Loyalty is increasingly difficult to come by in the modern game, so when we see a player who has the passion and motivation, in abundance, while representing their childhood team, it makes it all the more special. But how often do we hear of a player featuring for his hometown club across three different spells? It is, indeed, very rare to see, and that’s what makes the career of Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp absolutely fascinating.
The 30-year-old is now back at Bramall Lane for the third time, following a five year spell away from the Yorkshire outfit. Having begun his professional career with the Blades, he returned to the club in 2007 following an impressive spell with Scunthorpe. After leaving the Sheffield club once more, he went on to feature for Doncaster Rovers, Southampton and Leeds, as well as having loan spells at Nottingham Forest and Derby, before making a full circle, returning for the final time in the 2015/16 summer transfer window.
Sharp had played under then-Sheffield boss Nigel Adkins at three of his previous clubs – Scunthorpe, Southampton and Reading – and following the 50-year-old head coach’s appointment as Bramall Lane boss, it came as little surprise to see them re-united once more. Upon his arrival, Adkins made signing Sharp – for a fourth time in his career – his absolute priority, and it wouldn’t take long for him to land his man.
Just three weeks later, Adkins’ first wish as Sheffield boss came to the fore: dropped from pre-season friendly against German outfit Eintracht Frankfurt, and on the fringes of the Leeds United first-team, Adkins caught wind that Sharp could be available for transfer. With just a year left to run on his current contract, and having failed to nail down a regular starting place in the Elland Road outfit’s starting line-up, the stars were aligned for a romantic homecoming.
Talks were productive and the deal moved swiftly. Indeed, upon hearing of a potential move back to his childhood club, the then-29-year-old had no hesitation in returning home from Leeds’ summer training camp, in order to complete a £500,000 switch to his former club. In an exclusive interview, he told The Boot Room:
“It was the obvious choice. I was away in Austria on pre-season with Leeds at the time and I got pulled out of a friendly to say that I was going into talks with Sheffield United, so I was very happy. I got on the plane as quickly as possible as I couldn’t wait to re-join.”
Born into a family of Sheffield United supporters, there is no doubting where the striker’s allegiances lie. As a young boy, Sharp was regularly taken to Bramall lane by his father, which saw him build a life-time affinity for the club he would grow up to lead and represent. He told The Boot Room:
“It is special because I’ve supported Sheffield United since being a boy. I used to come here with my dad and the rest of my family, supporting the team and it’s a dream come true to play for them once, let alone three times. It has been a dream come true for me.”
Sharp capped his return to Bramall Lane with 21 goals in 44 league appearances last season, and was one of few positive performers in throughout what will have been considered a disappointing campaign. The Yorkshire outfit finished in 11th place, a result that saw Nigel Adkins lose his job after just a single term in charge.
Like most forwards gunning for success, the 30-year-old sets himself a goal target ahead of each season, which he surpassed thanks to his efforts in the previous campaign. Having averaged a goal every two games this term, scoring four times in eight League One appearances, he looks set to achieve his objective a second year running. He said:
“If I can stay fit all season, no matter the league I’m playing in, I’ll always try and get to 20 goals. Last season was brilliant, as I managed to do just that. Two or three seasons before, I wasn’t able to. It was important I did that last term, and I’ll try and back it up this time round.”
Sharp’s crowing moment on his return to the club, and the one he holds most dearly, was a successful strike in Sheffield’s 2-0 home victory against Blackpool at the beginning of last season. His first goal for Blades after five seasons apart, this was the perfect means of signalling his homecoming, while guaranteeing a third consecutive win for the Yorkshire outfit.
After an impressive return season, Sharp found himself made club captain in the summer just gone. Informed of his appointment just before fellow Blades supporter Chris Wilder was unveiled as Nigel Adkins’ successor. Somewhat unsurprisingly, he is now relishing being the man who leads out United every weekend, something he admits to having dreamed about as a youngster, on each of those Saturday afternoon’s spent watching his heroes in the Kop end:
“Again, another dream to captain the club just in a single game, but to be the club captain is something I will never forget, and hopefully my kids grow up and can follow in my footsteps.”
For the experienced centre-forward, this new clubs role has come with its own set of challenges, all of which he has successfully overcome. Forcing him to take on more responsibly within the club, it is fair to say he has led by example, both on and off the pitch. Talking of his relatively new role, he said:
“Off the pitch I have to be a little more organised, it’s like babysitting some of the lads at times [he joked]. On the pitch I have to keep my head more and you can’t switch off. As a captain you have to be on it 100% of the time, so this is something that I’ve had to manage.”
