’s what. Millwall FC, I give you a nickname that really fits: The Rats. Wear it with pride.