Millwall manager on the challenge to bridge gap between under-18s and senior side

MILLWALL boss Neil Harris has admitted he doesn't watch top-tier under-23 football – because he finds it boring.

Harris was turned off watching Category One sides as he believes it is not as physical as it should be and there is too much uniformity in teams' styles of play.

There is some debate over the merits of under-23 football, with Manchester United academy boss Nicky Butt saying: "If you are not around the first team at 20 or 21 you're not going to be, it's a fact."

Under-23 teams – effectively what the old reserve sides were – are often made up of some senior players returning from injury or out of the first-team picture, or players stepping up from the under-18 side.

Millwall's Professional Development side, under Kevin Nugent, extended their unbeaten run to eight games after a 2-2 draw at QPR last Monday, after a Mason Saunders-Henry double.

Harris is a fan of Category Two football as he feels it has more of the characteristics of the senior game.

Saunders-Henry is one of a clutch of promising players under the age of 20 who there are high hopes can make the breakthrough. Harris was at The Den the previous week to see the likes of defender Danny McNamara (above) and Isaac Olaofe put in impressive performances in a 2-0 win over Watford.

Whatever about the nature of the debate, the aim for all clubs is the same, to develop a pathway for players to the first team. This season, Millwall have taken the decision to lower the average age of their under-23 side, and also loan out players such as Ben Thompson, Fred Onyedinma and Tom King who are still eligible for that group but their development would not be aided by playing at the level.

Brentford switched to a B team, focusing on developing players released from Premier League and overseas academies, and have been successful in funnelling a number of players through to their first team.

Harris believes there is no easy answer how to develop players from the under-18s through to the senior team.

"There are pros and cons," Harris said of the under-23 set-up in the country. "The FA and the Football League and the governing bodies are trying everything that they can to find a way to bridge the gap between under-18s football and first-team football.

"People do it in all different ways. Brentford have gone to a B team, following the likes of Barca and Real who do the same.

"What I do know is that the gap between League Two and League One gets bigger, the gap between League One and the Championship gets bigger and the Championship to the Premier League gets bigger.

"I'm a believer in young players going out on loan and playing men's football. I don't watch Category One under-23s football anymore because I find it boring. I don't see tackles, I don't see challenges, I don't see set-pieces, don't see the goalkeeper kicking the ball. Yes football has moved on and there's a lot more interceptions in the game, but when you play first-team level, the Championship is the most competitive league I've seen in a long time in terms of challenges and pace and energy, and the size of players. I don't see that in Category One football.

"In Category Two it's more competitive. But it's so far away from men's football, how do you get that? We've been sending out players, like Harry Donovan to Dagenham & Redbridge, and trying to compete at that level is difficult.

"The gap now between men's senior football and 23s is vaster than it's been at any time since 23s football came in x amount of years ago."

Image: Millwall FC 

John Kelly