His influence on the pitch is mirrored by his efforts away from the game. Indeed, Sharp holds a strong desire to make a difference outside of football, and he does just, giving back to the community through his charity work and volunteering. He has always strived to assist in this light, although he admits there is an added importance when it comes to the city in which he learned the ropes as a young boy:
“I have always volunteered to try and give something back, but I think it’s a more important with it being my hometown club and the city I brought up in. I try and be a role model as much as I can, and enjoy all the stuff I get involved in.”
Having recently established the Billy Sharp Football Camp, aimed at providing UEFA Licence coaching for youngsters, Sharp revealed that his long-term plan is to move into coaching and potentially management following the conclusion of his playing career:
“It was always going to be my plan when I finished, but I was advised to do it while I was still playing and people still remembered me. I had a little taste of it [coaching] in the last school holidays and it went really well. At the minute I’m concentrating on my football, but I will come round to earning my coaching badges.”
Now 30 years of age, Sharp’s professional career has spanned 12 years, during which time he has played for no less than eight Football League clubs. From the Premier League to League One, he has racked up over 400 senior appearances, giving him a comprehensive experience of the upper echelons of the English football pyramid. While discussing the divisions in which he has featured in most frequently, he highlighted the major differences between the Championship and League One:
“I just think there are more mistakes made in League One. The more pressure you but on teams, the more prone they are to error. In the Championship now the teams are set up to be a lot more organised and everything is a lot tighter.”
His return to Sheffield United saw him drop a level, from the second to the third tier, which involved facing a host of new opponents, many of whom are considerably less elaborate than their Championship counterparts. Nonetheless, there were a few sides who stood out for Sharp on his return to League One, most notably Swindon Town, for those style of play he highly commended:
“In terms of style of play, I felt Swindon were very good, even though we got a decent result down at their place. The way they play, passing it around is very nice, good looking football. They obviously didn’t do as well [last season] as they would have liked to have done.”
Under the tutelage of relatively inexperienced manager, Luke Williams, Swindon have adopted a unique style of play for the level at which they play. With possession the name of the game, the Robins regularly find their hard efforts undone by the typical errors Sharp alluded to previously. Despite a play-off final finish the season previous, the Wiltshire outfit could only amount to a 15th place finish last term, irrespective of the goal scoring heroics of Nicky Ajose – who hit the net 24 times.
Burton were another outfit who caught the attention of the Sheffield United captain, who was impressed by the Brewers resoluteness and high-octane performances. The 2014/15 League Two champions began the season with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at the helm, and despite his departure mid-way through the campaign, were able to continue their form under former Sheffield boss Nigel Clough, finishing runners-up and, in doing so, achieving back-to-back promotions.
“Obviously impressed with Burton. Everyone wrote them off, but they managed to maintain a level of team spirit and the way they played was high energy. They managed to get their rewards through their eventual promotion.”
With eyes now on the current campaign, Sharp is firmly aware of the task Sheffield United face in achieving a high finish. With strength of last season’s relegated Championship sides, alongside the strength and quality of several outfits that remain in the division from previous years, each of the 46 league fixtures bestowed in the Blades’ path have equal importance.
“I think Charlton and Bolton [are contenders] for obvious reasons, both are big clubs coming down from the Championship. I think they’ll both be up there. Millwall is always tough to go to, they always seem to be in the mix. Also, Bradford have started well, and I think they’ll continue their form.”
Despite a stuttering start to the season, Sharp still holds high hopes of a promotion challenge with the Blades this season. Chris Wilder’s side currently occupy sixth place in League One, four points behind leaders Scunthorpe. Following the path to the Championship will be tough task for the 30-year-old and co, but he is confident that a continuation of the squad’s recent level of performance will see them achieve their goal:
“At the start of last season, I really believed that we were going to go up. We’ve had a lot of changes in the club this season, but the way we have kicked on the last few games, if we can build momentum, hope and belief, we can show that we are up to the challenge.”
Exclusive: Lucy Bronze discusses Lyon move; Lionesses and Champions League triumph
The Boot Room caught up with the Champions League winning full-back.
At the age of 26, Lucy Bronze has already enjoyed a hugely impressive career, both domestically and internationally.
It would have been tough to leave her home country, but opportunities such as this one doesn’t arrive often and the full-back grabbed it.
