GARY Rowett expects to cop some flak at Pride Park this Saturday – but hopes to have the last laugh for a third time in a row against his former side.
Rowett made 120 appearances for Derby between 1995 and 1998 and took over as their manager in March 2017.
He guided the Rams to sixth in the Championship the following season but they lost to eventual play-off winners Fulham in the semi-finals despite winning the first leg.
Before managing Derby his Birmingham side scored two injury-time goals in a 2-2 draw at Pride Park in 2014-15 before winning there 3-0 the following season.
Rowett left Derby to join Stoke in the summer of 2018 despite still having three years left on his contract. He could have moved to the Potters six months earlier when he was linked with taking over from Mark Hughes.
“I had an opportunity potentially in the January to join [Stoke] in the Premier League,” Rowett said. “It wasn’t something I saw as the right thing to do because we were second in the league. We were building something and I was quite excited by it.
“It’s my local club that I’ve got a lot of history with. It was a really difficult decision to leave. The decision, really, was based on that I didn’t feel that I could carry out the plan that was put in front of me. The plan we spoke about for the following season was really difficult.
“I had an honest conversation with Mel [Morris, the derby owner]. I still speak to Mel now and get on really well with him. The season after it worked out quite well.
“I made the decision, it was my choice. You can look back on it now and ask if it was the right decision, you could argue possibly not. But that’s life, isn’t it, you do it and stand by it and accept what comes afterwards.”
Rowett recruited experienced players including current Rams Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies.
He continued: “We did that because the team had fallen short over the previous five or six seasons. We felt that it needed players that could take the next step.
“As it was we just couldn’t quite get there. We won the first leg of the play-offs. What I would say is the team finished ninth the season before. We finished in the play-offs and we weren’t that far away.
“We were unfortunate in the sense that we played against probably the best team in the league over the last 20 games in Fulham who obviously went on and got promoted. So we were a little bit unlucky.
“I think we did a reasonable job and could have built on it last season. But it wasn’t to be.
“It’s a great club, I’ve got so much time for it. It will be nice to go back.”
Rowett got a good reception from the home fans when he went back to Birmingham recently, but isn’t expecting the same this weekend.
“Possibly not,” he said. “When people see you leave they feel like it’s a lack of loyalty, and I understand that. There are a lot of things that happen that you don’t want to come out and be public with.
“I still speak to Stephen Pearce, the chief exec, I still speak to Mel and have a great relationship with both.
“It’s work, sometimes you make a decision in your working life like a lot of people have to make. As the opposition manager going to Derby I’m sure the fans will give me a bit of stick. They gave me a bit of stick when I went there with Birmingham.
“We weren’t very popular, we scored a last-minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw and beat them 3-0.
“It’s going to be a tough game. It’s a great stadium to go to and it’s going to be another good atmosphere.”
Possible Millwall starting XI: 5-2-3: Bialkowski; Romeo, Hutchinson, Pearce, Cooper, M Wallace; Molumby, Williams; J Wallace, Bradshaw, Bodvarsson.
Match odds: 7/5 Draw 21/10 Millwall 2/1
Last meeting: 2018-19 Championship: Derby 0-1 Millwall (Wallace 72)
Image: Millwall FC