Luton Town’s fifteen-year wait for a win against Millwall goes on as the Hatters were put to the sword by an impervious Lions performance, led by Conor Mahoney.
Having experienced defeat only once this season, Gary Rowett made just one change to the side that came from behind to beat Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday. Mason Bennett came into the starting line-up as Tom Bradshaw joined West Bromwich Albion loanee Kenneth Zohore on the bench.
The Hatters arrived in South London just one point and one place ahead of the Lions ahead of kick-off. Luton manager Nathan Jones made two changes to the side that lost 2-0 at home to Stoke City at the weekend, with Jordan Clark and Kazenga LuaLua coming into the side.
Danny Hylton started up front for the second successive match in the absence of James Collins, who was forced to watch the game from home after testing positive for Covid-19 in recent days.
Collins wouldn’t have been enthralled by the opening exchanges but the game sparked into life in the eighth minute as a delightful Bennett back-heel rolled into the path of Ryan Leonard 12 yards out. In space, centre-right of goal, the Millwall midfielder rushed his shot and scuffed it wide from a promising position.
A minute later and Mahoney had won the Lions a corner after a tantalising cross from Luton’s left which soon left the Millwall sidelines reeling. Murray Wallace was wrestled to the ground as the ball was floated into the box and Rowett was incredulous that his side weren't awarded a penalty but it was waved away by referee Tony Harrington.
Three minutes later and Millwall went close again as Jake Cooper headed wide from six yards after more good work from Mahoney down the Luton left.
In the 15th minute, the visitors’ made their first chance of the evening as Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu went close for the Hatters. Luke Berry turned the Millwall defence inside-out down the right before his cross made its way out to Mpanzu on the edge of the box. With eyes wide and gleaming, the midfielder went for power over accuracy and blazed the ball over the bar from a good position.
As the game moved end-to-end, it was the hosts who made the next and best chance of the first half so far.
Mahoney, a constant thorn in the side of the Hatters, found Matt Smith. The Millwall striker saw his powerful header rebound off the post and back to Jed Wallace. Looking for his fourth goal of the season, Wallace scuffed his shot from eight yards out as a golden opportunity went begging.
In the 40th minute, Mahoney created a chance of his own as he looked to beat Hatters’ goalkeeper Simon Sluga at his near post. Creating space 20 yards out, Mahoney manufactured time to strike hard and low to Sluga’s right but the Croatian was equal to it as Millwall continued to push for the opening goal.
It looked like Millwall’s pressure was going to come to nothing but Luton's resolute defence eventually gave in on the stroke of half-time.
With four minutes added time at the end of the first half, Millwall’s fourth corner in a row - another inch-perfect cross from Mahoney - was met by Smith at the back post who, with the help of a deflection off Martin Cranie, finally breached the Hatters’ back line to give his side a deserved lead at the break.
Four minutes after the restart and Millwall should have scored their second of the night.
A one-two between Jed Wallace and Bennett spilt the Luton defence and the former found himself one-on-one with Sluga. Eight yards out with no Hatters defender in sight, Wallace rushed his effort and sliced it wide, much to the relief of the Hatters on the sidelines and disbelief of the Millwall contingent.
Ten minutes later and Millwall nearly paid the price for their missed chances as the visitors went close to equalising. Welsh international Joe Morrell had been on the pitch a matter of seconds when he found space 25 yards out from the Millwall goal. On the run, Morrell fired powerfully at goal and left Bartosz Białkowski scrambling in the Lions’ goal as the ball slid just wide of the right post.
With the clock ticking down and the Hatters looking to finally establish a foothold in the game, Mahoney took the tie away from the reach of the visitors.
A short Leonard pass found Mahoney in space but with no attacking options ahead of him, Mahoney charged at Cranie. The centre-back backtracked to the edge of his box as Mahoney switched the ball onto his left foot and fired the ball past Sluga from a tight angle.
