Harris gives Millwall identity on pitch as perceptions change

© Millwall FC
© Millwall FC

On the walls of Millwall’s press room, clippings from newspapers recall recent glories. One piece speculates on the collective shudder issued across Europe in 2004 after Millwall had qualified for the Uefa Cup.

The club is slowly moving away from that perception, even if on the field the football had fallen way off the standards of that time.

On Sunday, the current players will hope their names join those on framed mementos.

Neil Harris is restoring the old image of Millwall on the pitch as the club strives to leave a different one off it behind them.

“I think there was a little bit of heart and soul lost with the fans in the team, especially last year with relegation,” The Millwall boss admitted at Wednesday’s press conference ahead of this weekend’s League One play-off final against Barnsley.

Harris uses the word ‘adversity’ regularly. It’s not so much fearing it, or hoping to avoid it, it’s the response to it that interests him and tells him what he needs to know about his players.

Adversity was where Millwall found themselves last August, four successive home losses into a campaign that already had the look of a potentially long struggle.

After one defeat, the 4-0 hammering by Coventry, Harris heavily criticised his team, wondering if it affected them as much as it did him. “I questioned their mentality, publicly, after a home defeat earlier in the season because I wanted to see the reaction,” Harris recalls. “And I got it.”

© Millwall FC
© Millwall FC

That ruthlessness had been signified early in the summer when Harris had told a former team-mate, his friend Alan Dunne, he would be letting him go, one of 18 players cleared out to start the process of rebuilding. Dunne cried but there was no room for decisions for sentimental reasons.

After the bad start, slowly the team took shape, with an identifiable style based on direct, high-tempo football within the framework of 4-4-2 that Harris played in.

The players’ experiences shadowed the club’s as it all accumulates into a potentially grand climax. It was little over a year ago that centre-back Byron Webster was back at Millwall after a loan spell at former club Yeovil. His future was uncertain and even as recently as December he wasn’t first choice. But he’s started the last 28 games and when he limped off late against Bradford last Friday there was real concern among Lions fans.

Jordan Archer didn’t play a minute of senior competitive action on loan at Millwall last season and after being released by Tottenham joined as number two behind David Forde. He is now arguably the best goalkeeper in the league.

And there are others: Carlos Edwards, then 36, was out, crocked, for a year. Mahlon Romeo, whom Edwards is deputising for on Sunday, had just signed for Harris after Gillingham didn’t offer him a professional deal. Mark Beevers was dropped earlier this season amid rumours linking him with a move up north.

Harris couldn’t save Millwall from relegation to League One last season but saw a solid base in a core group and that convinced him he had a starting point from which to rebuild. He also knew he wanted to sign Tony Craig and Steve Morison, as well as Archer.

Harris admits he was “panicky” when Millwall lost those four home games having targeted form at The Den as a key area for improvement, but since then all of those players have excelled and supporters now identify with them after years watching many they couldn’t.

“My first job really was to try to transform the spirit,” Harris explains. “I promised at the start of the season that I would find that link between the fans and the pitch again that had just wavered a little bit.

“The biggest thing for me is that the club has to have an identity, the team has to have an identity, a Millwall identity. It has to have a spirit about it.

“You don’t have to be the best player on the pitch, you don’t have to be the most pleasing football team on the eye, but you have to play with guts and heart. My Millwall team does that.”

Harris often admits he wasn’t the most gifted footballer – “I might not be the best in the world but Millwall fans recognise that I wear my heart on my sleeve and give everything I've got for the team,” he said in 2010 – and his character was tested in 2001 with a cancer diagnosis.

He came through it and went on to break Teddy Sheringham’s goalscoring record, eventually finishing with 138.

He was asked this week if the illness had changed his life: “No. Only in the sense that I don’t get too high or too low. That was a great life experience. The question really is: Do I really appreciate life more? I’ve got three beautiful children and that’s the best feeling you can have in the world.

“That (illness) was a great experience for me, it was tough at the time, the adversity, it doesn’t get tougher than that. It’s certainly made me a stronger character and a better person.

“That was a difficult time for me but I got through it. The disappointment of football matches, losing, missing penalties, things like that, you get over it.”

And as he often does he makes his players the subject again.

“Adversity for us as a group this year, was Gillingham away. The last game of the season when you think you’re missing out on fourth and the second leg of the semi-final at home.

“You’re down to 10 men, your manager is in the stands and you let in a last-minute goal in a hostile atmosphere, there are people on the pitch. That’s adversity but we go down the other end of the pitch and score.

“If (it’s said) teams replicate their manager on the sideline, then I’d certainly like to think my team have got character and desire.”

© Millwall FC
© Millwall FC

This week, Harris, Morison, Craig and Jimmy Abdou, as well as members of the Millwall Lionesses side, were at the House of Lords as guests of Lord Ouseley, chairman of anti-racism group Kick It Out, to honour Millwall’s work in the community. “That goes a little under the radar,” Harris said. It was another step along the way to improving perceptions of the club.

They’ll try to take the final step back to the Championship on Sunday but, as Harris says, it won’t be the end of the world if they don’t.

“I spoke early in the season about small steps, for the club as well as the team. It wasn’t going to happen overnight – ‘Neil Harris is the manager, we’re going to win every game’. Management isn’t that easy and I’m not naïve enough to think it was.

“I made some mistakes early in the season and the fans were supportive to a certain extent, but demanding also because they wanted me to get it right.

“So questions were asked of the players, it filters down from the top. But we’ve come together as one and the play-off second leg at The Den was a special night.

“Whatever happens on Sunday, foundations have been built to move us on for years to come.”

John Kelly