As it stands, in the 140-year history of the FA Cup, there have only been 25 occasions when a team from outside the top division has reached the final. In 2004, Millwall became only the 18th club in history to achieve the feat, with a memorable run that propelled the club and iconic players like Paul Ifill and Tim Cahill into the Continental spotlight.
For the first time in 12 years, a club not playing in the top level of the English football pyramid played in the final game of the FA Cup after Second Division Sunderland made the final in the 1991/92 season. What’s amazing about Millwall’s achievement though, is that they became the first team in the Premier League era to do so.
Millwall reached their first ever FA Cup final in 2004, with their previous best run being 3 semi-final appearances. Just as in 2004, their 1937 FA Cup semi-final saw them break another record, with them being the first team in the third tier to reach that stage. So, despite never winning the competition, Millwall certainly have a special relationship with the FA Cup, and 2004 was certainly a significant chapter for the club and English football.
Round 3: Millwall 2–1 Walsall
An inauspicious start to a special campaign
In a low-key 3rd round tie, Millwall came from behind to defeat a Walsall side ultimately reduced to 9 men. Jorge Leitao took advantage of a defensive error to give the Saddlers the lead when he chipped Tony Warner, but Millwall hit back before half-time through Kevin Braniff’s equaliser and Tim Cahill’s header from a Dennis Wise cross.
The game spiced up in the second half when Leitao was sent off for a second yellow card after 70 minutes, while Walsall goalkeeper Jimmy Walker was given a straight red for violent conduct in injury time. In truth, Millwall had the game under control before the dismissals, and Cahill probably should have added more to his tally. But thanks to their first win at home for two months, Millwall went through and the foundations for not only a great campaign, but a promising future, were laid.
Round 4: Telford United 0–2 Millwall
The game that seemed like it would never come
Millwall drew the last non-league side left in the FA Cup in the 4th round, and thanks to inclement weather that winter, the game was postponed twice. When the waterlogged pitch was finally passed fit for play on the morning of the game, the Lions went on to beat the conditions and their opponents comfortably, running out 2-0 winners.
Lions stars Tim Cahill and Paul Ifill combined to give Millwall the lead, before Dennis Wise wrapped up the result late on in the game. Other than the rigamarole of actually getting the game played, it was a pretty routine win on a difficult pitch that saw Millwall advance to the 5th round with ease.
Round 5: Millwall 1–0 Burnley
Another round, another red card
Millwall were fired up when they met Burnley in the 5th round, and almost took an early lead through a stunning Paul Ifill volley that was superbly tipped over by Burnley hero Brian Jensen. The Lions piled on the pressure, with Matt Lawrence and Daniele Dichio going close, before Ifill again went close after beating three players and hitting the crossbar with amazing strike.
The pressure eventually told when Dichio finally converted a Kevin Muscat cross to give Millwall the lead, before Burnley’s Paul Weller was shown a red card for some argy-bargy with Dennis Wise, effectively ending the game as a contest. Jensen made some stunning saves to keep Burnley in with a shout, but Burnley couldn’t make an impact at the other end and Millwall saw out the game to ensure their passage through to Round 6.
Round 6: Millwall 0–0 Tranmere Rovers
Tranmere stifle the Lions’ roar
The 6th round tie at the New Den was a John Achterberg masterclass as the Tranmere ‘keeper made several brilliant saves and denied Kevin Muscat from the penalty spot to force a replay at Prenton Park.
Cahill was his usual dangerous self in the air, but had two headers saved, while Dennis Wise’s free-kick was stopped by the busy Tranmere goalkeeper. Cahill and Ifill also combined well to create several opportunities, but the goal just would not come.
Eventually, Cahill won a penalty after he was shoved in the area, but Muscat’s attempt was saved, and despite a frantic end to the game neither team could find a winning goal and a replay was needed to separate the two sides.
Replay: Tranmere Rovers 1–2 Millwall
Millwall secure their first FA Cup semi-final for 67 years
Danny Dichio laid on goals for Tim Cahill and Neil Harris as Millwall swept past Tranmere at the second time of asking. A tidy left-foot finish by Cahill and a stunning volley from Harris gave Millwall their first FA Cup semi-final for 67 years and set the Lions well on their way to Wembley.
Tranmere pulled a goal back before half-time to give Millwall a scare, but they held on to win the replay and set up a contest with Sunderland to determine which would be the first club from outside the top tier to play in the FA Cup final in the Premier League era.
Semi-final: Sunderland 0–1 Millwall
Yet another red card and yet another Cahill goal
In a foreshadowing of who their opponents would be in the final, Millwall travelled to Old Trafford to meet Sunderland, managed by former Millwall manager Mick McCarthy, on neutral ground. Ifill and Cahill again combined to give the Lions the lead against a star-studded Sunderland team after John Oster had already hit the bar from a Sunderland free kick.
Neil Harris thought he had given Millwall the lead in the 12th minute, but his finish was ruled out for a marginal offside. It ultimately didn’t matter as Cahill’s 3rd goal in the competition sealed victory against a team containing well-known names such as ex-Lion Phil Babb, Mart Poom, Gary Breen, Julio Arca, Kevin Kyle, and Jason McAteer, who was dismissed late on as Sunderland chased the game.
Despite their disadvantage, Sunderland continued to press but Millwall saw the game out to reach their first ever FA Cup final and guarantee European football for the following season.
Final: Manchester United 3-0 Millwall
Due to Wembley being under construction, the 2004 FA Cup final was played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Tim Cahill’s 3 goals throughout the competition had put him on the radar of several Premier League clubs, and plenty were keen to see how Millwall’s budding stars would fare on the biggest stage against Premier League opposition. Despite the Lions missing 16 players due to suspension or injury, they put up a great fight against an accomplished Man Utd side, who took the lead just before half-time thanks to a header from a young Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, containing legends such as Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Ruud van Nistelrooy, then made the score look more convincing than it maybe should have, with the Dutch striker scoring from the penalty spot and ending the contest a short time after.
Nevertheless, it was a day that will be remembered fondly by Millwall fans and neutrals, and also saw the youngest ever player to play in an FA Cup final when Curtis Weston replaced Dennis Wise with a minute of the game left to play. Despite the disappointing end to the campaign, it was a fantastic run from a brace Millwall side that saw them catapulted onto the European stage and earned the respect and recognition of fans and clubs across the UK.