At first glance, football at the Den, home of Millwall Football Club, does not appear to be in the most optimum of conditions. Neil Harris’ men remain five points from safety in the SkyBet Championship with Blackburn, Derby and Wolverhampton Wanderers left to play. Relegation to League One looks a real prospect for the South London outfit, after a five season spell away from England’s third division.
However, a closer look into the club allows the possibility of an exciting, prosperous future. Millwall Lionesses, the ever improving women’s team, are enjoying an exemplary start to the current campaign as they look to continue their unbeaten run away to Watford Ladies on Sunday.
The Women Super League Two side have a strong core of young, English players that are setting the division alight. 20-year-old Lilly Agg is the club’s top goal scorer thus far, with teenagers Rosella Ayane and Rinsola Babajide lagging behind in second place. Also impressing on the pitch is Ciara Sherwood, who made her first start at Watford Ladies’ Berkhamsted ground last July.
The central midfielder spoke exclusively to VAVEL, stating she is relishing her opportunities in the limelight after stepping up from the development squad in the past year:
“I'm really enjoying first team football and I'm so glad that Dan Mlinar has given me the opportunity to prove myself. I have been at Millwall a few seasons now and I feel like I've progressed a lot.
“Being captain of the development team last year was brilliant and an honour. It developed me as a player a huge amount, I became more vocal and confident within myself. It was great to see the majority of that team finally make it to the first team.”
A late bloomer in today’s modern climate, Sherwood went on a trial with Charlton Athletic at 15 after a recommendation from now Estonian Women’s manager Keith Boanas. Scoring on her first team debut, ironically against Millwall, she then went onto win the Player of the Season award for the academy.
After a successful debut season in Greenwich, the now 22-year-old was loaned out to her current employers for what was originally meant to be a few months. Asked whether the loan made it easier to leave the Addicks, she proclaimed:
“I really felt at home when I came on loan to Millwall, especially as two of my best friends were playing at the time. It was a hard decision because I made a lot of friends at Charlton and Paul Mortimer pretty much taught me how to play football so I didn't want to disrespect him, however I felt it was time to move on so when I was asked to stay I agreed.”
After three appearances in all competitions, the Englishwoman feels comfortable with Millwall and with her new found role on the field. Originally a winger, Ciara now plies her trade in the centre of the pitch, saying that her stint in the capital and in the middle is all but over:
“I plan to stay at Millwall. I do really love the club and everything about it. I think I have finally found the position that suits me most, whether it's holding or attacking midfield. I would play in any position though, as long as I'm playing.”
In terms of committing themselves to the Lionesses, look no further than club captain and longest serving player Dionne Lennon. Finding her home at centre-back after a plethora of other roles during her eighth season stint, the 30-year-old is somebody Sherwood looks up to after captaining the development squad. Talking about her captain, she said:
“I love Dionne. She's great to look up to and she keeps everybody in place, she's gives a good talk before every game that gets our mind set and gets us motivated. When I was captain of the development squad, I just took on board everything she did and portrayed the same actions and attitude.”
For the first time in history, the second division in women’s football now holds two promotion places with Reading Women and Doncaster Rovers Belles currently occupying those positions. Millwall Lionesses sit in fourth place, four points behind the leaders after an unbeaten start. The Londoners overcame Durham Women last week, just their first win of the campaign after two league draws and an FA Cup defeat to holders Arsenal.
Sherwood started in the first fixture of the year, and voiced her frustration about the club’s inability to take their chances against the London Bees. However, they seem to be improving every game after a brilliant performance in the draw with Everton.
“It was really disappointing to get two draws, we definitely deserved more from both games. Against London Bees we had countless attempts at goal and we were not ruthless enough against Everton, it was a battle and we were unfortunate to concede a last minute goal; even their manager said we deserved the three points.” stated the former estate agent.
Underwhelmed with her performance at Watford in 2014, Sherwood is confident she and her team will improve on their 2-1 victory last summer. Their opponents are yet to record a single point so far, conceding eight goals and scoring just once against Oxford, Aston Villa and Reading respectively. The ex-Swanscombe woman, however is not underestimating the Hertfordshire outfit:
“I'd say we are confident, we have a good mentality in the squad, we are training hard and working on the game already so we will be prepared. Even though they haven't got a point yet we will not go into the game thinking it is going to be easy as they've had hard games, such as Reading.”
She went onto say: “At the start of pre-season our aim was to finish in the top half of the table, but my personal opinion is we could aim for at least a top three finish, who knows what we could achieve?
“You can definitely sense the feel good factor around the camp, everybody is really buzzing at the moment and we want to keep the unbeaten run going.” said Sherwood.
The women's team have started playing at the Den this season, one of the few crops of females to play at the home of their male counterparts. After 45,000 attended the national team take on Germany at Wembley last November alongside Stephanie Roche making the final of the Puskas Award alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Sherwood is optimistic about the future for girls football but realises there is still work to be done:
“I feel the full recognition will come soon and it is exciting to see, especially when female players are mixing with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, that would be a dream for me.
"It is still disappointing not to see female sides on television or results in the paper, but it is definitely progressing and I would like to see it one day be level with the men's but who knows if it will ever make it there.”