BY RICHARD CAWLEY
George Saville reckons there are at least a couple of factors which could have contributed to what he sees as an “inconsistent” season back in Millwall colours.
The 28-year-old midfielder made his sixth straight Championship start and was a standout performer in Wednesday night’s 2-0 win against Huddersfield Town.
Saville, who is in his fourth stint with the club, is due to clock up 100 appearances for the Lions at Stoke City tomorrow.
The former Chelsea youngster, whose first two moves to SE16 were on 90-day loans, is feeling happy with his own game in recent weeks.
And he feels that contracting Covid just two weeks before the campaign kicked off did not help following his summer transfer back to Millwall.
Despite that he played 68 minutes on the opening day – a 1-1 draw at QPR which memorably saw Jed Wallace run the length of the pitch to celebrate with the travelling fans.
Saville went on to start the next 12 Championship matches, playing every minute in 10 of them before a one-game suspension for five bookings.
“I was in bed for five or six days – doing very little,” Saville told the South London Press as he recalled his Covid experience. “I didn’t get out of bed. It hit me quite hard.
“Then you’re trying to get your fitness back up and I felt tired. I didn’t feel myself at all, physically.
“I’m not using that as an excuse at all for a slow start to the season.
“I’d say it took me a good six to eight weeks to feel completely over it. It didn’t affect me in a way where I’d say it was too much, but it took a while to get over it completely until I felt Covid-free.”
Saville’s function at the Lions has changed from the 2017-18 season when his 10 goals in 44 league games led to a big-money transfer to Middlesbrough.
He was expected to be at the forefront of Neil Harris’ pressing tactics and also make late runs into the penalty area.
Saville was an ever-present until a 3-0 defeat against Fulham snuffed out their top-six prospects.
While Gary Rowett has got Millwall back in the play-off hunt, the Northern Ireland international is deployed deeper and with less ability to advance.
“I’m used to playing in a midfield three and higher up,” said Saville.
“Playing with a five [at the back] means that predominantly it has been me and Bill, or Kief [Maikel Kieftenbeld], who have been in there this season and we’ve been more of a [midfield] two. It’s a more disciplined role that the gaffer wants from me.
“I started hitting some form around the [first] Sheffield United game. I feel like I’ve picked up again recently.
“The manager now has got us well organised and I’ve adapted to that. I feel we’re in a good place as a team and individually as well, where we can go and attack these remaining games.”
Saville enjoyed the cut and thrust of Saturday’s feisty 0-0 draw against former employers Boro.
Middlesbrough boss Chris Wilder mischievously joked that the Millwall man was probably getting a lift home from referee Robert Jones after not being cautioned.
Saville was unaware of the comment. He added: “I don’t really look at that sort of stuff.
“We spoke after the game and we’ve always got on quite well, we’ve played against each other a fair few times in the last nine years or so.
“You know how he sets his sides up to play – aggressive and physical.”
“I loved it. The Den is a great place to be when it is like that. It was close to a sell-out.
“It was an enjoyable 0-0, both teams showed quality. It felt like we had the better chances. A draw, on reflection, was probably fair.
“The tackles were flying in. I put in a few myself and maybe got away with a couple where I could’ve picked up a booking up.”
There will be no break for Saville after Saturday’s match as he links up with Ireland for friendlies against Luxembourg and Hungary.
“It’s a short career, so to get to play for Northern Ireland is brilliant,” said Saville, who made his debut in October 2017 and has been capped 32 times.
“I don’t want to miss out on the opportunities that are coming to me.”
Saville was absent in early January after coming off worse following a sliding tackle on Joachim Andersen in the FA Cup third round tie – the Palace centre-back falling on top of him.
“It was a weird one,” said Saville. “I thought it was a spasm from the contact with the centre-half but it was a little bit more than that.
“We put it down to whiplash in the end, because of how painful it was.
“Just before half-time Andersen drove out with the ball, I slipped on the side and he left one on me.
“I wanted to give it a go and come back out for the second half – because that is in my nature – but it was too sore. It seized up. You know when you get back or neck problems it affects your whole body.
“I tried resting up and then it was about letting the pain ease a bit so I could get back out there. To be honest, I do still feel it now and then. That’s just the nature of the injury.”
Saville was superb in Millwall’s victory over Huddersfield, winning a match-high six tackles and with a pass completion rate of 89 per cent.
There is no expectation on the shoulders of Rowett’s squad to make the play-offs, which could work in their favour. On Wednesday night they emphatically ended Huddersfield’s 17-match unbeaten run that stretched back to November – the longest unbeaten spell in England’s top four divisions.
“It’s nice for us to know, going off results this year and barring Fulham, that we’ve taken points off nearly every team in the division,” said Saville.
“On our day we’re competitive. We showed that against Sheffield United, and we go away to Blackburn with a really small squad and get a point there.
“We’re going into games confident. If we can get players back from injury [for the run-in] it is only going to give us more options. That can only be a good thing.
“I know it is so cliche but we’re in a place where we’ve picked up good form and we’re happy to take it week by week and game by game.
“We haven’t got anything to lose now. We’ve got ourselves in a nice position. We need to go out there be aggressive, be attacking and pick up results. Wherever that will take us, it will take us.”