MIDDLESBROUGH'S young braves will be stronger for having survived Millwall's intimidating theatre of hate, believes Tony Mowbray.
The Teessiders bounced back from a first-half battering to win 3-2 and end Millwall’s impressive home record of seven wins on the bounce.
But the Boro fight-back sparked an ugly reaction from the volatile New Den crowd as missiles were thrown at a linesman for failing to flag Scott McDonald offside as he put the Teessiders ahead, then Boro keeper Jason Steele was targeted by bottle-throwers.
Mowbray revealed the referee came close to calling the game off as police and stewards struggled to control the fans.
“He was taking the players off the pitch,” he said. “There were four or five bottles came on the pitch towards the linesman on the far side. Then one was thrown at our keeper and the ref thought enough was enough, the stewards didn’t seem able to control it.
“What an asset it is to have that intensity and noise from the stands every week, but you overstep the mark when objects start coming on the pitch.”
Play was held up for six minutes as the officials, managers and stadium safety chiefs held an impromtu pitch summit.
“The referee wanted to take the players off but both managers thought that would be the wrong decision,” Mowbray added. “My position was that I wanted to get the game finished, but it was a tough call because if someone had been hit on the head with a bottle there would be serious questions asked.
“Luckily, that wasn’t the case and we got the game finished – and three points.”
When play resumed it was in a hostile atmosphere with Millwall piling forward, and although the home side levelled to set up a pulsating finish, Boro sealed victory with a Leroy Lita header.
However, they had to hold out against a late onslaught which, given his team’s tendency to fold late on under pressure, delighted Mowbray. “It was some atmosphere to play in the last 20 minutes,” he said. “There was a real ferocity there, it was very intimidating and they must have put the ball in our box 50 times.
“It is great credit to our players that they got through it.
“And hopefully things like that bond them together. They came off feeling good about themselves that they got a result and that they held out against that pressure and that unbelievable intensity from a hostile crowd.”
Route one Millwall had battered Boro in a one-sided first half; the visitors were relieved to go in at half-time just one goal down.
James Henry clipped the bar before Millwall got the opener on 15 minutes, Steve Morison nodding on a long punt forward for Neil Harris to net.
Boro’s only real chance in the first half came when Lita latched on to Julio Arca’s slotted pass, but after rounding keeper David Forde took the ball too far and his shot from a tight angle was cleared.
However, after the break Boro looked a different side and were back in the match on 58 minutes. Darren Purse fouled McDonald 30 yards out and McMahon curled a delightful free-kick into the top corner.
Steele went full-length to save from Harris before Boro went ahead on 62 minutes, when McDonald weaved through the middle then found new boy Merouane Zemmama in space.
The former kept running into the box to meet a sublime slotted pass from the lively Moroccan schemer that carved open the defence and let the Aussie beat the offside flag to score – and cue uproar among the home supporters.
Millwall equalised on 78 minutes thanks to debutant Hamer Bouazza’s free-kick, but Boro sealed victory on 83 minutes, Zemmama’s cross glanced home by the head of Lita.
MILLWALL: Forde, Dunne, Barron, Abdou, Paul Robinson, Purse, Hackett (Bouazza 64), Trotter, Harris (Lisbie 76), Morison, Henry. Subs (not used): Mildenhall, Eastmond, Craig, Ward, Theo Robinson. Booked: Henry, Morison.
Goals: Harris 15, Bouazza 78.
MIDDLESBROUGH: Steele, Hines, Davies, Grounds, McMahon, Bailey, Arca (Zemmama 57), Taylor, Bennett, McDonald (Smallwood 90), Lita. Subs (not used): Ripley, Haas, Boyd, Halliday, Park.
Booked: Arca, Davies, Lita.
Goals: McMahon 58, McDonald 62, Lita 83.
Referee: Chris Sarginson (Staffs) Attendance: 11,871