It was no more than Mahoney and Millwall deserved, and secured the three points for the Lions as they moved above Luton into fourth with 11 points in the Championship.
Millwall ready to sustain a promotion push?
Last season, Millwall finished just two points off the Championship play-off places with an eighth-placed league finish. Upon reflection, Rowett and his Millwall side openly admit that the side just weren’t ready - both in squad depth and quality. This season, Millwall have all the ingredients to make that next step.
It is no secret that Millwall were let down by their forward line last season. Having scored just 57 goals over the season - equal to Wigan Athletic and Hull City who were both relegated - having a strike-force that could sustain a 50-plus game season was Rowett’s summer priority.
Against Luton, Millwall had a starting forward line of Smith and Bennett, with Zohore and Bradshaw as options on the bench. Rowett didn’t have space in the match day squad for Shane Ferguson and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson.
Speaking after the game, Rowett cited his abundance of attacking options and new selection issues:
“The challenge for us has always been can we translate that now into more attacking moments in games and more goals.
“I think we’ve got some excellent options now in the squad, for us to be able to leave out the likes of Shane Ferguson tonight and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson – which is probably the hardest part of the job, leaving players out.
“You have to pick a team and a bench that you feel you’re going to need for the game and they certainly haven’t done anything wrong at all.”
Millwall fans can rightly feel excited about their attacking prospects. However, it was the versatility of the side that particularly impressed against Luton.
Having tormented the visitors for an hour, Smith was brought off for Derby County loanee Scott Malone. Rowett switched the formation from 4-4-2 to 3-4-2-1 with two wing-backs and continued the onslaught as Jed Wallace and Mahoney supported Bennett in a three-pronged attack.
Millwall continued to look threatening and with the customary clean sheet bagged thanks to another resolute defensive display, the victory was all but certain with the second goal ten minutes from time.
At 23 years old, it may not be fair to describe Mahoney as a journeyman but he is well-traveled. Having played for Accrington Stanley and Blackburn Rovers, on top of loan spells at Barnsley and Birmingham City whilst at AFC Bournemouth, the young Englishman will finally hope to have found a home at The Den, and on this performance, he seems to be fitting in with the furniture.
Mahoney’s travels are certainly not down to his lack of ability. Having played for England at under 17, 18 and 20 levels, the winger is well thought of in the national hierarchy but has so far failed to live up to his potential at club level. On Tuesday night, Mahoney showed what he is all about.
Starting only his second league game this season, Mahoney wasted no time terrorising the Luton wing-backs. With seven key passes, eight crosses and two shots to his name in the first half alone, the Hatters couldn’t keep pace with the former Blackburn schoolboy.
In the second half, Mahoney showed his class once more with a superbly-taken goal.
On his own, forty yards out, Mahoney picked up possession and had tunnel-vision as he ran at the Hatters’ defence. Dragging the ball on to his left foot on the edge of the box, Mahoney threaded the ball through the eye of the needle to slide the ball passed a diving Sluga to find the inside of the far post to secure the three points for Millwall.
Speaking after the game, Rowett paid homage to Mahoney’s efforts:
“Where Connor’s concerned he has been much better off the ball in the last two games – he’s worked really hard. When he does that we know he has got the quality to hurt the opposition.
He’s been good for the two games. I’ve been really pleased with him and he’s a player who has now got to start to kick on because he has got so much ability. You see him in training every day and he’s unplayable at times.
We need to start getting that out in games. He was excellent tonight but there were some other really good performances in Mason [Bennett] and Ryan Leonard was superb. There were some really good performances all round."
And those comments regarding all-round performances will be music to the ears of Millwall fans. As Rowett stated, Mahoney was not alone. Every player had a role to play and it shows the progress of the Lions under Rowett that Jed Wallace, so often the stand-out performer, was overshadowed by his peers.
In this sort of form, with these sorts of players, Millwall are a side to be reckoned with.