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Neil Harris - 17 years since becoming a Lion

25 March 2015

On this day in 1998, a young man named Neil Harris walked through the doors at Millwall to complete a move from Cambridge City. Few would have predicted what was to come over the next 17 years.

Goals - 138 of them in two spells for Millwall – is what followed, as Harris became a cult hero at the South London club.

In his first season at The Den, his predatory goalscoring instinct became immediately obvious, albeit after four fruitless matches at the beginning of 1998/99.

The first time Chopper, as he is also known, hit the net was against Northampton Town. It was Saturday 19th September and Ian Sampson had given the visiting Cobblers a 1-0 lead, only for Harris to level in the 49th minute before Tim Cahill sealed a Lions victory.

By the end of that campaign, Harris had 18 to his name, and the Player of the Year award on his mantle-piece.

The following season, he bagged 25 in 44 – including a hat-trick against Brentford – and it only got better as he hit 28 in 50 outings during Millwall's Division Two title-winning campaign of 2000/01. That year; just the three hat-tricks.

Largely thanks to Harris' goals, the Lions were in Division One for 2001/02 but he had a bigger battle on his hands, against testicular cancer.

After intensive treatment, the striker was given the all-clear a year later and set up the Neil Harris Everyman Appeal. “I want to help stop people going through what my family went through,” he said at the time.

After battling back to fitness it was back to on-the-field business, and he hit double figures in both the 2002/03 and 2003/04 seasons, making an FA Cup Final appearance in the latter against Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium.

Then, in December 2004, after a slow start, he left The Den for the first time, joining Cardiff City on loan before a permanent switch to Nottingham Forest.

But he seemed to have left his goalscoring exploits behind, netting only once for Forest before another move, this time on-loan to Gillingham, for the majority of 2005/06, in which he scored just six goals in 41 matches.

At the same time, Millwall were also struggling, and suffered relegation to League 1 for the 2006/07 season, which Harris started back with Nottingham Forest - also in League 1 at the time. The striker  registered his first goal for the club, 21 months after joining, in a 4-0 win against Chesterfield, but had his contract mutually terminated in January 2007.

"There is something special about this club, it brings out the best in me as a player and a person. It feels like home, it always has done. I can't wait to get started."

Those were Harris' words a couple of days later, after he had made a return to Millwall. In his second game back, against Rotherham United, he became the club's top league goalscorer with 94 goals. He immediately set his sights on Teddy Sheringham's all-time record of 111.

After Willie Donachie's October sacking, the Lions struggled in 2007/08. Kenny Jackett was the new manager, and Harris had found his first-team opportunities limited. He stayed, though, and that proved pivotal as he set one up and scored another in a crucial victory over Carlisle United, which preserved the club's League 1 status.

Jackett set about turning Millwall around, and Harris was back in the goals. He got 10 in the following season, with the most crucial coming on 13th January against Crewe Alexandra in the FA Cup. The Lions won the tie 3-2 and in the 54th minute Harris made history, finding the net to become the club's record goalscorer (112).

That season ended with Play-Off Final disappointment, but Millwall were on the up with their talisman leading the line. An impressive haul of 18 goals in 38 appearances helped Jackett's men go one better a year later, seeing off Swindon Town in the Play-Off Final, before the front man extended his contract with the club until 2012.

But he left in June 2011 to sign for hometown club Southend United. One last hurrah, perhaps, and 10 goals followed that season, with his final one coming in the second leg of a Play-Off Semi-Final defeat to Crewe.

After failing to shake off an injury, Harris hung up his boots in June 2013. It probably came as no surprise when he returned to The Den as a coach after his retirement and, since then, he's worked as part of the backroom team at the club.

He currently finds himself in the dugout, after Ian Holloway's sacking earlier this month, and Millwall are seven points from Sky Bet Championship safety with seven games to go.

It looks bleak but, with Harris involved, you can guarantee the Lions won't throw in the towel - he has been demanding passion and commitment - and better days could be just around the corner.

After all, he knows the Millwall way. He's Millwall through and through.

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