Last Thursday was a special day for Neil Harris. March 10 signalled a year to the day since John Berylson relieved Ian Holloway of his Den duties, ending a catastrophic period that ultimately resulted in the Lions suffering relegation to League One.
Harris initially took over on a caretaker basis with David Livermore by his side, but at the end of the season, became Millwall’s permanent manager, with Livermore reverting to being his number two.
In just 365 days, the legendary striker has turned the club’s fortunes around; from a team on the slide, the Lions now sit in the League One play-off zone and look to be within a chance of returning to the second tier at the very first attempt – an achievement that if pulled off will probably be one of the greatest in Den history.
So, what’s changed? How has Harris made watching Millwall a pleasure in just one sole year?
I think the first and most evident aspect is unity. Last season (and in years gone by) the bond between players and fans was completely shattered. Fast forward 12 months and the Den faithful are now kicking every ball with their heroes and are backing the team from the first minute until the last.
The way Harris has facilitated that change is by playing a proper formation and allowing true Millwall men to shine in that system; Ben Thompson is a prime example – the young midfielder plays every game like the Lions fan that he is. Fans associate with Thompson and also names such as Mahlon Romeo and Sid Nelson as proper Millwall players – last season, the ex-boss forced the likes of Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Justin Hoyte and Ricardo Fuller down our necks; players that didn’t play for the badge in the way this current crop do.
As previously stated above, the formation is also a big factor in the turnaround, as it has allowed the strikers a chance to shine. Lee Gregory managed nine goals all season as the lone striker last year; he already has 22 this time round. There are two reasons behind that – one being a partner alongside him in Steve Morison, who has 15 to his name also, with the second being the supply from the wings in Shane Ferguson and – the now unfortunately departed – Jed Wallace.
It didn’t take a lot of sense to realise that the formation Holloway frustratingly stuck with last season wasn’t working whatsoever.
Away form: last season, Millwall captured just four wins on the road, whilst this campaign has seen nine wins in the league already, plus a number in the various cups. Anyone who has travelled to watch the side this season will have seen a different animal at times – on occasions, the Lions have looked near unstoppable and looked like winning games with ease; last weekend’s 2-2 draw at Swindon may have seen Harris’ men drop two points in highly controversial circumstances, but for the first twenty minutes, the Lions looked a really professional, solid and attacking outfit, capable of destroying many teams, whether in League One or in divisions above.
Overall, I think it’s fair to say that ‘Millwall’ has returned. Despite staying loyal to the club – it’s in the blood, after all – the past few years have seen very testing times in SE16 and going to games has not been enjoyable in the slightest.
However, now, Saturday afternoons and Tuesday nights are becoming a delight once again. Now we are where we are, missing out on the play-offs would be a major blow, but even if that doesn’t materialise, the club are going places once again. Bar one or two terrible performances (Scunthorpe at home springs to mind), fans know that they are going to get their money’s worth and see a Millwall team that they can associate with and idolise.
It’s not all down to Neil Harris – his back-room staff and the board must take some credit, too, but the main protagonist in the club’s revival is the record goalscorer.
The Lions now face three extremely tough games against fellow promotion rivals in Sheffield United, Bradford City and Burton Albion. If we come out of those still smelling of roses, then barring any unexpected slip-ups, the club should all but ensure their place in the end of season lottery.
Finally, here’s something to get you thinking – who is your Player of the Year? In a fortnight’s time, I’ll be taking you through the runners and riders.