Gary Rowett has underlined that Millwall’s moves in the summer transfer window to strengthen their attacking department is going to be pivotal to their hopes of improving on their 2021-22 Championship campaign.
The Lions finished ninth in the table and took their play-off hopes to the final day for the first time since regaining Championship status in 2017.
Millwall needed to win at AFC Bournemouth and hope rivals slipped up.
But in the end a 1-0 reverse at the Vitality Stadium did not matter as Sheffield United and Luton were both victorious to claim fifth and sixth spot in the standings.
Now comes a summer of extensive rebuilding. Jed Wallace, the club’s outstanding attacker in recent seasons, is out of contract this summer and exploring his options. Nottingham Forest had offers rebuffed in the January transfer window and he was also linked to Turkish outfit Besiktas.
Benik Afobe, Oliver Burke and Sheyi Ojo drop out of the squad after their loans ended while Connor Mahoney will be released.
It leaves the Lions with Tom Bradshaw, Mason Bennett and Tyler Burey as their offensive options.
Asked about being short at the top end of the pitch, Rowett said: “The forward areas are obvious, we’re losing goals, quality and numbers. That is probably our main focus, recruitment-wise. Which is why it is such a big summer.
“Forwards, and forward quality, is not easy to find at the top end of the Championship – because the reality is that is where we are.
“That is going to be a challenge, that is going to be tough to do. But every summer there are different recruitment challenges. You tend to live or die by that summer. I thought we recruited really well last year and we have to probably recruit even better this year to have a chance of having a stronger season.”
Afobe, along with Arsenal centre-back Dan Ballard, made the most impact of the loanees.
The Stoke City striker scored 13 goals and still has 12 months to run on his contract.
“Any striker who gets double figures will have options,” said Rowett, who was Stoke boss when they splashed £12million to sign him from Wolves in January 2019. “He moves well, he’s athletic and the type a lot of people are looking for. People know all about Benik Afobe, he’s been doing it for a long time.
“This year was a very good year for him and probably exactly what he needed. All we can do is hope that there are less options than he is probably going to get and maybe he wants to try and make it work coming back for another year.
“That is out of our reach. He is Stoke’s player. I signed him, so I know he is on a very good contract and is there for a while longer. It’s not an easy one to work through.
“All we can do is wait and see what their thoughts are, what Benik’s thoughts are and wait in the wings if there is anything to be done. I don’t think we’ll rush into that.
“We still need to look for other options because it is probably less likely we’ll be able to get him back, as much as we’d like to.”
In the last two seasons the Lions have taken a centre-forward on loan.
This time it was Afobe. Before that it was Ken Zohore and Troy Parrott from West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham.
Going down that route allows a club to sign a player and pay a portion of their salary, enabling an addition that would sometimes prove too financially steep for Millwall’s budget.
But while Rowett describes it as a “realistic option” he added: “I hope not, because every time the window then becomes a patch-up and trying to change it again.
“We have to look more long term than that.
“We’ve got some good young players coming through, the likes of Isaac Olaofe, who has been on loan at Sutton United and also the likes of Tyler, Zak Lovelace and Nana Boateng.
“We want to add our own players to that, if we can, so we can build something. Then if players do well they are our players and worth money. We can then choose whether we sell them and reinvest. I think that’s the way we want to go.
“But we need a lot of options and the reality is a couple of those might end up being loans, but they need to be loans of a real significant quality because that is what we’re losing.
“We’ll always use the loan market but I’d rather this year we’d lean a little bit more on permanent deals if we can.”
Club captain Alex Pearce, 33, is not being offered new terms.
And despite having other senior professionals in Bartosz Bialkowski (34), Scott Malone and Shaun Hutchinson (both 31), Rowett has stressed the importance of the dressing room dynamic.
Maikel Kieftenbeld, 31, is out of contract at the end of June.
“It’s so difficult to quantify that for people who are not inside the club,” said the Lions boss. “Someone like Pearcey is always the one, if I’ve got an issue or we need things doing better, I go to him and he usually sorts it out in the dressing room.
“There is a real position of responsibility there for that leader. We’ve got other players in the squad with similar experience but perhaps slightly different characters.
“You need a blend of people. When you put a squad together it is impossible not to have a season where some people don’t play as much as they’d like.
“It’s impossible because you have got 20-odd players. What you want is that if people are on the sidelines then you want them to have an influence in a different way and help the team dynamic.
“That is what Alex has done.
“He has performed really well when he has come into the team and been unlucky not to play more. But I spoke to him about that. I wanted to go with more mobility in the backline and play a bit higher. In many ways we have done that.
“The likes of Pearcey, and Jed as well, those are big characters in the dressing room.
“There are less players being produced like that now because academies are producing a different type of player at times. When one or two players leave the first thing you look for is that other players have to step up into those roles.
“There are a number of players experienced enough and that have been at the club long enough to be able to step into those important roles.
“You can’t just sign good footballers, you have to sign good characters as well.
“You have to sign different types of characters.
“Sometimes you just want players who get on with their jobs and do it properly all the time. And sometimes you want players who have got a little bit of a spark about them in training and they lift the mood when maybe it is a little bit lower than usual if you’ve lost a game.”