ROAR­ING LIONS

How Neil Har­ris’ Mill­wall have tamed their ri­vals

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By John Lyons

AS MILL­WALL strug­gled to find their rhythm early in the sec­ond half against Peter­bor­ough last Tues­day night, a voice from the stands bel­lowed: “Sort it out, Har­ris.”

The man in ques­tion is Neil Har­ris, the Lions man­ager, and, in­vari­ably, he does sort things out. Ad­mit­tedly, it took a Lee Gre­gory penalty to see off Posh, but it was three more points to­wards their pro­mo­tion push – and yet an­other clean sheet.

Tam­ing the Lions was eas­ier ear­lier in the sea­son. In­deed, Peter­bor­ough ham­mered them 5-1 back in Au­gust. Septem­ber didn’t prove a lot bet­ter with three con­ceded in con­sec­u­tive games against Southend, Rochdale and Port Vale, all re­sult­ing in de­feats.

There were wob­bles, too, in the open­ing half of De­cem­ber, in­clud­ing a 3-0 re­verse at high-fly­ing Scun­thorpe. It left the Lions 14th in League One and seem­ingly go­ing nowhere fast.

Yet since the turn of the year, the south-east Lon­don out­fit have turned into scrooge. Aside from the two goals con­ceded at AFC Wim­ble­don in a 2-2 draw on Jan­uary 2, Har­ris’ men had only let in one more goal this year ahead of yes­ter­day’s game against MK Dons at The Den. The stats are im­pres­sive in any­one’s book: one goal con­ceded in 12 games (in a 1-1 draw at Brad­ford), nine clean sheets on the spin in league and cup, 14 hours with­out the op­po­si­tion net­ting. Last Tues­day’s 1-0 vic­tory against Posh made it a per­fect Fe­bru­ary in terms of shut-outs – eight in eight games, all the more im­pres­sive con­sid­er­ing their busy sched­ule. Three Pre­mier League clubs have been sent pack­ing in the FA Cup, Bournemouth, Wat­ford and Le­ices­ter knocked out at The Den.

And their un­beaten run stood at 16 games in league and cup, lift­ing them to sixth in the ta­ble and to a mouth-wa­ter­ing FA Cup quar­ter­fi­nal at Tot­ten­ham next Sun­day.

So what does the man­ager credit his side’s as­ton­ish­ing clean sheet record to?

“It’s not nec­es­sar­ily hard work on the train­ing pitch at the mo­ment be­cause of the amount of games we’ve had re­cently,” said the 39-year-old.

Or­gan­i­sa­tion

“We do a lot of or­gan­i­sa­tion and prepa­ra­tion off the train­ing pitch so play­ers know their jobs, they know what the op­po­si­tion are go­ing to bring.

“We do a lot of anal­y­sis on op­po­si­tion play­ers and teams so that helps the in­di­vid­u­als and the team, but there was a lot of work done on the train­ing pitch when we were con­ced­ing goals.

“Lead­ing up to Christ­mas my as­sis­tant David Liver­more spent a lot of time with the back four, the de­fend­ers, to get into good habits and there’s also an el­e­ment of form in­di­vid­u­ally. Ear­lier in the sea­son there’s no doubt­ing that we had some big

name play­ers for us that weren’t per­form­ing and now they are.

“I would like to think the whole team is in­flu­en­tial in our de­fend ing. We de­fend from the front, the front play­ers work re­ally hard.

“The wide play­ers work ex­tremely hard, cover so much dis tance. If you com­pare what they cover with Pre­mier League stan­tis tics, we cover a lot of ground be­cause we give a lot of ground

“That’s why I have to ro­tate the squad at times. Every­one does their job, whether it’s de­fend­ing does cor­ner or the op­po­si­tion hav­ing a goal-kick. Every­body’s bought into the group ethic.”

There is no one get­ting above their sta­tion at Mill­wall. Lions leg­end Har­ris, the club’s all-time record scorer, wouldn’t al­low it

It is very much a team cul­ture and he prefers not to sin­gle out in­di­vid­u­als for praise, though he did make an ex­cep­tion when Gre

draws. We want to keep the run go­ing, we want to keep the un­de­feated record go­ing and we want to keep the clean sheet record go­ing. Sooner or later some­one is go­ing to score past us, some­one is go­ing to beat us, then it be­comes how you re­act. We’ll en­joy it while it’s on­go­ing, the play­ers are play­ing with real con­fi­dence.”

Against Peter­bor­ough, you could see how dif­fi­cult Mill­wall were to break down. Rookie keeper Tom King, 21, has come in for the last three matches and shown he is an able deputy for reg­u­lar num­ber one Jor­dan Archer.

