Neil Harris has achieved so much during his time at Millwall – but Saturday’s promotion decider with Bradford City could add him to an exclusive list.
The 39-year-old is already a Lions legend for his goal exploits – topping the all-time scoring charts – and now has another bite at leading the South London club up a division.
The only other Millwall man to achieve promotion as both a player and boss is Billy Gray. He was player-boss in 1964-65 and had hung up his boots when they made it back-to-back climbs 12 months later.
Not that Harris is driven by personal glory.
“Promotion wouldn’t be any different to me than anyone else at the club. I’m desperate to succeed and be successful for the club. I want to make it a memorable season and a brilliant two years.
“Individually it is irrelevant to me. It’s about the group. I have a great group of staff and players. I just want them to taste success.
“Now we are into the final we want to achieve. This group has had a winning mentality all season. We’ve had inconsistency but they are a group of winners – they have proven that time and time again in big games. We need one more effort from them.”
Harris showed his striking instincts are still razor sharp as he scored a first-half hat-trick for a Millwall Legends side on Sunday afternoon at The Den – in a charity match to raise money for wounded servicemen and women – before manager Les Briley moved him to left-back.
So does he itch to be out there for matches of this weekend’s magnitude?
“I miss playing when we have got big games – especially at The Den. I’d love to be out there but it has been four years now [since he retired] and the hunger wears off in time. I’m in the technical area – you can’t get any closer. I get as close to the white line as possible.
“There is always nervous anticipation going into matches as a manager and coach. You have it as a player but you are almost controlling your own destiny on the pitch.
“As a player you can just work hard and give everything you’ve got – whether you play well or not. For coaching staff and supporters it is a lot more difficult, watching and waiting. Once the game gets going I have huge trust in my players and what they have achieved over the last two years. You have to trust your players – individually and collectively. I’ve learned that over a period of time.”
Harris has been a steady hand on the tiller since replacing the more emotional Ian Holloway, initially in a caretaker capacity before taking on the role permanently after Millwall were relegated to the Championship.
The role is all-consuming.
“Very rarely do you switch off. I spend time with my children and my wife, we do things as a family, but there are always some thoughts about the game which has just gone or the game coming up.
“A lot goes on behind the scenes regarding players. There is always something to occupy your mind. It is a lot different after a victory, your body is probably a bit more relaxed.
“But you are always thinking. It is part and parcel of the fun for me. I like to be busy and have an active mind.”
When I catch up with Harris on Monday morning, he says he will sit down and go through the loss to Barnsley again as part of his build-up to this weekend.
“I watched it in the hotel the night after the game. I watched it back on Sky. Nothing was particularly learned from it 12 months ago, but I might learn from it this week when I watch it again. I can use that as a motivational tool.
“It’s hard not to dwell on results but I can be philosophical about the highs and lows. To not get too high or low is important as a manager. You have to take each game on it’s own merits. You have to see other matches over a period of time and not just on that moment.
“On the day against Barnsley there were no qualms. Fate went against us – which didn’t help – but also Barnsley were better than us on the day.
“There’s no doubting the FA Cup affected our league form. I thought we’d got over the hangover of the play-off final because we were in strong form in August – but that didn’t materialise because September was a disaster!
“These players have always found a way to find a Millwall performance when it is needed.
“This group is as strong as I’ve seen in my 20 years in the game. Our strength is our togtherness as a club. I’m not going to hide the fact we need to be in it as one.”
Millwall’s players were given last weekend off before the prep began for this Saturday’s mission in north London.
“It’s important to try and keep the routine normal. We played an in-house game on Friday. The boys had a couple of days off to recuperate after a really busy week or two.
“It gave them a chance to get away and have time with the family – re-energise and re-focus.
“We’ll be fully focused by the weekend. We have got the press commitments and visit to Wembley out of the way as early as possible.”
Harris might have endured Wembley pain as a boss – but he also had the opposite emotion in 2010 as he led the line for Millwall as they beat Swindon Town 1-0.
“It is one of the highlights of my career. I’ve been fortunate in a Millwall shirt to have many – winning at Wembley is an awesome experience. It is a great way to get promoted. If the players give the best of their ability and we don’t win then no problem.
“All successes are memorable. I want my players to achieve that and feel what it is like.”
Photos by Brian Tonks.