In Part One, I spoke about the life and times of Neil Harris – from his early days at Cambridge City right through to the present day and the news of his return to The Den, via the periods of his exposure to life at Millwall for the first time, his essential goal haul in the Lions’ charge towards the Second Division championship, his time with testicular cancer and his determination to beat it and return to the football field and his years away from Millwall in the wilderness before returning home.
In Part Two, I’ll take a look back at Bomber’s career in SE16 in more detail – what moments stick in the memory as his greatest?
On May 7th 2011, Neil Harris stepped off the field at Oakwell, Barnsley, having played the final game of his 324 in the blue of Millwall. In those 324 games, Harris scored a record 138 goals.
The first arrived at The Den on September 19th 1998 in a 2-1 victory over Northampton Town. After the Cobblers had taken a first-half lead, Paul Shaw tenaciously won the ball in the midfield and passed it out to the left hand side where Neil had situated himself. Cutting inside on his right foot, something that would become all too familiar down the years, Harris curled a beauty past Town keeper Andy Woodman and equalised for the home side. Coincidentally, that particular game also saw the first league goal of a young Aussie by the name of Tim Cahill.
Eighteen goals in his inaugural season at The Den made a lot of fans realise that Bob Pearson had unearthed something special. The following season, Harris’ potential was on show for all to see as the striker bagged 25 goals, including his first hat-trick at Griffin Park as Millwall defeated Brentford 3-1 in April 2000 on the way to finishing in the end of season Play-Offs. Unfortunately the Lions lost out to Wigan Athletic in the Semi-Finals, but a firm sense of determination was in the air as the 2000/2001 season arrived.
Millwall romped to the Second Division title with ease as Harris weighed in with 28 goals. His first of three hat-tricks arrived in a 5-0 thumping of Oxford United at The Den, a game that saw Sam Parkin make his debut on loan from Chelsea. Harris and Parkin formed a formidable partnership in the latter’s two-month loan spell in SE16, a partnership that was then carried on after Parkin’s departure by Richard Sadlier and Paul Moody. The Lions’ striking options at the turn of the century were frightening; Harris was on his way to becoming the best striker outside the Premiership whilst an aging but experienced Paul Moody mixed with the youth and sheer quality of Sadlier struck fear into any Division Two defence.
September 19th 2000 saw Premier League heavyweights Ipswich Town visit The Den in the Second Round of the Coca-Cola Cup (those were the days). Bomber didn’t contribute to the score-sheet on the night, but he was instrumental as Millwall eased to a 2-0 victory over the Tractor Boys. Unfortunately, the giant-killing couldn’t be completed at Portman Road as nine-man Millwall bravely went down by five goals to nil as fatigue set in and Ipswich’s class showed.
Bury arrived in SE16 a month later already scrapping for survival. With the Lions making their way to the top of the table, somewhere they would remain for the rest of the season, they brushed the Shakers aside, hitting four goals in a formidable display. The best goal of the day, though, belonged to the number nine. With Harris inside the box, on his own, an on-rushing Paddy Kenny came out to meet him. Neil was not to be denied, however, as a deft chip sent the ball sailing over Kenny’s head and into his net. If you didn’t know by then, you now knew that Millwall had something special in their ranks. That particular strike is up there when it comes to my favourite goals in my seventeen years watching the Lions, let alone my favourite Neil Harris goals.
After a second hat-trick of the season coming in a 6-1 Boxing Day demolition of Colchester United at The Den, Mark McGhee took his side to the Madejski Stadium for a top-of-the-table clash with Reading early in 2001. In a big game, you need your big players to perform, and the former Cambridge City man did just that, firing the Lions into a 3-0 lead inside 50 minutes, scoring his third hat-trick of the season and his second in a fortnight in the process.
Nothing could go wrong for Neil Harris now – or could it?
As the business end of the season approached, Bristol City played hosts as Millwall required three points to keep up their pursuit of top spot. As the clock ticked down, the score was tied at 1-1 and the Lions were about to earn a valuable point. However, a bad tempered injury-time period saw City snatch a winner from the penalty spot and three red cards shown by referee Mike Jones. Peter Beadle saw red for the home side, whilst Paul Moody and Neil Harris were both given their marching orders. Had Millwall just blown their promotion hopes by losing both strikers for three games?
Harris and Moody returned for the visit of Swindon, with Rotherham United now hot on the heels of the Lions in the chase for First Division football. With the game goalless after an hour, Paul Ifill was replaced by the number nine. Within five minutes of his return, the striker picked the ball up on the left-hand side, as per usual, cut inside on his right foot, as per usual, and sent a curling strike into the top corner of the opposition’s goal, as per usual. The Den erupted and Millwall secured a priceless three points in the chase for promotion.
Promotion was indeed secured at Wrexham in the penultimate week of the season and Oldham Athletic arrived at The Den on the 5th May to try and spoil the party. A win for Mark McGhee’s men would see the trophy placed in the cabinet as well as a record points haul of 93. With Millwall 4-0 up going into injury time, Marc Bircham was fouled and a penalty was given. Paul Moody, sitting on a hat-trick, went to claim the ball. But, Harris was not to be denied and wanted to defeat Jamie Cureton in the race for the Golden Boot. Harris duly dispatched the penalty as the Lions wrapped up the trophy in style. This kind of situation shows a strikers’ mentality – score at all costs, and throughout his career Neil Harris showed how he was born to be a striker – his pursuit for goals was ruthless.
