LION KING HAR­RIS

Pro­file on Mill­wall leg­end Neil Har­ris as he seeks to save his team as boss

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE: - By Chris Dunlavy

WHEN Neil Har­ris was a ret­i­cent kid of 11, his dad agreed to shell out £1 a goal if only he’d join his lo­cal youth side.

It was an act of bribery that Roger Har­ris would come to re­gret when his son marked his first cup fi­nal by plun­der­ing ten goals – all from cen­tral mid­field!

Those fool­ish enough to have of­fered Mill­wall’s all-time lead­ing scorer a goal bonus in the two decades since have suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate.

“Neil is the best fin­isher I ever played with,” said David Liver­more, a team-mate and now Har­ris’ No.2 at the Den. “In train­ing and in shoot­ing prac­tice, he was sim­ply phe­nom­e­nal. I have never come across a player who worked so hard and was as clin­i­cal in front of goal.”

Yet pro­fes­sional sides took a long time to cot­ton on. Es­sex boy Har­ris spent his for­ma­tive years in Non-League foot­ball with the likes of Mal­don Town and Cam­bridge City.

His foot­ball pay was scant, his days long. Up at 6am and crushed into a packed com­muter train to his job with a Ja­panese in­sur­ance com­pany in the City. Back in the early evening, then straight into the car up to train­ing or a mid­week match. Home af­ter mid­night.

Iron­i­cally, fu­ture Mill­wall boss Kenny Jack­ett – then at Wat­ford – was one of the first to send a scout, only to re­ceive a less than glow­ing re­port. Billy Bonds, then man­ag­ing Mill­wall, wasn’t go­ing to make a sim­i­lar mis­take and paid Cam­bridge £30,000 in March 1998. Though Har­ris didn’t score for eight matches, the goals soon flowed; 18 in his first full sea­son, an­other 18 the fol­low­ing year and a golden boot- win­ning 28 as the Li­ons won pro­mo­tion from Di­vi­sion Two in 2000-01.

Pre­ston bid £2.5m for the man nick­named ‘Bomber’. Pre­mier League Mid­dles­brough made an en­quiry. Then, at the peak of his pow­ers – and just 23 – Har­ris was di­ag­nosed with tes­tic­u­lar can­cer.

“As a foot­baller, you think you can­not be touched,” he said. “Then life grabs you by the throat. I knew noth­ing about can­cer. I only knew that it killed you.”

Battle

Har­ris won that gru­elling battle, but his chance at the big time had gone. Ush­ered out of the Mill­wall door by Den­nis Wise, he spent time at Not­ting­ham For­est and Cardiff, never re­cap­tur­ing the golden form of old un­til an emo­tional re­turn to the Den in 2007.

There he set about earn­ing his leg­endary sta­tus, netting an­other 40 goals in 147 games to eclipse Teddy Sher­ing­ham as the Li­ons’ top scorer.

Yet Har­ris’ stand­ing in south Lon­don is about far more than goals. Hard as nails on the pitch, he was car­ing and com­pas­sion­ate off it. A dress­ing room leader, his work ethic, pro­fes­sion­al­ism and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what it meant to rep­re­sent Mill­wall won the hearts of both fans and team-mates.

Fans like Alan Baker, who was stabbed by youths be­fore a West Ham game and reg­u­larly vis­ited by Har­ris dur­ing his re­cu­per­a­tion.

Play­ers Like Tim Cahill, then a teenager fresh off the plane from Australia. “Neil is so much more than a great foot­baller,” said the for­mer Ever­ton man. “He did so much to wel­come me and help me set­tle in. He was the kind of guy you want be­side you in the trenches and it was typ­i­cal of him to fight back from his health is­sues. It was a battle he just had to win.”

Or Danny Senda, the for­mer Mill­wall full-back com­forted by Har­ris af­ter hor­rif­i­cally dis­lo­cat­ing his knee.

“Peo­ple talk about Neil at this club, and he was great for me,” he said.“It wasn’t just on the pitch that day when he tried to keep me calm and re­as­sured. It was af­ter­wards. The phone calls in hos­pi­tal, the con­stant sup­port when he could see I was a lit­tle down. He is just an amaz­ing per­son.”

Even op­po­si­tion sides felt his tact and kind­ness. Af­ter netting a hat-trick against cash-strapped Stock­port in 2008, Har­ris qui­etly of­fered to pay for the match ball.

“It’s not about his his­tory here,” said Steve Lo­mas when he brought Har­ris back to the club as a coach in 2013.“It’s about the per­son. Neil is an in­tel­li­gent per­son who every­body re­spects and re­sponds to. That’s why I want him here.”

Now, af­ter the de­par­ture of Ian Holloway, Har­ris is in the dugout. “It is clear to ev­ery­one that Mill­wall get the best out of Neil,” said Liver­more. “He loves play­ing for the club and loves the sup­port­ers, who cer­tainly love him. This is his club and it al­ways will be.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

NEW ROLE: Neil Har­ris was a hero as a player at Mill­wall – can he be as suc­cess­ful as manager?

GLORY DAYS: Neil Har­ris and Paul Robin­son cel­e­brate Mill­wall’s play-off fi­nal victory

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