Not only is Michael Calvin a brilliant football writer, with several great books to his name, he is also a Millwall supporter and spent a whole season in the company of Neil Harris and his side while writing Family: Life, Death and Football: A year on the Frontline with a Proper Club. He was kind enough to give VFTN some insight on Cardiff’s current manager, based on his time in charge at Millwall.
You shadowed Neil Harris for a full season at Millwall. What were your first impressions of him, as a man and a manager?
He made an instant impression when I arrived for the first day of pre-season training. I was introduced to the group by Kenny Jackett, the manager, and as the senior pro, Chopper (Harris) made a point of gently sussing me out once the session was over. He was friendly, but had an air of natural authority that has carried over into management.
As a player, he was one of what I called the Guvnors, a group of senior pros who set standards, both personally and professionally, in the dressing room. He handled the switch in roles really well – former teammates, who were personal friends, paid him the respect of calling him Gaffer when they were in club time. He made hard choices, releasing a mate, Alan Dunne, and dropping another, goalkeeper David Forde.
What is a Harris dressing room like?
He uses senior players to reinforce his messages, but is not afraid of confrontation. He’s a measured man, capable of real acts of tenderness. I remember him once coming in at half time, and seeking out Danny Senda, who had sustained a serious Achilles injury. He was lying on a physio table, in pain, waiting for the ambulance. Neil kissed him on the forehead: it was a moving gesture of solidarity with a fellow pro that didn’t need words.
Having been a popular figure at Millwall, do you think that afforded Harris a degree of goodwill? It’s certainly not a luxury he has enjoyed at Cardiff, where he is seen as a bit of an underwhelming choice.
Certainly. There was a sense of relief that he resigned (a typically selfless act because I know many managers would have clung on for the pay-off). No one wanted his legend to be sullied by a sacking. I thought Cardiff was a great fit for him, because there are cultural similarities between the clubs. They are blue collar clubs (no pun intended, given your recent kit history), whose supporters demand maximum effort as a minimum payback. There’s a strong tribal identity, as anyone who was around Ninian Park when Millwall played there back in the day can confirm.
At Cardiff, Harris has followed Neil Warnock, who was the master of the press conference. With nothing left to prove, he was also remarkably honest, sometimes to a fault. Harris seems very self-assured and positive, but maybe a bit thin-skinned, which is understandable. How was he perceived in the local media and by supporters as a spokesman and leader?
Neil is unlikely to give a journo a blazing headline, though he was appreciated for his considered style. The fans loved him because he conformed to their idea of a club icon: passionate, aware, and massively hard working. I suppose the word that sums him up is perspective: he knows what it is like to work for a living, having commuted into London early in his career as a part time player. His survival of testicular cancer was celebrated collectively – look out for the famous photo of him being carried aloft by his teammates after scoring on his comeback at Watford. It stirs the blood.
Cardiff fans were keen to see to the side evolve from Warnock’s ‘unsophisticated’ brand of football. It’s early days, but thus far, the football is undistinguishable from Warnock’s. Whether that is because it’s ingrained in the players or also Harris’ favoured style remains to be seen. How did Millwall set-up and play under Harris and did his style change or evolve over time?
As you say, it is early days. I know this is a cliché, but players dictate styles. Millwall, culturally, is a 4-4-2 club. Neil’s promotion team featured a terrific front two, Lee Gregory and Steve Morison. He was criticised for going long later in his tenure, but to characterise him as a stereotypical hoof ball manager is too simplistic. There were doubts about his substitution strategy towards the end, but I think he simply reached the end of his managerial cycle.
Millwall players seem to talk about Harris in glowing terms. What is it about him that made him so popular and loved by his squad?
That reflects his inclusivity, and the fact pros recognise (and respect) one of their own. He set a fantastic example on and off the pitch. It is interesting that the original Guvnors, like Paul Robinson, Alan Dunne, Gary Alexander and Andy Frampton have followed him into coaching with varying degrees of success. Steve Morison will, I am sure, be a very good manager.
It has not gone unnoticed that Millwall have significantly improved since Harris departed. How would you assess his tenure as a whole?
He got the best out of what he had. Graham Taylor once told me that football clubs have a natural level – Millwall, by tradition and budget, are probably a lower half Championship team. Kenny Jackett’s aim was to keep them in the top 36. In that sense, Chopper played a solid par round. The Championship is a brutal league, and I feel a PL 2 breakaway is not far away. Cardiff fans should judge him this time next year, when he has had time to bed in. Will he get it? Who knows? I hope he is not a victim of football’s manic impatience, because he has many human qualities I admire.
Family: Life, Death and Football: A year on the Frontline with a Proper Club is available now from Arrow Books