THIS felt like a defining season for AFC Bournemouth. Yes, another one.
At least summer breaks in England don’t last too long. It will be August soon enough and anticipation will be high. Pipe dreams and fantasies have been replaced by demand and genuine ambition at Dean Court. Enjoying the ride has given way to finding the quickest route to the Premier League.
In the meantime, Eddie Howe has much to ponder, after a well-earned family holiday one would hope.
Howe will probably take little of substance from this game. Cherries were an uninvited guest at a pwopah South London knees-up. The atmosphere at the Den was typical: Fearsome, intimidating in parts and with no shortage of pure passion. That is why Millwall will still be lining up in the Championship next season.
Howe, though, will have a few niggling thoughts of what might have been for his team and a mind full of what he will do to ensure 2014-15 feels like progress this time next year.
There are many positives from this first season back in the Championship. Cherries were the only promoted side to remain in the division, with both Yeovil and Doncaster tumbling back into League One.
Howe’s men have shown they can cope with the relentless and punishing nature of the second tier. They came back strongly from the big defeats at Watford and Huddersfield. They inflicted some on other teams, like Millwall.
Yann Kermorgant has been a superb signing although, alongside Tokelo Rantie here, he was disappointing. Rantie is likely to be Howe’s main reflective this summer. His first season in English football has not worked out well and the burden of a big price tag remains.
Other members of Howe’s squad have grown in stature. Eunan O’Kane has been a revelation. Steve Cook, Elliott Ward and Tommy Elphick have been rocks in central defence, reliable and dependable. Howe, surely, will want to try to keep Andrew Surman, but hopes of that possible deal could depend on Norwich’s Premier League status being retained.
While Howe is consumed by forward planning, Ian Holloway will presumably continue celebrating. Dogged to the last here, Holloway’s side did more than enough to remain in the Championship.
“No one like us, we don’t care” they sang from the first whistle to the last in an often feisty 90 minutes at the Den. And why would they care? The transformation at the Den under Holloway, so often considered something of a joke figure, is miraculous. Much like Cherries’ rejuvenation under Howe in the Greatest Escape season five years ago.
The Millwall side that limply gave up the ghost in the 5-2 defeat at Dean Court earlier in the season was consigned firmly to the past when Holloway breezed into SE16 in his usual whirlwind of the bizarre.
Howe’s team of 2009 seeped belief and hard graft from every pore. Holloway’s great escapees boast those same principles. It is a team shaped around wholehearted, committed players like Alan Dunne, Nicky Bailey and Martyn Woolford. A triumph of brawn over brain if you like.
When Bailey scythed down Kermorgant in the 12th second of this match, their intent was clear.
There was no let-up. Challenges flew in. Cards were waved. The din in the Den was savage and unrelenting.
While the Championship deserves teams like Cherries, who play the ball and, according to the purists, the game the correct way, what makes the second tier such a special division is also down to teams like Millwall, the ogre in the fairytale. The Championship needs blood and thunder as much as the Beautiful Game.
With their slim play-off dreams long evaporated prior to this visit to the capital, Cherries were forced to play gooseberry at a love-in between Holloway, his players and more than 14,000 supporters who piled out of South Bermondsey station. Cherries never really got going in what was arguably one of their poorest performances of the season.
Missing Lewis Grabban, spared facing his former employers due to a knee injury, Kermorgant failed to fully impose himself on makeshift centre-half Dunne. Rantie’s lack of impact continued.
Millwall’s goal, scored by Woolford, like Neil Harris before him quickly becoming a Den cult hero, in many ways summed up Cherries’ performance.
In the 29th minute, Matt Ritchie was caught in possession down the left by Owen Garvan. Garvan crossed and Woolford’s glancing header looped beyond Lee Camp and into the net.
On the balance of play at that stage, it was hard to argue that Holloway’s side weren’t worthy of their lead.
Cherries looked dangerous on the counter-attack as Millwall piled forward in numbers from the off but, far too often, Howe’s men deserted their on-the-deck principles and chose instead to aim high for Kermorgant.
