Comment: Neil Harris’ record at Millwall speaks for itself – and he proved doubters wrong with instant impact at Den

BY RICHARD CAWLEY
richard@slpmedia.co.uk

Millwall and Neil Harris are A Good Thing. And the Lions legend chose to leave before it could become A Bad Thing.

When I say that, it cuts both ways.

Because Chopper stepped down before some of the vitriol could change the way he felt about a club which was his home. He certainly didn’t deserve to walk away from Millwall feeling anything other than pride at the job he did.

I can still recall that a contact of mine – an experienced operator in the game – felt it was a big mistake when Harris took the job on a permanent basis in April 2015 following relegation from the Championship.

That person thought that the Lions were in too much of a mess for it to play out well, the challenge too big and that Chopper could massively harm his prospects in management if it all went wrong.

But it all went right.

And one of the reasons for that was Harris knew Millwall. He knew the qualities needed for players to perform at The Den. He had been a vital playing cog in the most successful Millwall teams in recent history.

That first transfer window saw 14 players leave and 12 signings made – Steve Morison, Tony Craig, Mahlon Romeo and Shane Ferguson brought in.

The 2015-16 season ended in League One play-off final defeat, but Harris knew he had the foundation of a squad which would challenge again. There was only a bit of fine-tuning needed with Shaun Hutchinson signed following his release by Fulham; Jake Cooper and Jed Wallace were quality loan additions. The Lions had a wobble in the run-in but Harris acted decisively – bringing in senior heads like Jimmy Abdou as the campaign went into the crunch. Morison – a big game hunter – tapped home the winner as it was second time lucky at Wembley.

If you were to pick one campaign as the highlight of Harris’ reign then that is easy – 2017-18.

It was the unstoppable force against the unstoppable force at The Den on April 20 2018. Millwall saw their 17-game unbeaten run ended – Fulham inflicting a 3-0 defeat to move their own undefeated streak to 22 matches.

The Lions had powered into the play-off zone with three matches to go but finished eighth, still an excellent achievement.

If they had beaten Fulham, and Slavisa Jokanovic’s side were rocking badly in a first half played in a pulsating atmosphere, I still believe they would have gone on to become a Premier League side. The momentum and belief they had built up was incredible.

The recruitment had been a major success – Cooper and Wallace both rejoining on a permanent basis with George Saville hugely influential in midfield, not only in terms of contributing goals but also often spearheading their soul-crushing press. The question is whether that campaign set sights too high externally.

It was more straightforward to upgrade the squad in the first three seasons but doing so again – especially when you are a club operating on one of the smaller budgets – is a whole lot more problematic.

Millwall punched well above their weight in 2017-18. But 2018-19 was a prolonged grind to safety, in many ways the campaign that would have been expected first time around in the Championship.

It wasn’t helped at the start by persistent attempts to unsettle key men – Rangers leaking their interest in Cooper while Middlesbrough pushed for a double deal for Saville and Wallace. Only Saville went to Teesside – the £8million fee a huge profit on the £350,000 paid to Wolves 12 months earlier – but the void he left was difficult to fill.

Millwall did break their transfer record, £800,000 for Paul Goddard in 1989, when they brought in Tom Bradshaw. They did so again before the end of August when Ryan Leonard arrived for a fee widely believed to be around £1.2m.

Bradshaw suffered cruciate knee ligament damage not long after arriving. Anything but ideal when goals were an issue. Only three clubs scored fewer and two of those occupied the lowest spots in the table.

There were signs last season that the strain was building on Harris. The weary Lions flopped over the finish line.

“Success this time will not be just about staying in this division,” Harris told our paper in August.
Last Thursday’s announcement that he had left his position was a surprise, but not a complete shellshock if you read some of the signs.

Harris will hope Millwall benefit from a change. The talk is that he will have a period to recharge batteries that were drained by a testing 12 months. There will be temptations to cut short any sabbatical, his work in SE16 meaning he will have admirers.

A question – and it will become clearer in the coming months and years – is whether Millwall can expect more than a yearly battle for consolidation at this level?

They have performed above their resources in the past, but the Championship is becoming a different animal with wealthy foreign investors buying clubs and snapping up players on sky-high wages.

You might gatecrash the promotion party once in a while, but being on the invite list every year usually means needing serious cash to burn.

Millwall had a way of playing under Harris which was successful. As soon as it wasn’t then the style and tactics became an issue with sections of the fanbase – who weren’t shy in letting the club’s all-time record goalscorer or the players know it.

But results are king. We saw that on Saturday, the 2-1 victory over Leeds United didn’t see caretaker boss Adam Barrett reinventing what had been implemented before – the difference was that they ended a seven-match winless spell.

Football fans are hard to please.

You’ll have those who want a team to take more offensive risks but then complain that they are too open defensively. How many times have you seen frustrations grow when a possession-based side patiently try and pull open space against deep-lying opponents?

Whoever gets the Millwall gig next, it’s not going to be easy. Because football management never is. But also especially so when you follow a boss who improved things for the better.

Harris’ win percentage of 41.6 from his 245 games is a huge leap on the records of his predecessor Ian Holloway (22.6) and Steve Lomas (25.0). It is around the same as Kenny Jackett (42.35), but three of his six seasons were spent in League One. And while there was a ninth-placed finish following promotion, they were 16th and 20th before he took charge at Wolves.

The passage of time helps provide perspective on achievements. But you can say now that Chopper made Millwall fans proud of their team again.

He won promotion back to the Championship. He is the only one to go up with the Lions as both a player and as a manager.

He twice took them to the FA Cup quarter-finals – including shocking reigning Premier League champions Leicester, AFC Bournemouth and Watford at The Den. He gave his heart and soul to the role.

When Millwall needed him, he was there to oversee the rebuild.

Nothing lasts forever, especially in this game. But Neil Harris and Millwall have  an indelible history, and you wouldn’t rule out there being more chapters to come.

PICTURES BY BRIAN TONKS

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