Cen­tre-backs By­ron Webster and Jake Cooper were pil­lars at the back, while full-backs Tony Craig, the skip­per, and Shaun Cum­mings were solid as a rock, too.

In front of them, the cen­tral mid­field duo of Shaun Wil­liams and Ben Thomp­son re­ally put them­selves about and helped pro­tect the rear­guard.

It’s also a team that is prag­matic – wit­ness left winger Shane Fer­gu­son trip­ping Posh’s Brad In­man to thwart a pos­si­ble counter-at­tack, pick­ing up a yel­low card in the process.

This is a no-non­sense team and Har­ris wants them to show the drive and de­ter­mi­na­tion the Lions fans de­mand. It helps that the boss is a Mill­wall hero, hav­ing played ‘had the balls’ to re­sume spot­kick du­ties against Posh af­ter fluff­ing two at the death in last Satur­day’s 0-0 draw at Old­ham. “We don’t re­ally talk about it (our de­fen­sive record),” he said. “We are just con­sis­tent with what we do and every­one knows their jobs. “I’ve had to make changes be­cause of the amount of games we’ve had and it doesn’t mat­ter what per­son­nel I pick - we are still con­sis­tent in our group ethos, our work ethic, our abil­ity de­fen­sively and we are still cre­at­ing chances. “Ev­ery time you keep a clean sheet, you give your­self an op­por­tu­nity to win, of course, and we’ve picked up some re­ally good points with 0-0

Im­pressed

Last sea­son, his first full sea­son in charge, saw the Lions reach the League One play-off fi­nal at Wem­b­ley, los­ing 3-1 to Barnsley, and they were back in the play-off spots this term fol­low­ing their mid­week win. But they were also only six points off au­to­matic pro­mo­tion, hav­ing hit a run of form at an ideal time.

It means Har­ris, who also played up front for Not­ting­ham For­est and Southend, is start­ing to make a name for him­self as a boss.

Lions striker Harry Smith, signed from Non-League Folke­stone Invicta last sum­mer, is con­vinced Har­ris is head­ing on an up­ward tra­jec­tory.

“His man-man­age­ment is great, every­one re­spects him and every­one knows the bound­aries with him,” said the down-to-earth 21year-old. “He’s the best man­ager I’ve played un­der and he’s got big po­ten­tial.

“Ev­ery day the gaffer’s on the train­ing pitch work­ing with me one to one, things like tim­ing, get­ting on the end of crosses into the box with TC (Tony Craig) putting them in. He will teach me cer­tain things, ev­ery sin­gle day he’s help­ing me. He’s been briliant.”

As for whether it’s been dif­fi­cult to get his play­ers to fo­cus on their league bread and but­ter when the Spurs tie is loom­ing, Har­ris is un­equiv­o­cal.

“No, that’s a bonus game,” he said af­ter the Posh match. “Do we ex­pect to win? No. Do I want to beat MK Dons on Satur­day? Yeah. My play­ers will be pre­pared, fully fo­cused.”

Now that the Dons game is out of the way, the Lions have the lux­ury of a full week to pre­pare for Spurs.

“Bril­liant, we can catch up on some sleep,” smiled Har­ris. “Eight days off is a good op­por­tu­nity for the play­ers to re­cover from a busy sched­ule. It’ll give us a good op­por­tu­nity to pre­pare for what’s com­ing up.”

A lit­tle trip to Abu Dhabi for warm weather train­ing?

“No, not at this club,” he joked. “We’ll stay at Brom­ley at the train­ing ground.”

You wouldn’t have ex­pected any­thing else. for the club for a decade in two spells.

He’d al­ready had one stint as care­taker-man­ager when he was given the same role fol­low­ing the dis­missal of Ian Hol­loway in March 2015. Although he couldn’t quite pull off a mir­a­cle and keep the Lions in the Cham­pi­onship, he im­pressed enough to be handed the reins on a per­ma­nent ba­sis at the end of April.

CUP JOY: Harry Smith scores against Brain­tree PARTY TIME: The Lions cel­e­brate Shaun Cum­mings’ FA Cup win­ner against Le­ices­ter in the fifth round

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

EX­PER­TISE: David Liver­more LEADER OF THE PACK: Mill­wall man­ager Neil Har­ris sets high stan­dards IN­FLU­EN­TIAL: Cen­tre-back By­ron Webster and keeper Jor­dan Archer DE­PEND­ABLE: Skip­per Tony Craig

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