Millwall: How on earth has this happened?

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Millwall eh? Thought they were in League One?
Well then you haven’t been paying attention to the Championship, the greatest league in the world. Millwall were promoted last season after finishing sixth in League One and going up via the play-offs, and they are threatening to do exactly the same thing again this year.

Yet it’s no surprise that Millwall’s progress might have flown under your radar. The Championship’s top half is packed full of former Premier League teams, either the nouveau riche or those living off parachute payments. Millwall are the only team in the top seven not to have played Premier League football in the last decade. They were also third favourites for relegation in August.

In fact, when Sky Sports created their graphic for the Championship promotion race earlier this week and included the faces of the managers, Neil Harris was conspicuous by his absence. The suspicion is that Millwall will fall away and stop bothering the big kids, but it hasn’t happened yet. And that reputation suits Millwall perfectly, perennially overlooked and thus under-estimated by their peers and the general public. All the while they bob along very nicely indeed.

Millwall have also peaked at precisely the right time; they are currently on a 16-match unbeaten run which represents their longest streak without defeat in the second tier in their entire history. Harris’ side have taken 29 points from a possible 33 since drawing at home to Cardiff City in early February. They’ve also kept clean sheets in five of their last six. From 19th in the league in late November to the top six in April.

So have they spent some money, then?
Absolutely not. Transfermarkt is sometimes a little flaky on exact transfer fees, but they estimate that only Bolton and Burton Albion spent less on new players than Millwall this season. George Savile and Jed Wallace arrived from Wolves for less than £1m combined, and Ryan Tunnicliffe (Fulham), James Meredith (Bradford City), Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood) and Tom Elliott (AFC Wimbledon) all joined on free transfers. The most high-profile signing was Tim Cahill’s move from Melbourne City in January, but the Australian has played only 50 league minutes to date.

Look at the clubs directly above and below Millwall in the table for evidence of their overachievement. Above them are Derby County, who spent £5m on Tom Lawrence and £2m each on Andre Wisdom, Tom Huddlestone and Cameron Jerome. Below them are Middlesbrough, who sold £49m worth of players following relegation but reinvested the whole lot on new signings, including £15m Britt Assombalonga and £10m Martin Braithwaite.

If you are looking for one statistic that epitomises the size of Millwall’s task this season, it is this: Championship clubs have bought 78 players this season for a higher fee than Millwall’s record transfer. Paul Goddard, if you’re asking, who arrived from Derby County for £800,000 in 1989.

They also have a lower wage bill than most other Championship clubs (19th or 20th in the division on estimates), have the third lowest average attendance in the division and have far lower revenues too. This is a small club that continually runs at a loss, a League One club by every measure other than current performance.

Accounting for all that, and given that they finished 27 points behind Sheffield United (currently ninth in the Championship) and 13 points behind Bolton (currently 21st) in League One last season, this is a monumental achievement from Harris and his players.

What’s more, Millwall’s success has come through a playing style very different to those around them. Harris is acutely aware that Millwall have a direct, physical approach that the supporters enjoy because it works. After all, he’s seen more games here as a player and manager than many of them. Millwall rank 21st in the league for possession and 23rd for passes completed. Rather than try and alter the club’s direct style in a higher division, Harris has finetuned it and made it so effective that teams struggle to counteract the strategy despite it being no secret.

Wasn’t there a thing about the ground earlier this season?
There was, you’re right, – although it went into last season. You read those excellent Barney Ronay pieces too, I see. In short, Lewisham Council issued the club with a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for land around the Den that had been metaphorically in the post since 2012. If successful, it would have left a community club to find a new home.

If the assumption is that such things cannot just be forced onto a club, the clues lie in the word ‘compulsory’ and the council vote to see through the regeneration project despite vociferous opposition from club and supporters.

Ronay’s investigative journalism revealed a murky side to the whole deal. Renewal, the company who would be responsible for developing the land (and thus getting paid), had links to the local Labour council and were found to be split into offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands and Isle of Man. They claimed that the questionable links to the council were mere coincidence.

With the story now in the public eye (largely thanks to social media assaults from Sadiq Khan, Gary Lineker and Danny Baker, amongst others), Renewal’s development plans began to unravel and the CPO is now subject to investigation. That in turn led to the Greater London Authority withdrawing their £20m grant, blowing a financial hole in the whole project. For now, Millwall have won.

It is tempting to remark that off-field victory and on-field revival are linked to one another, and there are reasons to believe that this is more than mere coincidence or sugary Hollywood ending. This is a club at the heart of its community. When it suffers, the supporters suffer and so the local area suffers too. When that community has proven that by coming together it can achieve the unlikely and poke the bigger boys squarely in the eye, why shouldn’t Harris and his team do precisely the same thing?

So why isn’t Neil Harris being linked to bigger jobs?
Two reasons really, neither of which should undermine the fact that he is doing a sensational job in south London:

1) This is Harris’ first season as a second-tier manager. He has not yet had to deal with adversity, and you learn plenty about managers at those times.

2) This is his club. Neil Harris is Millwall and Millwall is Neil Harris. He joined this club at 21 and he joined them again at 30 and 36. He has managed the Under-21 team, twice taken over as caretaker and has been first-team manager for almost three years.

There is no guarantee that he would flourish elsewhere, but also no guarantee that any club would sate him like Millwall do. Rather than ask why no bigger clubs have approached Harris, ask this instead: Why on earth would he want to leave now?

What chance do they have in the play-offs?
As good as anyone, presuming they can nick a top-six place. Millwall are currently two points above Middlesbrough in seventh, but there are five teams within five points of them with four games remaining.

Moreover, their run-in is nightmarish. A trip to Sheffield United (three points behind) is followed by a home game against Fulham (now in second) before the last two fixtures against Middlesbrough and Aston Villa (in fourth). Now is not the time to lose courage.

Yet Harris has planned for these eventualities, and truly believes that he has created a team ethic and morale within his squad that can see Millwall through the next four matches as it has the last 16.

“We have a unique style here, you have to have certain characteristics to play for this club,” the manager said in October. “That’s obvious, we all know that.”

“We do background checks on players first, to see whether they suit us as an individual. Character references are key, you have to that character to play for this football club, and that’s why performances please me so much.

“But as you see when we’re on the pitch, we don’t play as individuals, we play as a team. That’s our strength and that’s what got us promoted last year. We have good players within that team, but we have no egos. The team culture comes first.”

‘No one likes us we don’t care’. So do we like Millwall now?
Yes, we do. Millwall may have attracted an unpleasant fan culture in the past, but this is a club doing things the right way. They battled against their entire heritage being undermined by a comparative corporate behemoth, put faith in a former player to take them forward and stuck by him when times were tough.

This is not a team built on big budgets. The spending is low and the group is tight-knit. Millwall have used 24 players in the league this season, three fewer than any other team. No club in the division has used more academy players.

Millwall might not gain promotion, but they are the most overachieving club in the second tier, a divisions of has-beens and desperately-trying-to-be-agains. That deserves to stand front and centre of their reputation in 2018.

Daniel Storey

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