Tragedy struck in the Harris household that summer as Neil was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Five months later, he made his comeback to rapturous applause as he replaced Richard Sadlier on the hour in a 3-1 victory over Barnsley. This proved too soon for Bomber, however, as he sat on the side-lines once more until a couple of weeks shy of Christmas, before scoring that incredible strike in the 4-1 victory over Watford at Vicarage Road.
Eleven months later, Harris showed that his hunger for goals was still ever-present as Millwall banished the demons of the 6-0 opening day defeat to Rotherham United by defeating the Millers 3-1, with Bomber grabbing a goal in the process – I should know, I was the mascot!
A year later, the Orsett-born striker showed there was still life in the old dog by poking home the winner in the South London derby at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace. Any goal against the Eagles is a special one, but Harris must hold this one close to his heart as this was the first time he had netted against Palace since his tumultuous time with cancer.
Bomber was now showing signs of the ability that should have taken him to the top before his illness – a beautiful strike in the FA Cup Quarter Final Replay victory over Tranmere showed that the class was still there. In October 2004, Harris realised a dream by equalling Teddy Sheringham’s all-time goal-scoring record in the league for Millwall. Just over two years later, after seeing Neil at the City Ground play for Nottingham Forest against Millwall (which didn’t seem right at all), the number nine returned home and broke the record with a goal in the 4-0 win over Rotherham United.
April 2007 saw Neil claim what could possibly be one of the most satisfying goals of his career. Locked in a goalless draw with his previous employees Nottingham Forest, shortly after half time Harris rose to nod home and score the only goal of the game, stopping Forest’s promotion hopes dead in their tracks. Bomber raced to the other end of the pitch, and celebrated in front of the away fans that had been taunting the striker over his time in Nottingham and his days with cancer earlier in his career. Needless to say, the red side of The Den went very quiet.
Twelve months later saw new manager Kenny Jackett hand Neil a new contract after he single-handedly destructed Carlisle United’s promotion bid in the penultimate weekend of the season at The Den. Notching a strike from the penalty spot himself, he set up the Lions’ other two goals, with Jay Simpson and Tony Craig finding the net. Harris had earned himself another year in SE16, and what a year it turned out to be.
The first milestone came on October 18th as a brace helped Millwall take three points off of Leeds United in front of a bumper crowd at The Den. One of his goals was majestic and saw Harris roll back the years, finishing from the tightest of angles.
December 2008 saw a freezing cold, murky day up the M6 in Walsall become one of the greatest days of the Harris families lives. The strikers’ 16th minute opener sent him equal with Teddy Sheringham in the all-time goal-scoring list in all competitions. A month to the day later and Bomber wrote himself into history, becoming Millwall’s all-time leading goal-scorer with a strike in the FA Cup victory at Crewe Alexandra.
The Neil Harris we all knew and loved in the early days of his career returned one March day in Hartlepool, as a second half hat-trick saw the game turn on its head and sent the Lions back down south with 3-2 victory, all courtesy of the number nine. Harris’ remarkable season continued as he scored the vital opener in the Play-Off Semi Final with Leeds United, a goal that proved crucial as a 1-1 draw at Elland Road in the Second Leg saw the Lions progress to Wembley where they were unfortunately stopped by Scunthorpe United in an epic finale to the League One season.
The Harris of old returned once more at the beginning of the following campaign as a scintillating Millwall performance sent Bournemouth back to the coast with their tails between their legs as the home side ran out comfortable 4-0 winners. An outstanding strike from the edge of the box topped off yet another hat-trick for Neil as Millwall progressed to the next round of the Carling Cup.
The following round saw the Lions travel to bitter rivals West Ham United – the home side eventually ran out 3-1 winners after extra time, but once again Neil Harris proved his worth and legendary status to the Millwall faithful with the opener just before the half-hour mark. I’m sure if you were to ask the man himself; opening the scoring at Upton Park would more than likely rank very high in the highlights of the legend’s career.
October of the same year saw a different side to Harris as an away game at Swindon Town exploded into life with an altercation between Neil and Town player Kevin Amankwaah. The right-back accused the striker of racial slurs (which were never proven), however the more interesting part of the story from a Millwall fans point of view was that of Amankwaah referring to Harris’ cancer. Let’s just say Kevin didn’t have the best of times in the return fixture at The Den. Harris wasn’t deterred by the allegations and brushed them off the following week, scoring his last hat-trick as a Millwall player in a 4-0 defeat of rock-bottom Stockport County.
A sending-off just ninety seconds after entering the field of play at Coventry City tried to diminish the character and the legend of Neil Harris but failed to do so. The striker ended his Millwall career with 138 goals in 324 appearances. Not bad, eh?
We may never see Neil Harris on the field in the Millwall blue again, but one thing is for sure, he has given us more than enough memories to last a lifetime.
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Take a look at and donate to the Neil Harris Everyman Camapign here – http://www.everyman-campaign.org/About_Everyman/patrons_and_celebrities/neil_harris/index.shtml
Coming soon – Twenty Years at the Den, Part One…