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Neil Harris Jersey
Only once has it crossed my mind,” says Neil Harris with half a smile. “I was so scared I just stopped thinking about it.” Yet before Millwall’s biggest match for several years, their manager has every reason to dream big.
The meeting with Fulham at
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a sold-out Den
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on Friday will pit together the Championship’s two form sides, having recorded a combined 38 league matches unbeaten as the race for a place in the top flight hots up.
Whereas it is no surprise to see Slavisa Jokanovic’s side, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa – whom Millwall face in their final three league fixtures – occupying three of the play-off spots, the presence of a club whose transfer record remains the £800,000 spent on Paul Goddard from Derby nearly 30 years ago is almost unbelievable.
“My new phrase is the league table doesn’t lie after 43 games – you are where you deserve to be,” says Harris, who has just celebrated three years in charge having been appointed as the caretaker manager in March 2015. “Traditionally we’ve been a second-half-of-the-season team and we’ve seen that again this time. The boys are absolutely loving it at the moment.”
Defeat at Norwich on New Year’s Day left Millwall in 15th place and six points clear of the relegation zone but events since have been extraordinary. Eleven victories and six draws have catapulted them above sides with much larger budgets, with supporters dreaming of a return to the top flight for the first time since the team featuring Tony Cascarino and Teddy Sheringham in attack were relegated in 1990 having briefly been top the previous September.
“I saw Cas last night – he was loving it,” says Harris. “It brings back good memories for a lot of people connected to the club and I think they all want to be a part of it.
The Den is an awesome place when it’s sold out and the fans get behind the team. Talk about
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hostile atmospheres – it is! The noise and the togetherness - the fans feed off it. It took us well over a year after I took the job for the players to feel that. It was the last week of the season and I
remember saying to them, ‘you’re going to feel that Millwall atmosphere
for the first time.’ They didn’t really get what was coming but all I wanted them to do was feeling that connection. Now they get it every week.”
If anyone would know about that then it is Harris. Born and raised in Essex, where he still lives, he started his career at non-league Maldon Town as a teenager before joining Cambridge City in 1996. Two years later he signed for Millwall. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2001 but was back in action within months. Having been in the side who reached the FA Cup final in 2004, losing against Manchester United, Harris departed that summer on loan before joining Nottingham Forest. He returned in 2007 and broke Sheringham’s club goalscoring record before moving to Southend in 2011 and retiring in 2013.
“We’ve been through quite a lot with this club,” says Harris, who guided the team out of League One last season via the play-offs. “First and foremost the Millwall fans love a non-league player. They love an underdog – all they want to see on a pitch is themselves; someone who is ready to run through a brick wall because that’s what they would do for their club. When I came in
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I had those traits already from playing men’s football from the age of 16. I also scored a shitload of goals, so that helped! Coming through the illness was a big thing – I’d had a couple of successful seasons and was Millwall’s No 9. When adversity strikes, that’s when the siege mentality comes together.”
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