A midday kick-off to keep temptation and tempers low, with Leeds’s large travelling support slow to fill the top tier of the Den’s North Stand. As is customary, those in the corner of the Dockers Stand spent much of their Sunday lunchtime at 45 degrees to the play, instead regaling their visitors with chants often less than friendly. Leeds fans, in turn, heartily reciprocated.
But as Millwall were kept at bay by an organised defensive display from Leeds, the ire began to turn on the home team – even if the sourest bile was kept for the referee, Chris Kavanagh.
Leeds ended a miserable record in SE16, having not won on any of their previous six visits. Despite having hired a two-time promotion winner in Daniel Farke, little this season had previously gone to plan in the quest to bounce back. The transfer window has stripped down his squad but here, at last, were healthy signs those who remain have the stomach for the long fight ahead.
“You have to show steel and resilience,” a delighted Farke said. “You have to give your life in these moments … stay cool to let your quality shine.”
Millwall began with archetypal aggression, the muscular striker Tom Bradshaw leading from the front and Leeds’s Luke Ayling and Pascal Struijk got in a tangle under such pressure. Illan Meslier’s problems under the lofted ball had clearly featured within Gary Rowett’s team talk and an early mix up led to Bradshaw’s presence panicking the Leeds goalkeeper before blushes were spared by Kavanagh’s whistle.
When Ayling dropped to the floor in the penalty box soon after, Millwall fans screeched for handball, only for Kavanagh to wave play on. Perhaps in doing so he missed what looked a foul by Joël Piroe on Kevin Nisbet before Leeds broke to score a high‑quality first goal. Piroe, supplied by interchanges between Georginio Rutter and Wilfried Gnonto, delivered a cool, dinked finish. “A poor goal,” Rowett said. A “big moment”, too.
Rutter, a club-record signing last season, looks far more comfortable at Championship level, and was key in both Piroe goals before notching his own. Piroe, the two-goal Dutchman, signed from Swansea in August, also looked someone to fire Leeds into the promotion picture.
Archie Gray, 17, and Elland Road royalty as grandson of Frank Gray and great-nephew of Eddie, looked to the manor born in anchoring midfield alongside Ethan Ampadu in upright, rangy style. “Archie has so many strengths,” Farke said. “It was a big ask for a 17-year-old but today he was top class, he fulfilled all my expectations.”
A promising opening win at Middlesbrough has given way to disquiet among Millwall supporters, and Rowett’s experimental 3-4-1-2 formation did little to swing public opinion. Billy Mitchell, asked to screen the defence, found himself overworked and Farke could be disappointed Leeds did not have more of a half-time lead. His team had quietened both crowd and opposition, threatening skies echoing the quiet seethe among home fans.
“It felt a little harsh, not a fair reflection of the effort our players put in,” Rowett said, though his team have scored just four goals in six Championship matches.
Leeds’s problem last season – and this – has been their defensive record. Millwall, as expected, began the second half like a pack of hungry dogs, hurling themselves into the fray. Meslier saved low and well from Bradshaw but the home threat ebbed soon enough. Millwall fans built a wall of ear-bleeding sound, an ungodly racket for a Sunday lunchtime, but Leeds, with admirable concentration, held their nerve amid the bedlam. His attack blunted, Rowett made a triple substitution, throwing on Zian Flemming, Duncan Watmore and Romain Esse.
It was to little avail, the visitors remained deadly, almost surgical on the break. Crysencio Summerville was replaced by a fellow speed demon in Dan James before Piroe scored his second of what Farke called “amazing team goals” to begin emptying the home stands.
Another overload saw James swing and miss from Rutter’s pass and Piroe pick up the pieces from a yard out. Rutter completed the rout, scoring the goal his performance deserved from yet another breakaway, the Frenchman visibly flushed with confidence. His finish and celebrations sent yet more Millwall fans to grumble into the south London gloom.