NEIL Harris hopes the current Millwall squad have the same “fond memories” after the fourth round of the FA Cup on Sunday that he does of one of his most cherished moments in football.
Millwall face Watford this weekend hoping to follow up their 3-0 win over AFC Bournemouth in the third round of the competition with another Premier League upset.
Harris was just 23 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2001. He scored his first goal on his return to competitive football following his recovery against Watford at Vicarage Road on New Year’s Day in 2002.
“It was special for me, of course, a magic moment,” Harris said. “Not just for me, but for our football club: the four thousand fans behind that goal, the management, the staff, my team-mates, definitely. Family and friends are separate, but on the football side of things it was a special moment for our football club.
“It was the start of a new year. It was a happy memory and I certainly hope my players have fond memories of playing Watford come Sunday at two o’clock.
“I wasn’t going to come on, I hadn’t been well. I didn’t really warm up all game, I had a bit of man flu. I was sitting on the side of the bench with a coat and a hat and gloves – and I never wore all that on the bench.
“Mark McGhee was concerned about Stevie Claridge, who wasn’t getting any younger. He wanted to get him off for five minutes before the next game and obviously the rest is history."
Harris recalled the reaction from within football, and one moment in particular at Sheffield Wednesday.
“I got a lot of support from most of the 92 clubs at the time: messages, emails, cards from somebody connected with them, whether it was a fan, a member of staff, a manager, a team-mate that I had played with or against.
"The thing I’ll never forget is going to Hillsborough and getting a standing ovation.
“Things like that are special, when the football community comes together.”
Harris’ team-mates celebrated his strike – when he picked the ball up in his own half before curling a shot inside the far post from 25 yards – by hoisting the striker on their shoulders.
“It was instinctive,” Harris said of that moment. “When you watch it back and the photos that you’ve got, there’s no bigger honour in the game than your peers putting you above them. What my team-mates did that day, putting me on their shoulders, was putting me above them. That’s an honour and makes you very proud.
“It was a privilege to play football for as long as I did, especially after my illness.
“I was fortunate to play a lot of games, score a lot of goals. We had some magic moments, we had success on the pitch. I’ve had some happy days as a manager also and from the football side of things on the pitch it was one of my most memorable moments because of what it meant to so many people.”
The build-up to Sunday’s fixture was set to be dominated by the uncertainty surrounding the club’s future, with a decision on a compulsory purchase order of land around The Den looming on February 8.
The scrapping of that CPO process on Wednesday has shifted that focus, though Harris insisted it wouldn’t have affected his players’ performances.
“The players can detach themselves from it and focus on what they’re doing,” Harris said. “For me as a manager and being a member of this club for so long I understand the seriousness of it.
“Until the Bournemouth game, and the press we got from beating Bournemouth at the time, the real pressure and seriousness of what could happen and the consequences of what could happen if the CPO went through, I don’t think people really took notice of it.
“What the Bournemouth game did was give us a lot of good press on the pitch and off the pitch. There have been small steps every day, there is a lot of positive news at the moment and I certainly want my fanbase to come on Sunday and celebrate the positive steps and get behind their team.”
FA Cup fourth round
Millwall vs. Watford
Live on BBC One Kick-off: 12pm
Image: Millwall FC
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