Stephen Jones*, our Millwall ‘Who are You?’ volunteer, joins the growing number of outsiders who doubt our ability to get out of trouble. Gone are the words of encouragement from earlier in the season. People who do not support Sunderland see the same signs as those who do. Of course, a few wins would change everything. But where are they going to come from given the difficulty we have in avoiding defeat let alone taking three points, no matter who the opposition? And a word of warning for our flaky defence: George Saville, who scored twice against us at the Stadium of Light, has been having a barren spell and may see a game against us as just the opportunity to start hitting goals again …
Salut! Sunderland: What did you expect from this season and how does comfortable mid-table feel?
Stephen Jones: I’ve been asked this question a lot – even more so over the past few weeks! Before a ball was kicked back in August if I’d have been offered 21st place, I’d have snapped your hand off! To be where we are at the moment is an incredible achievement for everyone connected to the club and to be heading into March looking up rather than down is a great feeling as a supporter.
The first game was a comedy of errors with both keepers having stinkers. Our goalie problems have worsened but you seem to have got back to generally solid defending. Where do you still need strengthening?
I don’t think I’ll ever see a game quite like our first encounter this season (in regards to the keepers!) it was just horrendous all round. If I’m being honest, I think we do still have a fragile keeper in Jordan Archer at this level – on his day he can look like a top class goalkeeper but seems to have an issue with long range efforts – which teams are beginning to work out -otherwise and racking up shots from distance against us – and a lack of confidence coming out to claim the ball from set pieces. It is his first season at this level and he will get better but at the moment it is a little nervy at times! Other than that, we seem to have a very well balanced squad with cover in each position and as you mentioned one of our strengths is at the back with a settled back four most weeks.
Was it an odd decision to bring Cahill back at 38, albeit in a short-term deal or can he add something to the squad? And how has Saville done since he scored two at our place?
It was a “no brainer” deal for the majority of the supporters and club. Tim is a legend at our club and gave me and so many fans moments that we’ll never forget. He appears to have come in and lifted standards in training even higher and his presence in the match day squad gives the fans a huge boost – at 38 he might not be as mobile as he was before but certainly has a lot offer at this level and is working hard to get into the Australian World Cup squad. George Saville was arguably our player of the season and leading goalscorer up to and including the game at the Stadium of Light. Unfortunately since then he has only scored one goal and performances haven’t been of the same standard but is still a crucial part of our team & we certainly look better with him the side than without him.
Happy with Neil Harris and the ownership structure? How far can Millwall realistically go?
Again like Cahill, Neil Harris is a club legend, he’s our club record goalscorer and everything he seems to do at the moment works! We’ve finally got stability off the pitch with a great owner and great set up behind the scenes, its a great time to be a Millwall supporter. Whilst keeping realistic, I can’t see why in a few years we can’t be pushing for a top six place and a crack at the Premier League (providing we can keep hold of our players and continue to improve the squad).
Tell me your highs and lows as a Millwall fan
When you support a side that aren’t competing at the top of the Premier League, you always have to relish any kind of success that comes your way although in saying that, I’ve have been blessed in my time supporting Millwall (23 years this season!) – I’ve seen us play in an FA Cup Final, play in Europe, promoted on three separate occasions and we’ve played at Wembley six times.
My lowest point was probably only three seasons ago. We had a disastrous Championship campaign ending in relegation, the worst manager in the clubs history, journeyman footballers signing from all over the place – some of which were some of the worst I’ve seen in a Millwall shirt, a sponsor that didn’t even exist, all of which almost destroyed the club.
Neil Harris and Tim Cahill are the 2 names that always spring to mind – I don’t think I’ll ever see anyone in either of their positions as good as they were in a Millwall shirt. The team they were part of got us to the FA Cup Final and probably carried our best hope of reaching the Premier League (unfortunately just missing out) and of course Harris went on to be the club’s record goalscorer, which again is something I don’t think will ever be beaten.
