AFTER Milwall missed out on the play-offs last season the suspicion was promotion to the Premier League would have been too soon – but don’t suggest that to Ryan Woods.
The Lions were one win away from finishing sixth and given their recent play-off and FA Cup pedigree you wouldn’t have put it past them pulling off another shock for just a second-ever promotion to the top flight.
Had the Lions achieved that, not only would they have had the lowest-capacity ground in the Premier League and the lowest transfer budget, but they would have had just a little over five weeks from the play-off final to build a squad capable of competing with the likes of Leeds, West Brom and Aston Villa, let alone the daunting prospect of the top six.
Surely, then, better another season in the Championship and if the dream of promotion is achieved next year, more time to prepare for that gargantuan leap?
“You could say that,” Woods considers, “but to be honest I think we’d take only two days off to play in the Premier League. It would be an unbelievable achievement, especially for a club like Millwall.
“Our aim is to improve on last season, whether it’s the position or just the performances. We want to grow as a group and that will hopefully lead to the performances being more consistent. We want to be in and around the top 10 and the play-offs.
“As much as I’ve joined because of the gaffer and the environment, I would never come to a club that’s got no ambition to prove people wrong. I’ve always been at that sort of club all my career, apart probably from Stoke.
“We proved ourselves last year and we want to do it again. But we’ll never run before we can walk and get carried away.
“We had a real good go last season but didn’t quite have enough to get there in the end. I think we can be really pleased with what we achieved.”
Woods made a big impression after joining on loan from Stoke in January. As soon as the campaign was over there was only ever one club he wanted to return to in 2020-21.
He explained: “I got it done really early, I didn’t see much point messing around and waiting for potential offers elsewhere. I’ve said it before plenty of times, I’m really enjoying being around the place. The environment is great, the lads are brilliant.
“I feel like I’m getting back to my best, which is huge for me. I’m in a good place at Millwall and that’s why I’ve come back for another season. We’ll see what happens after that.
“Everybody could see the more games I played the sharper I was, my passing range came back to me.”
Woods was signed by Millwall boss Gary Rowett for Stoke in 2018. He fell out of favour under Michael O’Neill, who took over from Rowett’s successor, Nathan Jones, last season.
Woods has been watching the Tottenham documentary, All or Nothing, and is surprised players’ one-to-one meetings with manager Jose Mourinho were included.
“Those conversations are usually kept in-house, so it’s a strange situation with the Tottenham thing,” Woods said. “All players do [go see the manager] because we all want to play.
“I’m someone who’s played almost every single game since I was 18. So it was much more unknown to me what was going on at Stoke. I wasn’t enjoying it, so it was always the right thing for me to do to go out and play games.
“At Stoke it started off really well for me and things just tailed off for whatever reason. It just never worked out for me. I’m a Millwall player for another season and I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do this year.
“Everybody is seeing the best of me now. I want to keep playing games, keep improving and hopefully my performances will help the team.”
In his conversations with the media, Rowett has said Woods is key to the change of style he is trying to implement after the more direct play under Neil Harris.
“You’re probably the first person to actually say that to me!” Woods laughs when asked if he feels any pressure. “I think people knew exactly the type of player I was before I came here. I’m someone who wants to get on the ball and try to make things happen starting from the back, give it to the more attacking players to stick in the back of the net.
“It’s good that we’ve got that about us now, different ways of playing and that will only benefit us going forwards.”
Rowett has been a huge admirer of Woods for a number of years, but the midfielder won’t reveal if he wants to make a permanent switch to south London next summer. “I’m going to take this season as it comes and do my best for Millwall, and we’ll see what happens at the end of it. It’s a long, way away, I just want to enjoy this season first.
“We’ve got more competition for places now. You never want to just be sailing through, though I’ve never been that type of person anyway. It’s always good to have competition for places, it keeps you on your toes. If you have a bad game or two bad games there are always players who can come in and do the job.
“We have that strength in the squad and we want to see where it takes us.”
Image: Millwall FC