By Richard Cawley
It has been a summer of change at Millwall.
And manager Neil Harris has admitted that some squad rebuilding plans would have happened in January if there had been more outgoing movement in his squad.
The Lions legend is the seventh longest-serving boss in the top four leagues in England – and number one when it comes to the Championship.
Last season was a test of character for the Millwall squad – but also for Harris, who turned 42 last month.
Back-to-back League One play-off campaigns – the second ending in a promotion at Wembley – and then an eighth place finish in the Championship showed the strides being made.
But the Lions never really got themselves clear of the relegation battle last season, as they scrapped and snarled their way to 21st spot.
Forwards Steve Morison and Lee Gregory – hugely influential in the club’s recent history – have moved on.
It is time for new players to step to the fore. Harris made it clear in no uncertain terms in April that he wanted to shake the established order up.
“My first summer we had 19 players out of contract,” he said. “That sounds a lot, but we had U23 players in that as well. We brought four or five in because there was an imbalance to the squad. The year we got promoted from League One we had six or seven new faces.
“Is this the end of a cycle? Yeah, it is in my eyes. In leadership – Steve Morison, the club captain, has gone to Shrewsbury to play. Alex Pearce has taken over the captaincy.
“The goalkeeping department is completely overhauled.
“For me it is the biggest turnover of players – if you look at the senior ones, the U23s and others that will still go. And we’re bringing a similar mix in.
“It is the biggest shift in what we are doing. And it was needed. We look forward to almost a new era.”
Once Millwall were safe last season, Harris alluded to dressing room issues. And he also spoke about drastic surgery being needed to his playing personnel.
“We tried to make more changes in January,” he said. “But we couldn’t make as many as we wanted to. The ins were dictated by people going out and we couldn’t get those changes. We had to battle on.
“I knew from March onwards that the FA Cup run was carrying us a little bit. The fact that we had Millwall people was carrying us a little bit, because we could always pick up a result from nowhere – like at Derby and home to West Brom – to make sure we’d be mathematically okay.
“But we had to change the dynamic. I knew people had to go, for their own benefits as well. I needed fresh impetus. We had to be as professional as we possibly could with the group we had. I had to deal with the issues I encountered last season and address them, to take a new stance.
“It doesn’t mean we are going to become a well-oiled ship overnight, but we’re certainly in the process of being together as a group. It’s the best pre-season trip I have been on – in the amount of work we have done, the quality we have got and the camaraderie in the group.
“It bodes well. It sounds great and looks great – but it is down to us now to continue that fine work and take it into the Preston game.”
Harris, the club’s all-time record goalscorer, was appointed to the Den hot seat in March 2015 – at a time when the SE16 outfit were dead and buried in the Championship.
This is the fifth campaign he has started in charge of Millwall.
“I’m massively proud and hugely privileged,” said Harris, who has won 99 and drawn 60 of his 233 matches in charge. “It’s not easy, football management. It has its ups and downs.
“I’ve had wonderful backing from the club last year in difficult times. I’m fortunate I have a fantastic relationship with John [Berylson, chairman], Steve Kavanagh [chief executive] and the board – plus Andy Ambler [ex-chief executive] before that.
“We have no secrets. It’s great that they know everything that goes on at the training ground, in the changing room and on the pitch. I’m a very open manager.
“I know how John wants to run the football club in the sense we have strict guidelines in terms of wage structures and Financial Fair Play. I fully support it.
“The reason I’ve been the manager for four-and-half-years is because barring last season’s dip I’ve had a fantastic three seasons where the club has been on the up, the players have performed and we’ve built real value in the squad. I know how to manage this club and what brings out the best in this club.
“I made a promise that we will be better this season – and we will be better.
“I’ve got good support from my staff. They are really loyal guys. I just wish more of the fans could see the hard work that goes on behind the scenes at the training ground – not the players or us – but the staff. The travelling they do. The detail we go into to study the opposition. It doesn’t mean we are going to win games, but it gives us the best opportunity of preparing correctly. “I can’t praise my staff highly enough – Livers [David Livermore], Ads [Adam Barrett], LT [Lee Turner] and the back room guys. They want what is best for the club.”
