Interview: Millwall midfielder on period that cost them top-six challenge, extending his stay – and why Barnsley can be inspiration

IT’S been a ‘what if’ kind of season for Millwall.

What if Troy Parrott, one of the most highly-rated young forwards in the Premier League, hadn’t got injured after impressing so much in pre-season?

What if Kenneth Zohore had managed to stay fit for more games after showing how effective he can be in the Championship?

What if Jake Cooper hadn’t missed four games – none of which Millwall won – after twice dislocating his shoulder?

The list of questions is a long one, and you can add to it the absence of Ryan Leonard, just as the Lions had picked up form in 2021 and hinted they could be an outside bet for the top six.

But Millwall just had too much ground to make up, and further injuries to the likes of Shaun Hutchinson and Murray Wallace didn’t help.

Leonard was a regular in the side and one of Millwall’s best players this season when he tore ankle ligaments in a tackle in the 4-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday in February and hasn’t played since.

In keeping with the theme of the season, another midfielder, Maikel Kieftenbeld, was also injured in that game and missed two months.

But Leonard feels it was a 15-game run from October to January with only one win – against this Saturday’s opponents Bristol City – that really did the damage and gave the side too much to do.

Attackers Parrott, Zohore and Connor Mahoney missed a number of those games, no doubt contributing to Millwall only scoring more than one goal in one of them – against the Robins – as they slipped down to 17th place.

“It was a frustrating time,” Leonard said. “We broke it against Bristol City away when it just seemed to click and every player performed really well.

“But before that maybe we over-thought it at times and we were too desperate to win games. We went through a period of drawing a lot of games and that didn’t help us.

“Listen, it’s a tough league, especially this season. You almost have a game every three days. You’re playing against good players and teams every few days. There’s no hiding place.

“Of course, the injuries didn’t help. But every team has injuries and problems. Some have more than others.

“It was frustrating for the gaffer, the coaching team, the players. We were desperate to try to put it right and we eventually started to do that.

“But it was that run that probably cost us.”

Leonard admitted it was tough recuperating during lockdown, without the release of an outing to the cinema or restaurants or cafes.

“When there are a few of us that are injured it’s never fun anyway, but when there’s nothing to do you just go home and ice [the injury] and you’ve got nothing else to think about other than your injury,” Leonard said.

“It’s nice of course to have family around but it is kind of a case of you just eat, sleep and breathe your injury. You’re desperate to get back.

“There’s never a good time to get injured, but especially when you seem to be playing quite well, which I thought I was at the time. So it’s a doubly frustrating one, it’s a double blow.

“But you get injuries and knocks and it’s a case of getting yourself right, making the correct decisions and getting yourself back as quickly as you can.”

Ryan Leonard will hope to be in the starting line-up on the opening day next August

Millwall were in the middle of a nine-game unbeaten run when Leonard got injured, as their play-off chances briefly flickered.

“I was pleased for the lads but was frustrated to not be involved,” he said. “Before I got injured we were doing quite well, we were picking up results and points against good teams. I was playing quite a few positions.

“It was a frustrating time, I was watching the games on the iFollow and going to the home games.

“It [getting into the top six] was something that was always in the back of our minds. We started the season really well, we were in contention. But we had that bad run.

“It shows what Barnsley have done this season, to do what they’ve done has been brilliant. No matter what they do now they’ve had a brilliant season.

“That will give everyone, including us, hope for next season. It shows it can be done, that you can break into that top six. When you get into the play-offs who knows what’s going to happen.

“It was never really spoken about in the changing room, by the gaffer or anyone. But we did think, don’t rule us out. We’re that kind of team, those kinds of players. We take that into the new season as well

“The last few games have been tough, we’ve had a tough run-in. But the last two or three months the lads have been brilliant, they’ve dug in when we’ve had loads of games and a few injuries. They’ve done really well.”

Leonard is set to be with Millwall at least until the summer of 2022, after the club extended his contract by 12 months last December.

The versatile former Southend and Sheffield United player was relieved to see his immediate future secured.

“That was an option Millwall took,” Leonard explained. “It was nice to get that secured quite early, especially with the injury as well, which wasn’t ideal.

“It was nice to think that they wanted to keep me for another year and I’m happy to stay for another year.

“It was a no-brainer for both sides. We’ve all got trust in the gaffer and all the team there. We’re looking forward to a few hard running sessions in the summer.

“I’m just looking forward to going into pre-season. It’s going to be a big summer and if we can bring in a few players that will be brilliant.

“I’m doing work in the gym but not outside. I’m just doing gym and the bike and things like that to keep myself ticking over.

“I’m going to miss the last couple of games. I’m going to make sure I’m ready for pre-season, that’s the most important thing now.

“It would have been too much of a risk for me to come back, especially for the last couple of games. It was a collective decision to say let’s take the summer to get back fit and be ready for pre-season.”

Image: Millwall FC

John Kelly