NOT for nothing did this fixture once appear in a TV documentary called ‘Football’s Hardest Away Days’.
Meetings between Leeds United and Millwall – and particularly those in the capital – have traditionally not been ones for the faint-hearted.
A rivalry born out of an Eighties desire to be ‘top dogs’ in the hooligan stakes has evolved into one just as keenly fought on the pitch in recent years.
Neil Harris, the Lions manager, has been bigging up today’s visit to Elland Road for the past fortnight. “This is the best game we could possibly have had,” said Harris, whose players suffered the heartache of being denied a Wembley trip in their last outing by a stoppage-time equaliser against Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Harris, as a veteran of many skirmishes against Leeds as a player, knows better than most how tackling the Yorkshire club can motivate Millwall.
Charged with dousing that burning desire of the Londoners is Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentinian has already had his own taste of a rivalry that can turn nasty remarkably quickly.
What we have to do is deserve this support. We cannot be asking for it, we have to earn it.Marcelo Bielsa
Back in September, Bielsa’s first visit to The Den ended in a 1-1 draw. Jack Harrison’s 89th-minute equaliser sparked a melee in the technical area, moments after an earlier clash that had followed Millwall holding on to the ball at a throw-in when leading by Jed Wallace’s opener.
Bielsa apologised for his behaviour after the match and Harris insisted there was no lingering ill-feeling on his part. Still, with the stakes high for both clubs at either end of the Championship, today’s game promises to be a cracker.
“Millwall are a team who are difficult to face,” said the United head coach about a Lions side sitting fifth-bottom in the table.
“They have a very clear style. They come here after two important games (Brighton in the Cup and victory at Birmingham in the league). It is going to be a hard game, they will use counter-attacks and they are efficient in defence.”
Meetings between these two clubs have tended to be less combustible at Elland Road compared to The Den, which is where the TV documentary ‘Football’s Hardest Away Days’ was shot in 2005.
The visit to south London came towards the end of United’s first season since relegation from the Premier League and home advantage has tended to be a big factor in these games ever since.
Leeds have lost eight of their last nine visits to the stadium Millwall have called home since 1993. At Elland Road, meanwhile, United have won eight and drawn two of a dozen encounters with last season’s 4-3 triumph for the Lions being very much the exception to the rule.
Adding another home victory to that tally today is paramount for Bielsa’s men in the wake of the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United a fortnight ago.
Bielsa believes the fans have a key role to play if Leeds are to bounce back in the right manner. “When we started conceding efforts in the second half (against the Blades) the fans have a memory linking with the difficulty that they have suffered in the last few years,” the United chief said in reference to what he considered to be nerves evident in the stand.
“It is something we can understand. The fans showed these doubts from these memories. We felt that in the second half.
“We depend a lot on the support of the fans. We have the responsibility to have this feeling with us. Then one important thing is don’t go losing the game because then with a good positive result the fans are closer to us and we are closer to getting the result that we want.
“I hope in the next game we have the same atmosphere that we had in the previous game. When we went onto the pitch and felt the support of the fans, in the first 35 minutes we created five clear chances.”
Bielsa’s desire for Elland Road to be a cacophony of noise today is likely to be granted. The visit of Millwall tends to bring that out of the Leeds fans.
Perhaps the best example of this was the 2009 play-off semi-final second leg between the two clubs. United trailed 1-0 from the first leg in the capital but levelled through Luciano Becchio.
“The noise that night was incredible,” recalled Simon Grayson, then in charge of Leeds, to The Yorkshire Post this week. “Luciano equalised and I felt certain the atmosphere would bring us a second goal.
“But then one of their players went down injured and the delay sucked a lot of the noise out. It was no fault of the fans, it is hard to keep that intensity up when a player is receiving treatment. But I still say today that this hold-up cost us a place in the final, as (Nadjim) Abdou later scored and Millwall went through.”
Harris was in the Lions side that night so knows full well the advantage of turning down the volume at Elland Road.
Bielsa, meanwhile, is focusing on picking up his players after dropping out of the automatic promotion places a fortnight ago.
“It is impossible not to feel disappointed about a game like that one,” he said about the loss to the Blades.
“The thing you can criticise is if players maybe don’t feel this disappointed feeling. Knowing we have 24 points more to play for is positive.
“So, we have not lost any of our optimism or the positive feelings that we have. Our obligation is to play well to win the games – and try to do the things we can control in football and make sure things don’t go against us.
“We know that there are some things in football that we cannot control. We cannot forget about the result but, for us, the support of the fans is key.
“What we have to do is deserve this support. We cannot be asking for it, we have to earn it. In the first half of the previous game, the fans made the team feel together with them. The link between the team and the fans increased out chances.”