A few players I wish I’d seen based on stories and old footage are Terry Hurlock and Teddy Sheringham. Hurlock was a real tough midfielder who scared the lights out of the opposition – a player some of our older supporters continue to talk about this day and is regarded a club legend and Teddy was arguably the most successful player we’ve ever had on the books. He was our record goalscorer (Before Harris come along) and of course we all know what he went on to achieve in football.
And who should have been allowed nowhere near your ground?
We’ve had a few players that have been absolutely diabolical in a Millwall shirt – A couple that stick out for me are Gary Taylor Fletcher who was, shall we say, a rather big lad when he signed for us and Bas Savage who might have been the worst striker I’ve ever seen play professional football.
Were you surprised by our steep decline?
Yes I have been. When you see a club the size of Sunderland drop out of the Premier League its always a shock but as an outsider I thought you’d be at least challenging for the play-offs. To be in the situation you’re in is ridiculous and unfortunately it’s the fans who suffer the most. For their sake I hope you don’t slip further down the footballing chain but in all honesty it really doesn’t look good for you guys.
Any other thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the region, Chris Coleman?
I must admit, I’ve only been to Sunderland once (this season) and it being freezing cold and rather long way from home! As I said earlier your fans have been through some real tough times in recent years and the fact they still turn out in high numbers speaks volumes. I was also surprised to see Coleman take the job on to be honest. He’d worked wonders for Wales during his spell as manager and I thought he’d end up back in the Premier League. He does come across well and is obviously a good manager but I think this job has just been a little too much for him.
Is there a single player you’d take from us?
At the moment our team is fairly settled so it would take someone really special to break in but I must admit I’m a big fan of Kazenga LuaLua. He always tends to pop up with a goal against us and always looks a big threat, I’d have him in a heartbeat.
You must get fed up with outsiders asking about the bad reputation of your supporters but is it, or was it, justified in your view?
As a Millwall fan its something that I’ve grown to get used to. Of course back in the 70s/80s there were some well documented incidents that have not helped our cause and there are still a small proportion of “fans” who let us down but our core fan base are an incredible set of people who do so much for charity and good causes. We also as a club have worked harder than anyone in the football league behind the scenes to change the perception of Millwall Football Club – which has been recognised by the EFL but is still something that lots of people tend to forget.
Hand on heart, where will our two teams finish the season?
I hate to say it but I really can’t see Sunderland avoiding the drop this season, it just seems that with each passing week there’s another nail being hammered into the coffin and it would take a remarkable effort to avoid relegation. For Millwall, there is a huge buzz that we could make a late surge into the play-offs and whilst its a nice dream to have at this stage of the season – realistically I think we’ll finish around 10th – which would be a huge success for us..
What is your assessment of the standard of refereeing in the Championship?
We’ve been on the end of some shocking decisions this season from the officials (as have every club of course) but it just appears that things never seem to change. I understand there will always be mistakes in football but some of the referees/linesman I’ve seen this season have been completely out of their depth and something really does need to change.
The Dele Alli question: his manager says diving doesn’t really matter. Has he a point or should cheats be severely punished?
I’m not really a fan of Dele Alli – yes he’s obviously talented but I can’t stand watching him (and other players) just throw themselves to the floor when it suits them to gain an advantage. For me it’s something that needs to be kicked out of football and if players such as Alli want to continue to do it then further punishments should be implemented. I do also find it incredible how those kind of actions can be defended, when if it’s the other way round they’re the first to complain!
Will you be at the game? What will be the score?
Yes I’ll be there on Saturday. I always get nervous when trying to predict the results for my own team but with our form at the moment and the Den being a fortress at the moment, I think we’ll be claiming all three points with a 2-1 victory.
* Stephen Jones on himself: I’m 26, live in Kent and work for a local media company – KM Media Group. I got the Millwall bug from my dad who was born and grew up in Lewisham. My dad took my to my first game when I was just three years (I must admit I fell asleep at one point and it was only the cheer of our supporters after we’d scored that woke me up!) and have been a season ticket holder for 12 years. As I’ve got older I’ve tried to get around to as many grounds as possible and am currently up to 43!
Interview: Colin Randall