Millwall are football’s great disruptors – and their next target is the Premier League

Gary Rowett at Milwalll’s training ground – Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph

A picture hangs on the wall of Millwall’s training ground, reminding players and staff every day: “If you want to be a winner, be fearless as a lion.”

That bold approach and ability to disrupt chances has really been embraced by Millwall this season, with the club struggling to end a 33-year wait to play in the top flight.

Under the management of Gary Rowettthe club are sixth in the league with eight games to go and fans dare to dream of a fairytale ending.

The Lions have secured some big scalps along the way, including Sheffield United, Middlesbrough and a double over Watford, and spirits at their training base have been lively this week.

“People don’t expect to see us in the top six, but we’ve embraced that underdog mentality,” said Rowett, who has just returned from a training session with rain dripping from his shorts.

“We’re disruptors and we’re going to use our strengths to stop some of the big boys from getting in there. The expectation is that the guys from Watford, Norwich and West Brom are there – not us. We want to tease one or the other of these teams a bit at the end of the season for not getting in.”

Rowett, 49, is the second-longest-serving manager in the division after Coventry’s Mark Robins and his three years at the helm have been a story of steady progress.

His coaching career began 18 years ago with Derby County’s under-14s, earning £60 a session. He is now tantalizingly close to securing a path to the Premier League’s untold fortunes.

“I enjoy the challenge of punching past your weight, I think it suits me,” he says. “Millwall are a unique club and it’s only now that I’m starting to understand what it’s all about. I’ve been to the playoffs three times [once with Derby, twice with Burton Albion] and I would like to make it a fourth.”

Millwall started the season poorly but have been on an upward trend since adjusting the formation to 4-2-3-1. Their game now has a more expansive side and in Zian Flemming they have one of the best players in the league this season with 13 goals and two assists.

Zian Flemming - Adam Davy/PA

Zian Flemming – Adam Davy/PA

The Dutch midfielder, a record £1.7million signing from Fortuna Sittard, has been a target for Rowett in three seasons. Rowett watched Flemming’s games for hours, including Eredivisie games at bigger clubs like Ajax, to see how he fared with less possession.

Another smart recruit was striker Andreas Voglsammer, signed from Union Berlin last August. Known by fans as BFG (the big F —— German), Voglsammer will stay on for another year after passing a set number of starts.
The arrival of Flemming and Voglsammer has resulted in between 650 and 1000 additional fans from the Netherlands and Germany attending home games.

Other standout players include top scorer Tom Bradshaw, who played Croatia in last week’s Euro 2024 qualifier in Wales, and defenders Jake Cooper and Danny McNamara.

Winger Romain Esse, an England Under-18 international and a product of the club’s prestigious academy, also has high hopes.

“This is the best squad we’ve had since I’ve been here,” says Rowett. “We’re not going to take teams off the pitch, but we’re going to look people in the face and use that bit of aggression and physicality in the right way, with some quality to find a balance. If you don’t have good players, you can’t finish sixth with eight games to go.”

Millwall Training Ground - Eddie Mulholland for the Telegraph

Millwall Training Ground – Eddie Mulholland for the Telegraph

Recruitment is vital for clubs like Millwall who don’t have the budget or parachute payments of many others in the division. Preparations for next season are well underway, no matter what division you’re in.

Targets have been scouted for years and while Millwall relies on data and stats they can’t afford to make mistakes so players are always watched live. Recruitment can also be frustrating: in January, moves for Stoke’s Jacob Brown, QPR’s Lyndon Dykes and Hibernian’s Kevin Nisbet all fell through for different reasons.

Millwall’s day-to-day operations are overseen by Steve Kavanagh, the club’s chief executive and a strong advocate of financial regulation. Millwall’s wage bill is about 15th highest in the division.

Kavanagh speaks daily to owner John Berylson, who is based in the United States and has invested more than £100m since acquiring it in 2005. There are plans to move to a new training ground for 2025 as well as the development of The Den.

“This club has always been about progress and this year we took that extra step,” said Kavanagh, who also sits on the EFL board.

“If you look around the championship, there are car accidents everywhere. Football is about sustainability and acting appropriately, even if we all lose money. We’re trying to move the club forward and change perceptions.”

Steve Kavanagh - Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph

Steve Kavanagh – Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph

This struggle to change perceptions has felt endless for Kavanagh. Millwall’s troubled reputation has been difficult to change outside of Bermondsey, but there are tangible signs of progress. The Den is now one of the safest stadiums in the Championship and Millwall were the first club to appoint an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee.

Millwall Romans, the LGBT team, is supported by the club and run by the Community Trust.

“It’s a phenomenal story and we’re starting to get the message across that we’re a good club and we’re doing the right things,” said Kavanagh. “Nobody really wants to know what we’re doing off the pitch as it doesn’t make headlines, but we’re very proud of what we do.”

Kavanagh regularly visits the club’s training ground near Ravensbourne station and this week the atmosphere in the players’ canteen was lively.

Down a corridor is Rowett’s office, a large chalkboard on the wall with plans for the coming weeks.

Training sessions are planned in advance – a typical week involves heavy work on Tuesday focusing on possession, defending phase and fitness. Preparations kick off later in the week with a focus on set pieces and three-team SSGs (small side games).

A key employee of Rowett is Dave Carolan, the head of benefits. Statistics are sent to players via Whatsapp after each game detailing distance, running shots and physical stats.

In January’s 1-0 defeat at Middlesbrough, they covered the team’s longest distance of the season, covering 111km for the 10 outfield players.

Millwall are now chasing the finish line as they meet West Brom five points clear of their opponents this weekend. They also have a potentially crucial game against Luton on Easter Friday while traveling to Wigan and Blackpool – the current bottom two – before the end of the season.

“We want to crash the party,” says Rowett. “We’re all ready and there’s absolutely no pressure on us.”

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