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Family, 4-4-2 and the fans: How Millwall staged an unlikely promotion push

Millwall are not used to being afforded much attention beyond south London but they might have to get used to it soon. Depending on their fortunes in the next six games, they could have the eyes of the world on them as the newest member of the Premier League.

A 17-match unbeaten run that has catapulted the unfashionable side into the Championship promotion picture is already raising more interest than normal.

“Ive never seen so many people out here,” joked defender Jed Wallace this week when he poked his head out of the clubs Bromley training ground entrance to see the gathered media. “We must be in the play-offs."

Indeed they are, and it will also be unusually busy at the New Den tonight where a capacity crowd and the Sky TV cameras will greet Millwall and cross-town rivals Fulham for the first of three crunch games against fellow promotion hopefuls.

Unlike their upcoming opponents — after third-placed Fulham come Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, who occupy the other play-off positions — sixth-placed Millwall were focused more on survival than promotion at the start of this season, having just returned to the second tier.

Under the spotlight: Neil Harris wants his side to enjoy the extra attention being lavished on his side (Source: Getty)

They have spent just two seasons of their 133-year history in the top-flight, and last graced the division in 1990 — before the lucrative Premier League era had begun.

Yet now they are under the spotlight, the Lions are showing no signs of stage fright.

“Im relishing the fact weve got a London derby on a Friday night and on the TV,” central midfielder George Saville tells City A.M.

“I know its going to be a full stadium, a sell-out. Were playing for a place in the play-offs. You cant ask for much more.”

Saville's attitude reflects that of manager Neil Harris, who is at ease enough on the training ground ahead of a potentially epochal fortnight for his club to take a few barbs from club captain Steve Morison about his new “Sky trim” haircut for Friday night.

“Its exciting, isnt it?,” says Harris. “I said to the players: 'Look, we are play-off contenders and lets not shy away from it or feel the added pressure of it; lets just enjoy it'.

“The attitude to training, the attitude around the building is exactly the same as it has been all season. Its not carefree because theyre professional sportsmen. Theres a seriousness to it. But they do it in a controlled environment with a culture they thrive in. They enjoy coming to work. Thats what got us here.”

Saville enjoys it so much that he joined Millwall for a third time this summer from Wolves — themselves promoted to the Premier League this week — having already had two loan spells at the club.

Tranmere Rovers v Millwall
Cahill (l) has rejoined Millwall and former teammate-turned-manager Harris (r) (Source: Getty)

He has watched his former Wolves team-mates hog headlines all season, never more so than in a last week when they clinched promotion and dominated team of the year lists.

Yet as happy as he is for friends who are still part of the Chinese-funded, super-agent-dependent project at Molineux, Saville does not sound a wistful tone when talking about his old employers.

The former Chelsea academy player has settled at the club at which he made his senior debut in 2013 and scored 10 goals from midfield — double his previous best tally.

“Ive got a couple of close pals at Wolves Im really happy for but it doesnt change how I feel and where my focus is — its with Millwall,” says Saville.

“Theres a real warmth to this club. Off the pitch as well, it goes through not just the players but staff, dinner ladies, everyone involved. Theres a real family feel to it which I love.”

Harris compares Saville to a young Tim Cahill, who was equally adept at scoring goals from midfield when at Millwall in his early twenties. The fan favourite is now on hand to lend a few words of advice after returning to the club in January, aged 38.

Both are what Harris, himself a club legend on the field, would categorise as quintessentially Millwall players.

Some club fan-bases, he says, will “demand total football and youve got to pass, pass, pass”. Others will have different characteristics they want to see in their side but “at Millwall, youve got to get the ball forward.

“Youve got to have centre-forwards on the pitch, two or three of them. They [the fans] want to see end product, they want to see tackles, they want to see running.

“If a fan was on the pitch they might not be technically the best player, but theyd have a right go in a Millwall shirt. And my players would have to be the same.

“To build success here you have to have that identification between fans and the pitch. Theres no middle ground with it.”

Harris praises the virtues of “old-school leadership in a modern day dressing room” from the likes of veteran Morison and the flexibility and freedom his side enjoy from their 4-4-2 formation.

Leadership, 4-4-2, family and "having a right go": hardly fashionable concepts, yet Millwalls position among and above far more monied members of the Championship suggests that they are in no way to be sniffed at.

After all, nearly every club in the league will have a team of analysts assessing the opposition, sophisticated sport scientists and scouts all fixed on the treasure chest provided by the Premier League, which is worth at least £100m a season to each club.

But not every club has what Millwall has.

“The players dont need any messages from me on the day,” says Harris. “When they turn up and feel the atmosphere on Friday night thatll be enough for them.”

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