The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is a competition often ridiculed until the very latter stages come into play; sometimes, even then, is it disregarded.
Whether it’s the Leyland DAF Cup, the Auto Windscreen Shield or the LDV Vans Trophy, the cup competition between the bottom two divisions of the Football League pyramid would probably not be missed if it was scrapped altogether.
However, courtesy of that very competition, Millwall Football Club now potentially find themselves just one round – and 180 minutes – away from a fourth visit to Wembley Stadium in seven years.
What started in front of just 2,050 fans at The Den against Peterborough in Round One has now evolved into a two-legged showdown with Oxford United in the new year, for a place in the final at the Home of Football.
As minute as it may be in the context of the whole season, I actually put Shaun Williams’ injury-time winner at home to the Posh as one of the most important moments of this campaign so far. The Lions were without a home win until then and with penalties looming, it looked as though that run had a very good chance of continuing. However, the midfielder popped up with a header as the clock counted zero – since then, the Lions have lost once in the league on their own patch, catapulting themselves from the lower reaches of the table to the brink of the top six in the process.
A routine home victory against cash-strapped Northampton Town followed in Round Two, but even then, the tie was still played out in front of just 2,254 fans, at a very subdued Den. The Area Quarter-Final vs Plymouth Argyle was perhaps the game where interest piqued slightly for most; Lee Gregory’s quadruple of strikes, plus Aiden O’Brien’s goal meant that the Lions hit Argyle for five, advancing to the last four of the Southern Section, with a tie at Southend United to follow.
After the disappointment of the FA Cup exit to Wycombe Wanderers last Saturday (more on that in a bit), it was all about a response from Neil Harris and his players, whilst fans also sought redemption, after the Shrimpers’ 2-0 victory in SE16 earlier in the season, along with the horror that was the 4-1 defeat at Roots Hall in the FA Cup last season. Add to that the fact that Southend have become somewhat of a bogey side over recent years, and the 2-0 win was made sweeter, courtesy of goals from the excellent Steve Morison and Shaun Williams.
You could argue (and I have) that the JPT is doing nothing but contributing to an incredible amount of fixture congestion – the Lions have played Saturday/Tuesday nearly all season – but now that the Wembley arch is in sight, it makes you feel as though turning up in early September and having a whole row to yourself in Round One is all worth it.
The Area Final won’t be easy – Oxford are top of League Two – but – and I realise this is massively tempting fate; something I don’t often do – over two legs, you have to feel that Millwall will be too strong for their opponents. I realise that that could be a statement that will come back to bite me on the backside, but with the way we have been playing for large parts of this season, if the Lions are not stepping onto the Wembley turf on April 3, I will be surprised.
Elsewhere, it hasn’t been all fun and games in cup competitions, as Harris’ side crashed out of the FA Cup last weekend, losing to League Two’s Wycombe Wanderers in injury time. The FA Cup is a competition that I hold close to my heart, so to not even make Round Three is exceptionally disappointing.
Given the choice, I would’ve much preferred a win over Wycombe, followed by a potential trip to Old Trafford, the Emirates or Anfield than victory on Tuesday night, but unfortunately in football, you can’t pick and choose.
In the grand scheme of things, like the defeat at Fleetwood Town last month, you would hope that the loss to Gareth Ainsworth’s men was just a blip. Looking forward in the league, between now and the new year, the Lions will encounter three extremely tough tests, with high-flying pair, Gillingham and Walsall, coming to The Den, before another jaunt over to Southend on December 28, so they will need to be at the top of their game to ensure 2016 arrives with the club in with a shout of a place in the top six.
However, going back to the JPT – let’s hope we’re all still suffering from ‘cup fever’ when the final whistle blows at the Kassam Stadium in early February. It could be a very memorable night.