Harris is fully aware there was criticism aimed at both him and his squad, even though they managed to secure safety – the primary aim when you had one of the lowest budgets in the division.
“It is something I have not really had to endure during my time at the club – as a player or a manager.
“It is not particularly nice, but it’s football – I do understand that. I always think people need to be careful for what they wish for in this game.
“I love my job and I accept criticism, when levied at the right time. Last year we didn’t perform to the standards we had set in the past.
“Was that down to the quality of the league or the lack of quality we showed? People will have an opinion. Social media is a platform to air their opinion. I’ve always said if people want to air their opinion then to come down the training ground and have a chat, I’ve got no problem with that.
“I don’t do social media but I understand it is a level of communication.
“Last year was a great learning curve for me and the football club. I promise to be better, and that’s what we’ll be trying to do.
“My job as Millwall manager is to compete to the best of our ability, to put a team out that the fans can be proud of. There are always going to be highs and lows.
“Expectations rose hugely last year because we came eighth and got over 70 points, which is unheard of for this football club.
“Last season was a dip. “Will we get to 70 points? I’d really hope so. It’s a long shot, of course it is. This is a tough league.
But do I expect us to be better than 44 points? Yes I do, yes I do.
“What is success for this club? Is it staying in the Championship – pound-for-pound [spending of other clubs]? That’s down to people to decide. It’s not what I settle for. There is always a team in the Football League who step out of their comfort zone to compete nearer the top. I always start the season believing that can be us.
“It’s great when we turn over the big boys against the odds.”
That is becoming harder because of a disparity in the spending power in England’s second tier.
Fulham’s relegation from the topflight has seen them still hand new, extended contracts to Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The likes of Derby, Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday all sold their stadia back to their current owners – a loophole in FFP rules – to avoid incurring penalties for overspending.
Harris said: “The gulf between the Championship and League One is the biggest-growing gap, because when you go from the Championship to the Premier League you can really invest. Once you are in there for a year or two you can stay in the Premier League – Brighton and Bournemouth have shown that.
“To get from League One to the Championship you have to find the money yourself – you don’t get given it. Someone has got to invest heavily, and it becomes dangerous.
“Blackburn and Wigan came up last season and blew our budget away. They have been Championship and Premier League teams before that. The bigger clubs can step up and do it because they don’t have the financial constraints.
“Clubs like Barnsley, Luton and Charlton will be similar to us, in that they have to find their own means.
“The gap is huge because you are not given the TV revenues to spend £100m to compete. You look to do what we did in the past – momentum and trying to make the right signings and there is an element of luck.”
Millwall’s biggest turnover has been at each end of the pitch.
Gregory, a perennial top-scorer for Harris, has quit on a free for Stoke. Morison was not ready for a more coach-heavy role.
All three of the club’s senior goalkeepers left.
“Lee Turner had come in as goalkeeping coach from Kevin Pressman last year and we just felt he needed time to assess the goalkeepers and see where they were at,” said Harris.
“With a lot of keepers out of contract this summer we felt it was the right time to change.
“The spanner in the works was Dave Martin going to West Ham – we didn’t foresee that one.
“But we let the others go on and get on with their careers somewhere else and bring others in.
“Ryan Sandford is a young keeper not ready for first-team football, but he is developing. Frank Fielding is a top goalkeeper at this level with real experience.
“In the front areas we had Lee going and there are questions over Tom [Elliott] and Fred [Onyedinma]. Stevie going to Shrewsbury – we knew we needed to change and to try and score more goals from that area of the park.
“Tom Bradshaw is a new signing because of his limited football for the club. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson is an international footballer who has a goalscoring opportunity.
“We’re looking at a slight change for Aiden O’Brien – he’ll play nearer the front at times. What we know with Aiden is that when he’s hot he has got goalscoring ability. It’s getting him in the right areas at the right time.
“He can have a real worth as well to the striking options.
“We’re not going with a big squad, as ever, because we can’t afford to – 20 or 21 maximum. We need to be adaptable because two or three injuries or illnesses then you are down to 17 or 18 fit senior players before delving into the U23s.
“I’m very comfortable that we’d be able to adapt and do that.”