In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, she discussed the reasons behind that very move.
“To play in the best team in Europe, with the best players in the world, in the hope they could help me improve as a player. Of course, I wanted to win the Champions League too, but I really wanted to challenge myself to improve as a player.”
Although the women’s game in England is improving due to the performances of the national team and the implementation of the Women’s Super League, there are better opportunities to be taken abroad.
Toni Duggan has moved to Barcelona, Eni Aluko has joined Juventus while Jodie Taylor and Rachel Daly both play in the United States.
It is still rare for players from the national team to move abroad, but Bronze and the players listed above have set an exciting precedent.
Lyon have established themselves as one of the leading clubs in Women’s football and were very keen to sign Bronze from Manchester City.
In the statement that announced her signing, they described the 26-year-old as ‘without doubt, the best full-back in the world’. This is high praise and underlines how highly she is thought of across Europe.
“I think I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. But my physicality and mentality are probably what give me an edge because I’d run through a brick wall to win.”
Bronze is humble when discussing that comment and her strengths as a full-back, but a player doesn’t get to the position that she is in without having natural talent.
Her winning mentality and reading of the game give her an advantage, but she is also effective in both halves of the pitch, as shown by her goal record.
She isn’t a clinical scorer, but she contributes in the final third and that provides an extra dimension to a team that she is playing in.
Throughout the interview, her modesty and humility shine through. Despite her success as a player, Bronze keeps her feet on the ground and acknowledges the role of others in her career.
During her time in England, she won the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year on two occasions, while she has recently become the first English player to be named BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year.
“Of course, it’s nice to get recognition, especially as a defender it’s always a lot harder. I’m just very fortunate to get to play with so many great players around me who make me look good.”
Her decision to leave England to join Lyon wasn’t a huge surprise as it wasn’t the first example of Bronze leaving the country for career development reasons.
The England international spent some time at the University of North Carolina and she became the first British player to win the NCAA Cup. It was a short period, but an important one for her career.
“Although my stay was short, I learnt a lot.
“I played with so many American players who went on to win World Cups and Olympics, and they all had a crazy mentality that I’d never seen before and I was at an age when I was like a sponge taking everything in.”
Over the course of her time as a professional, Bronze’s desire to learn and better herself is a clear trend. As mentioned above, there are some that consider her as the best full-back in the world and there is genuine reason to believe that is the case.
There have been a number of people that have played a role in the 26-year-old’s career and development as a player.
However, one person stands out above the rest as a key influence on the right-back and that is former Arsenal defender Alex Scott, Bronze’s predecessor in the England set-up.
“I think there are loads of people I could mention, my family especially. But when I think about my England career and getting in at right back, surprisingly enough it was actually Alex Scott, who at the time was my rival for the right back spot at England.
“She’s the one teammate that helped support me become the player and person I am today.
“She always pushed me to do more, always had my back, wanted the best for me and still does now, but I don’t know any of player who would support their direct competition the way Alex did for me.
“It’s something I will always be grateful for.”
It wouldn’t have been easy for Bronze to step up and replace Scott in the England team, but the advice and guidance from the player she was replacing will certainly have made the transition simpler.
As her career continues, she will be hoping to contribute as much to the national side as Scott who made 140 appearances for the Lionesses.
The team on the pitch have made huge strides recently as they attempt to challenge for major honours and emerge as one of the best sides in the world. They came so close to a World Cup final in 2015 and they will be wanting to go even further at the next tournament.
Bronze has played a key role in the growth of the team both on and off the pitch. She believes the Lionesses have a bright future ahead of them.
“I think we have developed such a good squad, we have so many great players.
“We don’t have any superstars who we have to rely on to win us a game, everyone plays their part.
“Every year we have improved as individuals and as a team, and have so many more good young players coming through all the time.”
Although the appointment of Phil Neville was not well received, the Lionesses performed well in the She Believes Cup and made it to the final before losing to the USA due to an own goal.
The team proved that they could challenge the very best teams in the world and Bronze believes that the gap is closing between the USA and England.
“I’d like to think so, I don’t think we are there yet, we aren’t quite ready to be the best in the world but it’s something we are working towards and something I think we all believe we can reach.”
They still have a year before the World Cup is due to take place. It is being held in France and the location could prove to be an advantage for England as they will be so close to home. For Bronze, she plays her football in the country and that should put her in a good position to excel.
