BY TOBY PORTER
Fans only get to see performances on the pitch. But Millwall boss Neil Harris let rip after Tuesday night’s 2-1 home defeat by Bristol City on a main factor in his side’s struggles this season – the attitude of some of the players.
The Lions manager held off on his no-holds-barred criticism until the club had secured its Championship future for next season. Because openly slamming the players during the campaign would have been counter-productive.
But Harris is an authority on how important attitude is to Millwall. The fans in the stands demand work rate on the pitch. But that translates to having the right approach in the dressing room.
One former player who knows exactly what Harris means is Gary Alexander, a team-mate in the 2009 play-off defeat and 2010 play-off win – and a friend for many years.
Alexander, who turns 40 in August, said: “You don’t have to like each other off the pitch but in the dressing room you have to work together.
“But if you are in the same team as me, I would run through brick walls for you,” said Alexander, who has experienced it from the other side, too, in the hot seat at Crawley, Greenwich Borough and Ashford United.
“At the end of the day, we both want the same thing. “You have to have passion, work rate and desire to play for Millwall. It does not just come from the manager – the fans demand that as a minimum.
They will accept a bad performance and that some days, things don’t go right. “But they will not accept players who do not work hard.
They work hard themselves through the week and when they watch the players on a Saturday, they expect that from them too. They pay their money to come through the turnstile. They are entitled to put their view.
They are a bit more vocal and let their feelings show perhaps more than other clubs. “Millwall is known for its togetherness in the dressing room.
That shows in the number of players who come back to watch games and do things for the club like Ben Thatcher – and Joe Dolan and Keith Stevens who both live in Australia now. Everyone comes back. It is a unique club like that.
“You either love it or hate it. If things don’t go well and the fans express their view, it can become a lot harder.”
One of Alexander’s former team-mates who epitomised the right attitude was former Crystal Palace centre-back Richard Shaw, who won the Player of the Year award in 2007, and told struggling team-mates if they could make it at Millwall, they could make it anywhere.
Very few players have left The Den with their tail between their legs and gone on to success elsewhere. In the last 20 years you could count them on one hand – left-back George Friend and striker Lewis Grabban.
Others have come and played good football but found themselves out of the door because they did not have the right approach – Izale McLeod, David Martin and Theo Robinson. Friend, a quiet farmer’s son from Devon, was well liked but only played six games on loan from Wolves for Kenny Jackett.
But he has since played 284 times for Middlesbrough and is revered as a hero at the Riverside. But it is safe to say he never looked like he was from Elephant & Castle.
The only times he has been back to The Den has been playing for the opposition – and scored a vital added-time equaliser for Boro in SE16 on the opening day of this season.
At the opposite extreme, Nadjim Abdou might not have been a world beater, but his work rate and commitment made him one of only three players to win the club’s Player of the Season award twice – the other two were Alf Wood and Darren Ward.
On the other hand, Zak Whitbread had a good four seasons at The Den and was stronger with his feet than most centre-backs – but was not the hardest worker. Alexander said: “I never claimed to be the best footballer in the world but I will always run about. And I will always have a go, whether I score or hit it into the stands.
“I did not get picked up by West Ham until I was 17. It was my last chance. I had applied to be a postman. But I played a trial for West Ham and they offered me a scholarship straight away. What I lacked up made up for with heart.
“In the 2008-10 years, it was one in, all in. We did go out together when maybe we were not supposed to. But what is the manager going to do? Sack the whole team?”
For Alexander, Harris leads by example. “Chopper is a winner,” said his former strike parnter. “He does not like losing. It hurts him massively when things don’t go right. Everyone knows that. “It typifies the way he played. He always chased lost causes.
Millwall players might not be the best footballers, but you have to be willing to work your socks off. I am not saying the current players don’t do that, but this is a very tough league, and if you are not all working towards the same goal, it shows.
“For me this has been a good season, though, because we have not been relegated and had a good cup run. “We could have won on Tuesday, if that penalty had gone in. But missed penalties change games.
If it had never been awarded, I am convinced we would have won. We might even have got more, because we were catching them on the break. But the missed spot-kick gave them hope.”
And anyone who footballing flair is more important to a team than squad cohesion should look at Norwich and Sheffield United. Both have won promotion with names who would only be familiar to supporters of Championship clubs – the pundits on Match of the Day would struggle to recognise a single one of them – until now.
Before them, another club who rose without trace was Burnley, who have now had four of their last five season in the top flight. And who are the Clarets managed by? Sean Dyche, another former Millwall legend. QED.