BY RICHARD CAWLEY
If you want an example of persistence paying off, look no further than Shane Ferguson.
The Northern Ireland international could easily have been a summer mover away from Millwall.
But the 27-year-old, who initially signed on loan from Newcastle in August 2015 before making his switch permanent the following January, decided to give himself another six months in SE16.
Michael O’Neill, his boss at national team level, had also advised him to stick it out with the South Londoners.
Ferguson has started the last 10 Championship matches for the Lions and played 854 minutes in the league – close to the 948 he managed in all of the previous campaign.
“I had a chat with the manager [Neil Harris] in the summer and he left it with me,” said the ex-Toon wideman. “He wanted me to stay and see how it went in pre-season.
“It’s hard to leave a team when you have a lot of history with them – like getting a promotion. That was my first one and it’s tough to walk away.
“They [O’Neill’s words] were a big thing as well, because if you’re not playing at your club you need to think about how it is going to affect your international career.
“Michael said: ‘Don’t be worrying about it’. He told me that I’m always in his plans. I’ve phoned him a few times since he has been Northern Ireland manager and he’s always given me great advice.
“I didn’t want to go. I wanted to get another chance.
“I don’t want to leave the club with any regrets. You could go and things not work out somewhere else and you’re thinking ‘maybe I should’ve stayed’. I’ve got no regrets and I’m loving it here. I’m working hard every day and trying to play as much as I can.
“I’m grateful the manager gave me the opportunity in the first place. He never really gave up on me. It’s the same with the other staff – they’ve been great with me when I wasn’t playing in terms of keeping my head up.
It’s a tough place when you’re not playing and going into some Saturdays not even in the squad. “I don’t think anyone would want to be in that position.
“Last season I got injured around Christmas time and the lads were in great form – the way the team was playing it was hard to get back in. You just have to try and be supportive to the lads who are playing.”
Softly-spoken Ferguson comes across as a low-maintenance player for a manager. That suggestion brings a smile to his face.
“I wouldn’t be the kind of person to be banging down his door saying this or that,” he responds. “Listen, if the team are doing well and they are winning then you can’t really say anything.
“I just had to wait for my chance. The manager said I was going to get my opportunity and just to be ready. You have to make sure you are training hard because if you do get that chance and you’re not fit or trained the way you should have then you’re letting yourself and your team-mates down.
“It’s the way I’ve always been. You should just let your football do the talking.”
Ferguson didn’t make any rash calls before the summer transfer window closed and the same looks set to apply next month.
He will be inside the final six months of his Millwall contract.
“I haven’t really thought about it if I’m honest – I’ve just been concentrating on playing again.
“I’m sure whatever happens, will happen. I’m enjoying my time at the club and hopefully that can continue.”
It has pretty much been continual progression for Millwall under Harris and Ferguson’s League One play-off winners’ medal is in a trophy cabinet at his mum’s house in Ireland. But the Lions find themselves embroiled in the battle at the wrong end of the table heading towards the busy Christmas period.
Although Ferguson points out that a similar start was made last season only for Millwall to power through and finish eighth.
“We have played teams this year and known we are a lot better than some of the performances we have put in,” he said. “We’re always looking back and trying to put things right. But we’ve got confidence in ourselves.
The manager has been brilliant in keeping our spirits up at the times we haven’t played too well.
“You’ve got to stick together through hard times and get out of it.”
Tomorrow’s home game against Hull City will be repeated in the FA Cup third round next month.
Ferguson does not see the tournament as detrimental to their ultimate goal of Championship consolidation.
“A few of the boys were watching the cup draw and putting it into the group chat [on their phones]. I’d like Man U or Man City – we loved the run we had a couple of years ago and playing against great teams.
“It’s not a distraction. The year we did so well in the cup we went on a great run. It didn’t faze us and gave us confidence beating teams who are in the Premier League.
“It took us on to another level. It can be a positive.”