England are yet to qualify for the tournament as they trail Wales by one point, albeit the Lionesses have a game in hand.
Bronze and her team-mates won’t be getting carried away, but they have looked a very good team in qualifying. They have scored 20 times in six matches, while they have only conceded once.
There is a real hope within the nation that England can triumph next summer and the 26-year-old believes that it is important that the current generation win an international trophy together.
“It’s so important, we have come so close now in the past two tournaments where making the final is a must.
“We have a lot of players who will be hitting their prime come the World Cup, a lot of players who know what it takes to win trophies.
“Hopefully it all comes together at the right time. But for now, the focus is still on qualifying.”
The last year has been an excellent one for Bronze personally. She has not only earned a move to one of the biggest clubs in the world, but she then helped Lyon retain the Champions League.
It would have been a difficult decision to leave Manchester City, but it was one that paid off.
The right-back came up against her former club in the semi-finals of the competition and scored the decisive goal in the tie. She admits that it was strange to go up against her former employers.
“The first game was a very strange game for me, playing in Manchester, surrounded by English people and the pressure I put on myself to say I wanted to win the Champions League with Lyon.
“But the second game at home in Lyon was just like any other game for me, where I enjoyed every minute of it and scoring to get us to the final was like the cherry on top.”
The very best players step up when they are required and they a rarely intimidated by difficult occasions.
Bronze showed that she could thrive despite playing against her former team and was the match-winner on the day.
She may not be an attacking player, but she is capable of producing those moments like and that is one of the reasons why Lyon wanted to sign her.
Bronze has already achieved a lot at the age of 26 and is now establishing herself as one of the best players in the world. She has a big future and will be one of the most important players in England’s search for an international tournament triumph.
There have been many good moments, but the England international states that winning the Champions League and scoring a World Cup goal are two of her favourite moments.
“Winning the Champions League was huge for me, but I was disappointed in how I played in the final. So that’s something I have to put right next year.
“Still, scoring the winning goal in the World Cup against Norway is something that’ll always bring back the best memories for me, simply because I just didn’t think I was capable of scoring a goal like that ever.
“Since then I’ve seemed to have made a habit of scoring one off goals in big games.”
Lyon labelled her as the best full-back in the world and there is a genuine case to be made that she is. She has had a great career to date and there will be more standout moments in her future.
The World Cup next year is already shaping up to be a great tournament and England will be contenders if they get there.
In Bronze, England have a great player with a winning mentality and that could be important for Neville’s Lionesses.
It won’t be easy, but this is the best generation of footballers that England have had in years and it would be incredible for them to mark it with a major trophy win.
There are other great players in the squad, but Bronze could be the pick of the bunch.
Exclusive: Adebayo Akinfenwa – Wycombe Wanderers, growth of eSports and League One future
Few players outside of the Premier League command the type of attention and admiration as ‘The Beast’.
Adebayo Akinfenwa’s reputation has surged during recent years thanks to the FIFA video game series. He has been ranked as one of the strongest players in the game and earned the nickname ‘The Beast’ as a result of that.
Throughout his career, he has been successful in the lower leagues and this season saw the striker win another promotion, this time with Wycombe Wanderers.
However, it is gaming that has taken him global. In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, the 36-year-old was keen to make that point when asked about FIFA’s impact:
“Massive, massive, massive, I’d be lying if I said that I could, sat here, say 5-6 years ago saying how my life could’ve gone. The FIFA series, the game community is a world within the world we live in, it’s a community.
It has taken me internationally without even going to these places, of course moments happen, playing Liverpool on tv and I scored and it’s a domino effect. But with how big FIFA is globally there are places I’m known that I’ve never set foot in.
It’s been mindboggling, it’s humbling the way FIFA in itself has changed my world.”
It speaks volumes about the outreach of the gaming community that it has had such a huge impact on Akinfenwa’s career. There are some overlaps between the gaming and football community, but it is the former that has increased the striker’s profile.
A number of prominent YouTubers brought attention to his in-game character and how effective he could be, despite being a lower league footballer.
It is interesting that he notes the domino effect that it has had on the pitch, as opposition teams will be more aware of him and it is likely that clubs have signed him due to his reputation. However, it is his off-the-field activities that have increased due to EA’s popular gaming franchise.
“I mean I interviewed The Rock 4 weeks ago, it’s opened up so many doors. For me I’d say that to get involved with it, at first, you’re going along with it then you realize the doors opening up and the realms it’s taking my life to. It’s mindboggling, it’s opened up so many doors.”
