here will not be too many visiting managers who arrive at The Den this season and bemoan the fact that it’s empty. Doing so would be rather like complaining that your blackjack dealer had forgotten his marked deck, or that your local volcano hadn’t been erupting enough lately.
But when Neil Harris takes his Cardiff City side to Millwall on Saturday and stands in the away dugout for the first time as a manager, it will be a shame that 20,000 Lions fans are not there to welcome him home, particularly given the way his celebrated tenure ended.
Harris left by mutual consent in October 2019, after a run of bad results had seen sections of the Millwall support begin to turn against a man who, as a player, scored more goals than anyone else in the history of their club, and as a manager, delivered promotion back to the Championship, as well as two FA Cup quarter-finals, in a reign lasting almost five years.
A warm homecoming might have been a way to banish any lingering ill-feeling, any sense of regret and to revel in times gone by – not that Harris himself is in the business of sentimental reflection.
“It’s my old club so you always take notice of what they’re doing, but that chapter of my life has gone,” he said ahead of the Championship meeting. “It was a wonderful time, but now it’s a new chapter and the only challenge in front of me at the moment is going back to The Den on Saturday and getting three points.”
The absence of home support may help in that endeavour, but with the Bluebirds faithful also famously among the division’s most vociferous, Harris puts both his old and current clubs in the same boat when it comes to being hindered by the now not-so-novel playing conditions.
“There are a lot of similarities in the passion of the fan bases,” he said. “Cardiff City Stadium for the big games that I’ve played in there and now obviously managed, huge, huge games, and the fans really can be the turning point.
“I think the same would be said of Millwall, when they need a bit of support the fans get behind you and can really spur you on. I think they’re another side at the moment that particularly at home are missing their fan base.”
This week marked exactly a year since Harris took the Cardiff job, but he has quickly made himself at home.
At the time of his departure from Millwall, Harris was the seventh longest-serving manager in English football. Some might have taken a longer break than the six weeks the 43-year-old afforded himself before crossing the Severn Bridge, and many would have looked to do so with a more promotion-ready outfit, though he was not a million miles away last season, inheriting a team in 14th and taking them to the play-offs.
But, at Millwall, Harris got an increasingly rare taste of what might be achieved with time and it is that which he is clearly desperate for again, despite a slow start this season, as he speaks with genuine excitement about the future and club’s planning application for a new academy in Llanrumney.
“Building a long-term project at Millwall was exciting and fulfilling,” he said. “Then leaving there at what I believe was the right time and coming to Cardiff and, in some ways, starting again, building a club from academy upwards is a great project as well.
“Ultimately, without getting too carried away, the plan is to have 11 Cardiff City kids in the first team one day as men. Not easy, but that’s the focus and what the club want to see after a period of time.”
For a reminder of Harris’ longevity and influence in south London, one need only look at the personnel he will face this weekend. Of the players in the Millwall squad that his successor, Gary Rowett, has not signed himself, only midfielder Shaun Williams was not handed his debut by Harris.
“Gary’s come in and taken over the baton and done a brilliant job, a great job,” Harris adds. “It’s not always easy working with other people’s players, but I like to think I left him with a good core group of players and he’s done exceptionally well.
“I’m personally really looking forward to it, seeing a lot of faces that I know really well, players I brought in and a manager that I know extremely well.
“It would give me huge pride going back and getting three points for Cardiff City.”
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