BEN Thompson said Neil Harris was like a “second dad” at Millwall – and added he owes his career to the former Lions boss and Dave Livermore.
Harris and Livermore coached Thompson when they were in charge of the Lions’ under-21 side and then handed the midfielder a senior league debut against Coventry City in August 2015.
Thompson played 118 games under Harris, including starting in momentous FA Cup wins over Premier League Bournemouth and Watford and the 2016 League One play-off final against Barnsley at Wembley.
Thompson was out celebrating his 24th birthday when he found out the news of Harris’ resignation through social media.
Thompson said Harris was a “massive part of my life” and also paid tribute to Livermore, who he explained helped keep him “level-headed”.
Harris’ last game in charge was at Luton, when he brought on Thompson at half-time and Millwall drew 1-1 ahead of last Saturday’s clash with Leeds.
The squad presumed Harris would be preparing them for the sold-out fixture.
“The manager came into the dressing room as normal, at Luton away I think a point’s a good result,” Thompson said. “The mood in the dressing room wasn’t too down. We were ready to go and train the next day.
“I found out on social media, I was out for a meal on my birthday. I saw it on Twitter and my dad texted me. It was gutting.
“He’s a top, top bloke and for me he’s been a massive part of my life, like a second dad. It hit me hard. Friday was tough but the result Saturday was for him and Dave Livermore, who was also there from the start with me. When I was 16 he was my coach.
“Dave’s a top bloke. He was brilliant in and around the dressing room and in training. He’s a great guy to go and talk to if you ever need any help. He’s coached me and got me to where I am today, both of them. I’ve got them to thank for everything."
Thompson admitted he was still getting over Harris' departure.
“It was tough to take and still hurts now, but we’ve got to move on as a football club. He’ll never be forgotten, he’s a hero and a legend at the club. He’ll never be anything else.
“He went around and spoke to everyone on Friday. I caught him as I came in. I had a chat with him and it was an emotional time. It was nice to see him. I’ve also spoken with him on the phone and had a text from him.
“Friday was tough. It hit all the boys hard, it was a really weird day and the mood was a bit different. But Leeds at home you can’t not get up for. All the boys were raring to go and wanted to put in a performance for Neil and Livers, which we did.
“I’m just glad that we came out on top, especially after the few days before.
“We came in after the Leeds game and the boys got their phones out and he’s texted everyone, saying congratulations. That just shows you what a bloke he is. He cares for the club and the players. That’s him."
That care was never more in evidence than on December 20, 2014. It was before an under-21 training session when Thompson received the awful news that his brother Jack had passed away in Dover, aged just 16.
“I’ll never forget this day,” Thompson said. “I found out at the training ground my brother had died. Neil was the first one there and called off training. He drove me all the way to Dover.
“Neil was there with me every step of the way, he was there at the funeral. He’s a brilliant guy. For personal reasons that’s why he’ll always be in my heart. Not just on the pitch, he’s a legend off the pitch. That’s why we had such a bond and why it was so emotional when he left.
“He’s a brilliant man. Everyone has their own personal issues and he helped them through them, he’s so caring. He’s a family man and it was nice to have a manager like that.”
When Harris took over the senior side, one of his missions was to restore the emotional and spiritual connection between the players and the fans which had been damaged as the club lost their playing identity and were relegated from the Championship in 2015.
Key to that ambition was ensuring that players like Thompson and Sid Nelson, both Millwall fans, and others Harris had coached in the under-21s, such as Aiden O’Brien and Fred Onyedinma, were given opportunities to prove themselves in the first team.
Thompson played 36 times in Harris’ first full season in charge, though it took eight games before the midfielder experienced a league victory in the colours of his boyhood club.
Thompson recalled his league debut. “I came on then and he just said, ‘go and enjoy yourself, go and show these fans what you’re about’.
“I came on and I think I smashed a few people up in the air and that was it, I haven’t looked back since. He gave me my opportunity. He had trust in me and it’s been a great journey with him.
“The link between the fans and players is massive, especially at this club. If you’re to be successful at this club you need that.
“At the time we weren’t doing great and he chucked in ‘one of our own’, which was great for the fans to see. It was a brilliant experience and I’ve not really sat back and looked at it. I’ve not really had time, playing more and more games. It’s great to be where I am now.
“They’re very level-headed people. Dave Livermore would always tell me, ‘you’ve not made it as a professional footballer until you’ve made 100 starts in league football’. That was always what I stuck to.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve made it now, I still have a long way to go. They always kept you down to earth. You can never get too carried away. Playing in League One and the Championship, it’s a big thing for a young player. You’re in the public eye, so you always need that person behind you telling you to keep level-headed.
“I’ve never had a problem with that, no doubt because of the people around me.”
Harris was in charge for four-and-a-half years, taking just one full week’s holiday a year when even still his phone would always be on.
He would also arrive at the training ground at 7am after driving from Southend every morning, at least a couple of hours before the squad were due in.
“Day-in, day-out, you don’t really think about what the manager or the coaching staff are doing behind the scenes,” Thompson admitted. “Until you hear about it you don’t realise how much work goes into it.
“It’s such a stressful job, there are so many long hours and you’ve got to watch so much football. It seems like such a tough job. You don’t realise until you see it how much work these guys put in.
“And it’s brilliant because it helps us on the pitch. On the training pitch we’re working towards something, they’re overseeing it and analysing everything.
“It’s tough. Maybe he needed a break from that. I don’t know how he’s feeling. For me, he’s a legend.
“Football moves on, it never stops, never sleeps. You’ve got to carry on playing. There’s going to be a new manager coming in. Whoever it’s going to be, everyone is going to have to impress again.
“I’m looking forward to the future and seeing what happens for Millwall Football Club.
“What Neil and Livers have brought here and what we’ve got in the dressing room now is unbelievable. Any manager coming in will probably be looking forward to working with such a strong group of players.
“In the summer the business Neil did was brilliant.
“What Neil and Livers have done is they’ve brought Millwall Football Club back. It is what it says on the tin. This is Millwall Football Club now, there are no grey areas.
“There’s a link between the fans, the players, the staff, everyone’s in it together. I think that’s down to them, and it’s brilliant.”
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