Akinfenwa has been humbled by the way he has been taken in by the gaming community and he has been keen to give something back. Professional gaming is on the way up as an industry and eSports are starting to evolve across the board.
There are no limits to how far it can grow and the influence of people like the 36-year-old can be huge in aiding that. When asked about eSports, the Wycombe striker spoke positively about the industry:
“I think it will be the future, I think that you take gaming which has been around forever, and you take a competitive element and you fuse them together, it can only get bigger and you see it.
“It’s funny because when I was younger my parents were like “get off the computer and get outside” and now parents are like “get on the computer”. It’s the way society is moving and fusing two loves, a competitive edge and gaming. It can only get bigger.”
There will be many within football that fear eSports as genuine competition to the sport. Children may choose to follow in the footsteps of their favourite YouTubers and professional gamers, rather than looking as football as a career path.
The fact that the FIFA eClub World Cup was shown on Sky Sports underlines how gaming has moved into mainstream channels. Meanwhile, Hashtag United has tried to combine football with gaming and are moving into non-league competition in the 2018/19 campaigning.
Football as an industry will see the rise of eSports as a threat, but they should take Akinfenwa’s stance and embrace it. He sees many parallels between the two industries and they should be able to co-exist and thrive.
“I think there’s a comparison to anything professional really or with the desire you want to put in, even if you’re not professional but say you want to get bigger and you’re going to the gym every day, you need the dedication and to put the hard work into it.
“Just because they put the word professional in it – the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional didn’t quit and that’s the only difference.
“With the whole Gfinty Elite series, I’m talking to these gamers, and they prepare like I prepare for a game. They’re not half-stepping and just waking up and switching on the computer, playing and hoping, no, they’re honing their skills and training every day, they’ve got their formation that they tweak and change every day, it’s a direct comparison.
“If you want to be the best you can be you’ve got to put in the time nobody can wake up and be the best and that’s the same with these players in these competitive leagues they put in the work. That’s what I’ve noticed the most, their determination and work ethic, it’s the same as a professional footballer.”
The mentality of football and eSports are very similar. Akinfenwa has clearly taken that away from his time spent being involved in both. Those that compete at FIFA professionally have to put the time in and work hard, just like footballers going to training every day. Above, the Wycombe striker refers to the Gfinity eSports Elite Series, which he is directly involved in.
When asked about the competition, Akinfenwa spoke about the quality and how he managed to become a part of it.
“The elite series is the best of the best, they’re not half stepping. The players have managers and with FIFA anyway it’s literally like a last man standing, a team of four, PS4 and Xbox, you pick your best players and you go through a tournament process to the final and the winner is the winner.
“The good thing is you find out about the different players like Gorilla, the best in the world, and there are different teams and players trying to navigate through the series and win in the end.
“Initially, I got approached and knew one of the production managers from my time at EA and he said “well, look we want to do this and think you’ll be a great fit”. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to doing more next season.
“I’ve teamed up with Lauren and I felt the chemistry was there, the good thing about it is that I didn’t know much about Gfinity or eSports, I mean I knew, but not much about it.
“It’s let me dive into their world, see how seriously you need to take it and have dedication. I went along this year as a novice and now I know much more and I’m looking forward to next season.”
Despite being 36, Akinfenwa isn’t looking to end his playing career anytime soon. That said, he will have one eye on what he can do once he does hang up his boots. If eSports continues to grow, there is no reason why he can’t become more involved and become an ambassador for many more projects like this one.
Wycombe are the focus of his attention for now after he was rewarded for his form with a new contract earlier this season. He will remain at Adams Park for the 2018/19 campaign, which will see him given another chance to make an impact in League One. The powerful striker believes that the Choirboys are ready to push on at a higher level.
“Yeah, outside the Wycombe team, the fans, the board, we weren’t favourites to go up but in-house we aspired to that and wanted to achieve and it’s the same.
“When you get promoted, consolidating and staying up is the key. I think most managers and players will say that first and foremost is hitting the benchmark that you’re not going to get relegated. As soon as you can hit that benchmark you can kick on. We’ll try and hit our goals as early as possible and kick on from there.”
Akinfenwa hasn’t played in the third tier since the 2013/14 season, in which he played 34 times for Gillingham. It was a solid if unspectacular season as he contributed ten goals and five assists. A similar return would go a long way to seeing Wycombe establish themselves in League One.
