Neil Harris: Looking Forward
Yesterday marked the end of an era at the Den. Neil Harris’ departure for the northern shore of the Thames Estuary brought to an end a second spell in Millwall blue and put a downer on many a Millwall supporter’s afternoon.
It had been obvious for some time that we were watching a club legend in action. I can’t think of many other players who have achieved two promotions with the club and, in this age where any decent goalscoring prospect will be lured into the Premier League forest before they’ve had a chance to put down roots, Harris’ club record of 138 goals will not be broken for a long time. What separated him from a lot of other players, though, was not his achievement on the pitch, but the manner in which he conducted himself off it. The statement released after the move was finalized, paying heartfelt tribute not just lip-service to all at Millwall, was typical of the man. The esteem in which Harris is held at Millwall and the excitement of Southend fans were abundantly clear on Twitter – fans of both clubs uniting to make #NeilHarris a trending topic – while the Millwall message boards read as one long eulogy.
As much as I agree with the sentiment, all that rose-tinted glass could obscure the fact that Harris is just 33 years old. Past the peak years of a centre-forward, perhaps, but his career is far from over, as the three-year duration of his contract at Roots Hall would seem to confirm. With this in mind, my thoughts turned to the future and what Harris might offer his new employer.
Anyone looking for clues among the remnants of last season would be forgiven their concern. There is no denying that Harris struggled to make an impact on the pitch last season. The pace and athleticism of the Championship were too much for him to handle, while the defensive strategies of teams at that level often narrowed the space around the penalty area that he had used so effectively in League 1. Objectively, he was never likely to regain a starting place and the probable acquisition of a further two strikers this summer would have reinforced this in the player’s mind.
What Harris can provide, though, is leadership. Michael Calvin’s excellent account of the 2009/10 promotion season, Family: Life, Death and Football, portrayed Harris as a pivotal member of the squad, one of the self-appointed ‘Guvnors’ whose purpose was to instill and maintain the spirit of the club in their less experienced colleagues. Just the sort of man to mentor the likes of Ryan Hall and Kane Ferdinand.
League 2 is no place for passengers, however, and Harris will also be confident of making a contribution to the first XI, not least to give his Southend-supporting son something to cheer. Paul Sturrock has begun to develop a young, talented side, and Harris’ game should be a natural fit for some of the players alongside him. His most fruitful period at Millwall came in similar company in the early 2000s: Paul Moody and Richard Sadlier providing a target at the top of the formation, while Steven Reid and Paul Ifill buzzed around the fringes of the penalty area. Playing alongside Hall, Anthony Grant and Barry Corr should come naturally. Clever movement remains a key element of Harris’ game, the ability to shift his body weight quickly should create plenty of openings for himself and his teammates in a division with porous defences. Pace has never been a key part of that game, but Harris is still a ruthless finisher, provided he can get to the ball first.
No doubt Southend fans will be hoping that Harris can follow the example of Jack Lester at Chesterfield. I’m a bit too cautious to make such a prediction myself, but I would venture to suggest that he will have a positive effect on the club and his addition can only bring a return to the third tier closer. Whatever happens, though, Southend can count on increased interest in their results from south-east London. From my little corner, I wish him the best of luck.