Millwall were hungrier for the ball during that opening half-an-hour. They defended well when they needed to.
Most of the early chances fell to the home side. Camp saved from Stefan Maierhofer on nine minutes, getting down well to his left. Steve Morison blazed over from close range 10 minutes later after Garvan’s initial shot had been blocked.
In between, Cherries appealed for Mark Beevers to be dismissed after he had cynically brought down Ryan Fraser with the Scot moving quickly towards goal. Referee Michael Naylor instead pulled out his yellow card. Kermorgant’s free kick was well saved by David Forde.
The Den was rocking. Spurred on, Millwall continued to attack in numbers. Morison again went close when his 22nd-minute shot cannoned back off the crossbar.
After Camp had spilled Woolford’s shot three minutes later, Maierhofer missed an open target. It should have been 2-0.
Smith fired wide for Cherries, but shortly afterwards it was 1-0. At half-time, Smith was wisely subbed by Howe after a series of petulant fouls and over-reactions to challenges on himself.
Dropping Simon Francis to the bench when he had played every minute of every league game was a bold decision by Howe, although the Cherries boss felt Smith had earned his chance. In many respects, he wasted it.
As half-time approached, tempers flared in the technical area between Holloway and Jason Tindall. Smith’s sarcastic applause after another foul saw supporters in the Kitchener Stand surge forward with a torrent of abuse. Finally Smith was booked by Naylor on 45 minutes after yet another silly foul on Dunne.
It was a bitter end to the first half. The second was far more placid as a warm embrace between Tindall and Holloway hinted.
Surman and Francis both failed to convert difficult chances early on. Substitute Simeon Jackson missed horribly when well placed on 67 minutes and with only Camp to beat. He repeated the feat 10 minutes later.
The Dockers Stand erupted as Birmingham and Doncaster updates filtered through. Not so much with radios clamped to ears these days but with eyes fixed on iPhones.
Scott Malone’s acrobatic left-foot volley was superbly tipped over by Camp 20 minutes from time, while Howe would have been impressed by a lively late cameo from Brett Pitman. Cherries’ best chance came on 80 minutes when Pitman’s delightful through ball from the left channel found Surman. He was denied only by Forde’s legs.
Late on, Garvan’s free kick from the right deceived all in the box and came back off the post. Forde then saved well from Rantie from close range after more impressive work from Pitman.
Millwall escaped. Fans flooded the pitch.
The visitors in red and black slipped back into Bermondsey, presumably to start that yearning for August.
Lions: (4-2-3-1) Forde; Edwards, Dunne, Beevers (Robinson, 34), Malone (Fredericks, 86); Bailey, Williams; Morison, Garvan, Wool-ford; Maierhofer (Jackson, 64).
Unused subs: Abdou, Easter, McDonald, Bywater (g/k).
Booked: Beevers, Bailey, Woolford.
Cherries: (4-4-2) Camp 7.5; Smith 5 (Francis, h-t), Elphick 7.5*, Cook 7.5, Daniels 7; Ritchie 7, O'Kane 7 (MacDonald, h-t), Surman 7.5, Fraser 7 (Pitman, 71); Kermorgant 7, Rantie 6.5.
Unused subs: Harte, Coulibaly, Pugh, Allsop (g/k).
Booked: Smith, Ritchie.
Referee: Michael Naylor (South Yorkshire).
Attendance: 15,779 (inc 1,351 away supporters).
ON A rare poor Cherries away day, Tommy Elphick was the stand-out performer. Cherries’ captain has had a superb season after the initial disappointment of being dropped in favour of Elliott Ward.
He was tested here as Millwall attacked boldly.
Elphick, though, was composed and thoughtful when distributing from defence and robust against Steve Morison, Stefan Maierhofer and Martyn Woolford.
Elphick’s leadership will key again next season as Cherries look to go one better and make the play-off dream of this campaign a reality.