Over the course of the last year, it can be argued that Akinfenwa has matured and found a consistency that has been absent previously. During the promotion-winning season, the striker contributed 17 goals and 14 assists, which is a remarkable impact.
“I rate it up there as one of my best seasons, I believe that I needed the players around me to help me get my numbers. As long as I enjoy the game and I feel fit I’ll go out there and I know what I can do and what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at and I stay away from that.
“This season, as a club and a team we concentrated on what I was good at and therefore got the numbers both for goals this season and minutes played.
“It’s always nice to get acknowledged for the work you’re putting in but for me I’m glad we got promoted. Individual accolades are good, and I won’t knock that.
“When you retire you can look back on it, but collective accolades mean ten times more so for what I was nominated for and being in the team of the year; if we didn’t get promoted, personally it would’ve counted for nothing. It was nice for it all to culminate into a promotion and then get the accolades.
“For me, people would argue it should be my best season to date in my football career – It’s hard to argue because my stats say that. For me I’m enjoying it, numbers and stats take care of themselves. As long as I’m enjoying it I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.
It is refreshing to hear Akinfenwa talk about the importance of team achievements over individual awards. Through the exposure supplied by the FIFA series, the attacker has got a lot of recognition as an individual, but he hasn’t let that affect his on-pitch performances.
He remains an excellent lower league striker and that is why he is rarely without a club for long. Last season, Wycombe benefitted from his goals, but it was his unselfish hold-up play that made him indispensable to the team, as underlined by his assist tally.
The 36-year-old will know that it will be tough to replicate those figures in League One, but if he can continue to deliver consistent performances, he will continue to offer something to the team. The growth of eSports is certainly proving to be exciting off the pitch, but Akinfenwa doesn’t plan to stop playing in the immediate future.
“Mentally I’m as good as I’ve ever been, and I feel fit I’m playing more minutes than I’ve ever played especially over these two seasons. But I think growth plays a massive part in the experience, I know what I’m good at and when you’re younger you’re trying to find what you’re good at.
“I’ll always say as soon as you can find out what you’re about, the better you will be – that’s what, especially in the last three years, I’ve found out what I’m good at.
“I’m not trying to do step overs and beat 4 players and I’m okay with the player I am. Some people will be for me and some will be against me but ultimately, I’m comfortable with who I am and what I’m about. As long as I stay fit and as long as I’m enjoying it, putting my body through this, I’ll keep playing football.”
League One defenders will be worried to hear that. Despite getting towards the end of his career, Akinfenwa remains as dangerous as he ever has been thanks to his power and physical frame.
He has the ability to dominate any defender in that division and, over the last couple of seasons, he has added intelligence to his game. The striker knows his own limitations and that has helped him get the best out of his ability.
It will be interesting to see how he and Gillingham fare next season. They have a bright, young coach in Gareth Ainsworth and they have a team that appears to enjoy playing together. Akinfenwa has played a huge role in that and few would back against him making an impact again during the 2018/19 season.
Exclusive: Steve Morison raves about Millwall fans, discusses ‘difficult’ Leeds spell
The Welsh international spoke with pride when reflecting on Millwall’s most recent Championship campaign.
Millwall achieved an impressive 8th placed finish during their first season back in the Championship and were ultimately only three points off of a play-off place.
The Lions were one of the surprise packages of the 2017/18 Sky Bet Championship season and Neil Harris deserves a great deal of praise for the results that he has delivered at The Den.
One player who symbolises what the club represents is striker Steve Morison.
The 34-year-old has played over 200 matches for the Lions and will undoubtedly go down as a Millwall legend.
In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, the Welsh international spoke proudly about the recent campaign, praising the incredible team spirit as the reason behind the club’s success:
“We’ve got an incredibly tight-knit and committed squad of players who work hard both individually and collectively.
“Since he first took charge, the manager has implemented a way of playing which gets the best out of the players he has at his disposal and also, since the back end of last season, we’ve formed a great bond with the supporters.
“Each of those elements are important individually, but when you add them all together then it shouldn’t really be as big as surprise that we have surpassed expectation as it has been made out by some.”
Although Millwall cannot compete with the finances of some of the bigger clubs in the second tier, they boast an ardent fan-base and they have found a set of players who have been successfully able to connect with those in the stands.
In the past, the supporters have been difficult to play in front of and some players have struggled to live up to expectation but that hasn’t been a problem for the current squad. Understandably, Morison was keen to emphasise the tremendous role that the supporters played throughout the campaign.
