Back in January 2009, I posted on this blog about the MIllwall Football Club legend that is Neil Harris. At the time he had just scored his 112th goal for the club, making him the highest goalscorer in the club’s 125 year history. Yesterday it was announced that Neil had left Millwall to join Southend FC. So significant was this that ‘Neil Harris’ was actually ‘trending’ on Twitter.
It was a sad, sad day for Millwall fans but one that everyone will no doubt respect. As he told the Southwark News:
“I have taken this decision with a heavy heart but a clear head. At this stage in my career I want to be playing week-in week-out and scoring goals. Last season I found it difficult being a bit-part player, and I am joining Southend for footballing reasons only and looking forward to the next chapter and the next challenge of my career.
Everyone knows how much Millwall means to me, and I can assure you that I will be back at the Den as a supporter whenever possible.
The club has been a huge part of my life and my family’s life for 11 years, and I would like to thank every manager, every chairman, every player, and in particular every fan I have known during my time at the club. Words cannot describe how special it has been for me to play for Millwall Football Club for so long. The place and the people will be part of me always.”
The respect and the love for Neil by everyone connected to the club has been overwhelming and none more poignant than when he returned from being treated for testicular cancer. And in what can only be described as an unprecdented act, on some Millwall fans message boards yesterday there was the suggestion that should he ever score against Millwall in the future, Millwall fans should stand and applaud him. Would this be a first in English football culture?
With any luck, it won’t be the last time that Neil is involved at Millwall, something that current manager Kenny Jackett seems to suggest in his glowing praise for the departing player:
“Neil is a legend at Millwall and has been a fantastic servant to this club. During my three and a half years here he has done very well and played a major part in helping us reach the League One Play-Off Final in 2009 and then win promotion at Wembley in 2010. Last season he was again a vital member of the squad when we finished ninth in the Championship, and I wish him every success as he embarks on a new phase of his career at Southend.
His goalscoring record at this football club is not likely to be beaten in a hurry, and I have a feeling that this will be a case of au revoir and not goodbye as far as Neil and Millwall are concerned.”
For any football fan, there is nothing better than a player who loves the club you suport as much as you do and so for anyone who cares, reproduced below is Millwall Football Club’s tribute to the ‘all time great’:
According to Lions boss Kenny Jackett, it is likely to be a case of au-revoir and not goodbye for Neil Harris as he leaves Millwall to join Southend United.
One thing is for certain, it will be a long time before anyone surpasses the 138 goals netted by the legendary front man during his Den career, or indeed makes quite the impact both on and off the field, that Chopper has done during two spells at The Club. Signed from non-League Cambridge City in 1998, he made his debut against Bristol City on 4th April of that year, scoring his first League goal against Northampton Town on 19th September at The Den.
In his first full season he helped Millwall reach Wembley for the first time in the club’s history (Auto-Windscreens Shield Final 18th April 1999), and a year later became the first Lion since Teddy Sheringham to net 20 goals in a season.
In 2001, his 25 goals propelled Mark McGhee’s side to the Second Division title, winning him the divisional Golden Boot in the process before his world was shattered by the diagnosis that he had testicular cancer.
He successfully won his battle against the illness and set up the Neil Harris everyman Campaign in conjunction with the Institute for Cancer Research, becoming an inspiration to many others fighting the disease. His first goal since returning to the side, against Watford on New Year’s Day 2002 was an iconic moment and one of the highlights of his career.
Having established himself once again as a regular scorer in the second tier of English football, Chopper enjoyed another magic memory when he walked out at the Millennium Stadium in the Millwall blue in the 2004 FA Cup Final against the might of Manchester United.
Deemed surplus to requirements by Dennis Wise in 2005, Neil had a brief spell at Nottingham Forest before returning to his spiritual home in January 2007, helping steer The Lions away from the League One relegation zone and beating Teddy Sheringham’s League goalscoring record of 93 with his ‘second home debut’ strike against Rotherham United (20/1/2007). He would go on to claim the record in all competitions at Crewe on 13th January 2009.
The disappointment of a second Wembley defeat, in the 2009 Play-Off Final against Scunthorpe, was erased a year later as Millwall triumphed over Swindon to win promotion back to the Championship, with Chopper the only player from the 2001 side still involved. His 18 goals during that campaign, including two hat-tricks, proved he was still on top of his game.
A testimonial against Hearts, on the eve of what was to become his final season at the club, was a thoroughly deserved reward for one of the most popular and influential players ever to represent The Lions.
He will always have thousands of friends at The Den who will welcome him back with open arms whenever he returns as a player or a fan in the future.