LION KING HARRIS
Profile on Millwall legend Neil Harris as he seeks to save his team as boss
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.”
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.”
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