NEIL Harris refers to the Championship as ‘Premier League 2’ and that feeling was firmed up again this summer with two sensational managerial appointments in the division.
Leeds commanded the attention of the football world when they appointed former Argentina and Chile boss Marcelo Bielsa, while Derby’s hiring of Frank Lampard is as intriguing.
Thirteen managers of Championship clubs have been bosses of top-tier or international sides. Now Champions League and Premier League winner Lampard is starting his managerial career and it will be interesting to see which style elements of his former managers, Jose Mourinho in particular, are evident in the Rams’ side this season.
The managerial pool alone makes this a fascinating division, and there are others such as Wigan’s Paul Cook and Ipswich’s new boss Paul Hurst who have made names for themselves in the lower leagues.
Millwall open up their campaign against Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough at The Den on August 4, before travelling to Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn Rovers a week later.
We take a look at five fixtures that caught the eye after the release of the 2018-19 schedule on Thursday morning.
Millwall vs Derby County – Saturday August 18
After Millwall get the early chance on opening day to avenge last April’s 2-0 defeat to Middelsbrough at the Riverside, Lampard brings his Derby side to The Den.
As of now we don’t know how Lampard will shape his squad. Interestingly, while Harris has been working for the majority of the time since the end of 2017-18 on preparations for this season, Lampard is currently on BBC punditry duty in Russia. How much will that put the Rams behind the rest?
Derby haven’t signed anyone yet this summer, but the inevitable links with John Terry have surfaced.
Probably the best XI Lampard played in during his club career was the one in the 2004-05 Premier League season. Mourinho’s most effective formation was 4-3-3, Claude Makelele at the base of midfield with Lampard getting forward to support a front three of Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba.
That Chelsea side conceded just 15 league goals that season and lost only once as they won the title, defensive brilliance allied with devastating counter-attacking thrusts.
Expect Lampard to set his Derby side up similarly, but the other big question is whether he can engender the same kind of team spirit and forceful collective mentality that characterised Mourinho's best sides. What kind of a man-manager will Lampard be?
It’s one of the games we’re looking forward to most this season.
Millwall vs Leeds United – Saturday September 15
Sixteen years ago Marcelo Bielsa was at the World Cup in charge of one of the most talented squads in Argentina’s history yet they finished behind England and Sweden and were knocked out at the group stage.
It is one of the curiosities of the career of a coach many such as Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino rate as the best in the world: his reputation hasn’t been reflected in silverware or material successes.
Leeds haven’t exactly gone for a steady-the-ship appointment. Bielsa joined Marseille in 2014 but left one game into the following season following conflicts with key club management figures. He quit Serie A Lazio two days after being appointed, and in his last job he was suspended by Lille after 13 games.
El Loco has many admirable qualities, not lease his insistence that “every section of the media should get the same attention from me, from the capital's most prominent TV channel to the smallest newspaper in the provinces." It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t do one-on-one interviews.
Scores of former players say how much he mentored them, Manchester City duo Benjamin Mendy and Aymeric Laporte among them.
He will want to recruit the players to fit his preferred and enigmatic 3-3-1-3 formation, and the main reason he departed Lazio was because it became evident to him they wouldn’t or couldn’t secure his targets.
Leeds came to The Den last season under another overseas boss, Thomas Christiansen, when they were still unbeaten but their run ended as Millwall made one of their first big statements at this level.
There would be none bigger in Harris’ coaching career so far if he masterminded a win over Bielsa – presuming The Crazy One is still in charge by then. Not a guarantee given his CV.
QPR vs Millwall – Wednesday September 19
Just four days after facing one of the most respected coaches in the world, Harris faces one of the most ridiculed.
From the Wally with the Brolly in the rain as Croatia dashed England’s Euro 2008 hopes with a 3-2 win at Wembley in 2007, to being labelled Shteve McLaren after his weird staccato Dutch-accented interview while boss of Twente, to the unintentional hilarity of his reaction to Iceland’s goal against the Three Lions in 2016, he seems to have a habit of inviting scorn. In these social media times there is no shortage of takers.
McLaren took over from Ian Holloway at Loftus Road during the summer, and Harris will privately be looking forward with some excitement to the challenge of going up against the former England boss.
It feels as if McLaren’s career since getting sacked by England has been an exercise in reputation rebuilding, yet most fans associate him with those other moments.
What he has in common with Bielsa is a lack of silverware, but also plenty of testimony from former players who say he is a good coach.
He did win the Eredivisie title while in charge of Twente – a real outlier of an achievement in his career – but he has failed at Nottingham Forest, Derby, Newcastle and Derby again.
There are only four London derbies this season, the others against Brentford.
Last September’s 2-2 draw at Loftus Road, when Lee Gregory was sent off, was a combustible 90 minutes of football. Afterwards Holloway left himself open to ridicule when he said Harris took Millwall down in 2015. True, but a spin on events to say the least. Harris got the last word with a 1-0 win over the Hoops in the last game of 2017.
Harris will hope McLaren is stumbling over his words after their September clash.
Millwall vs Wigan – Tuesday October 23
How is Millwall’s season to go? Will they recreate the form of January onwards in 2017-18, or are the bookies right this time to place them among the clubs expected to be battling relegation?
It might seem a cliché to talk about difficult second seasons, but there are solid reasons to think this one could be one of those.
Teams shouldn’t be as surprised at the aggression and directness of Millwall, particularly at The Den. Norwich boss Daniel Farke, for one, will surely be emphasising to his team the importance of not allowing long diagonal balls towards Steve Morison, and will surely be urging his defenders to watch the movement of Lee Gregory seeking second balls. That was how Millwall created their opener in the 4-0 win over the Canaries in Bermondsey last season.
Morison is a year older, 35 in August. Nottingham Forest, well off the pace of Millwall last season, have spent £13million on a midfielder. And so on.
Admittedly, Wigan doesn’t jump out for reasons as enticing as Derby or Leeds, but if Millwall are to be scrapping for points at the lower end of the table then beating their closest rivals is key. Wigan could be one of them.
Millwall vs Stoke City – Saturday April 27
We could have picked any game from March 30 to the end of the season. It really is a horrible looking run-in: Leeds United away followed by West Brom and QPR at home. Then Sheffield United away, Brentford at The Den, Villa away, Stoke at home and Wigan away on the last day.
Gary Rowett quickly left Derby after they lost in the play-off semi-finals to Fulham to take over at Stoke.
The Potters have already signed Nigeria World Cup midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo for £6.5million, more than Millwall will spend in this transfer window and the next combined. Stoke also completed an odd deal for Benik Afobe, offering Wolves £2million more than the £10million the Premier League club paid Bournemouth for him less than two weeks previously. Afobe joined on loan and a permanent deal will be confirmed in January.
There will be more to come and Millwall are again like minnows swimming around in a pool of sharks.
You would worry for the Lions if they are desperately in need of points heading into April.
On the other hand, if they are challenging for a top-six place again they will need a touch more gas than they could find at the same stage last campaign.
It’s the last home league game of the season, and the hope is there will be something riding on it – preferably towards the top end of the table.
Image: Millwall FC