Two pieces of A4 paper are pinned to a notice board in the canteen at Millwall’s training ground, hidden in a leafy south London suburb a world removed from the urban grind of their matchday home at the Den. Beneath the club crest the details for the next two days are typed out, telling the players where to be and when, and even instructions for their families to be at the Den this afternoon to catch a coach for the trip across the capital to Wembley.
Tonight the players will be reunited with their families back at the ground, by which time they will know whether to start planning for a return journey for the FA Cup final. Last night, the squad stayed at a hotel in Chelsea.
“We don’t want our players running around, dropping tickets off,” says the Millwall manager, Kenny Jackett. “We want to know where they are and look after them.”
This is part of Jackett’s carefully laid plan to beat Wigan and bring his club back to Wembley. “We have to play the match not the occasion,” he says, determined to attend to every detail to ensure his players are not overawed when they swap the Den and an average attendance of 10,000 for considerably more inside one of the world’s iconic stadiums.
Jackett already knows what it is like to manage a side there – unlike his opposite number Roberto Martinez – as well as to play in an FA Cup final. It was 29 years ago that Jackett, a one-club man, took his place against Everton alongside Watford team-mates like John Barnes, Steve Sherwood and Mo Johnston. It is not a day he recalls with any fondness; Wembley is no place to be a loser.
“You get to Wembley and lose and it’s not a good day,” says Jackett. “But you remember the run, the days that got you there.”
Millwall are there via wins over Preston, Aston Villa, Luton and, after a replay, Blackburn, the last thanks to a winning goal from Jackett’s captain, Danny Shittu. The two are sitting side-by-side in the training ground canteen. Next door, in the gym, the rest of the squad can be seen warming up for training. The giant Shittu dwarfs his manager – as he does most people – but in every other way he looks up to the man who has revitalised his career.
“We are a family,” says Shittu of the small squad Jackett has assembled with the meagre means at his disposal – Millwall sit in the bottom quarter of the Championship in terms of revenue. “I’ve been playing 13-14 years and I can’t think of another club where I’ve been so in with the players. And when you are playing in a team where you are all together it means a lot. Ultimately [that] comes from the gaffer.”
It is praise echoed by Peter Garston, the fans’ representative on the board (Millwall remain one of the few to have given supporters a say in how the club is run). “Kenny has made a massive impact,” says Garston. “He is the first proper manager we have had in many years. He is a true manager and every player I have ever spoken to agrees. He knows how to set boundaries.”
Jackett, then reserve-team manager at Manchester City, succeeded Willie Donachie in November 2007. It makes him the longest serving manager in the Championship, a reflection not just on his abilities at marshalling slender resources but also on the brutal short-termism that is even more common place among those outside the promised land of the Premier League than within it.
“Management is a precarious business; you never plan too long,” says Jackett. His first coaching job was at Watford but he made his name at Swansea, instigating their climb from the bottom of league football. He was replaced in west Wales – the country Jackett played 31 times for thanks to a Welsh father – by the man who will sit in the opposite dugout today. For a time Jackett managed Martinez as well, a spell that ended with him deciding the Spaniard no longer had a playing future at Swansea. Nine months later Martinez, a dozen years Jackett’s junior, was back and Jackett was gone.
“Roberto was rightly very well thought of at Swansea,” says Jackett. “[He’s] one of the most professional people I’ve come across. He’s taken that into management. In a relatively short space of time, he’s handled every situation very well and looks like he has a tremendous future. Wigan’s an interesting story. Look at the nationality of the players. They’re from all round the world. It’s a tough way to do it, but Wigan have done it well, being able to bed them down, adapt to English football and stay in the Premier League.”
Jackett’s task beyond this evening is to ensure Millwall remain in the Championship – he took them there via a play-off victory at Wembley in 2010. The Cup run has coincided with a slither down the table. They sit five points ahead of Blackburn, who occupy the third relegation position. Safety comes first in the Jackett plan. It’s time to roll the sleeves up.
“Number one, we need to maintain our Championship status,” he says. “For a relatively small club in the division we are punching above our weight. We need to stay in. To do that would make a Cup run look even better and make it a successful season. Our season is still ahead of us. It starts on Saturday.”