“They can be a tough crowd to play for when things are going against you but so long as you keep putting everything in to each performance, playing with passion and desire, then they will continue backing you.
“I’ve played at Millwall for a long time now all-in-all and I’m sure they respect my achievements and personality, as I do their honesty and love for the club.”
It is no surprise to hear Morison speak highly of the club’s supporters. After all, he has played more matches for Millwall than he has at any other club he has been with.
This is his third spell at The Den and he is a player that the supporters have formed a genuine connection with.
A no-nonsense centre-forward, who benefits from the atmosphere created by the fans, Morison doesn’t shirk a physical encounter, making him the perfect striker for the current squad.
“This really feels like home for me as a player. The club gave me my big chance when I first moved here, which was a platform to go on to play for my country and in the Premier League.
“Since that first spell I’ve been back twice, firstly on loan which wasn’t so successful for me or the club, and more recently since the gaffer took over.
“The style of play suits me and I suit the style of play, which is why I think my best performances have tended to come in a Millwall shirt.”
This season, Morison has shown no sign of slowing up, playing 44 of the Lions’ Championship matches and becoming one of the mainstays of the team under Neil Harris.
The 34-year-old only scored five times, but he was an important part of Millwall’s success. In addition to his goals, he contributed eight assists and was a handful every time he stepped out onto the pitch.
Over the course of the campaign he moved to within ten of 100 goals for the club.
“Personal records and accolades are always nice to receive but if I’m not scoring and the team is winning then I’m far happier than I would be if it was the other way around.
“I’ve had some great memories of my time at Millwall and hope there is many more to come, including reaching that goal landmark which any player, no matter what club they play for, should be proud of.”
That would be a major landmark to reach and it is likely that he will be given more than a fair opportunity to get the goals required.
Naturally, Morison is right to speak about the team being more important than personal achievement, but there is a good chance that he can enjoy both at The Den.
It would be a great moment for him, as he has enjoyed his best years at the club and to reach 100 goals would be a fair representation of his contribution.
Morison will be remembered fondly by the Millwall supporters, but the current manager in the dugout is already legend at the club.
Neil Harris achieved a lot as a player and has had a similar impact since taking over as the number one at The Den.
His former team-mate speaks positively about his current boss and it is obvious that he sees him as havingd a bright future in management.
“The gaffer is one of those who knows how to get the best out of players both individually and, when all put together, as a team. He is very honest and up front and we regularly have lengthy chats about all sorts of things. He respects the opinions of his players, especially senior ones like myself.
“He knows this club so well – he’s a Millwall legend – but he was right when he said, after his appointment, that he wanted to be judged on his performance as a manager and not as the player he was.
“Since then we’ve been to Wembley twice, winning promotion once, and almost secured a Play-Off spot for a chance to get to the Premier League. Those achievements speak for themselves and ultimately say a lot about his quality as a manager and a person.”
There are times when a manager and club fit like a glove. Harris and Millwall are an example of that.
He played the majority of his career at The Den and is one of the players who, like Morison aims to, scored more than 100 goals for The Lions.
During his playing career, he learnt everything there was to know about the club and it isn’t a shock that it has allowed him to transition seamlessly into management.
Harris started as the boss of the Under-21s and is now emerging as one of the most exciting coaches in the country.
Millwall’s style of play is functional, but it has earned the club good results.
An 8th placed finish is a superb achievement and sees them finish above the likes of Leeds United, Norwich City and Sheffield Wednesday, all of whom were seen as teams that could challenge for promotion this season.
He may now be seen in a similar way to Harris, but Morison hasn’t been at Millwall for his entire career.
The Welsh international tested himself at a higher level with Norwich in the Premier League. Meanwhile, he also played for Leeds United, but failed to make an impact at Elland Road.
It didn’t work out for him in Yorkshire, but he doesn’t want to make excuses for his lack of impact.
“I’ve been fairly honest in my assessment of my time at Leeds in the past. It just didn’t work out anywhere near as well as I’d hoped or the club had hoped for me. It was a difficult time to be a player with the controversy and uncertainty in the background, which does have an impact on performances and results.
“But as an individual I don’t want to make excuses. I didn’t play as well as I would have liked and as I have done since.”
Although it didn’t work out for Morison at Leeds, he won’t finish his career looking back at the spell with regret. Ultimately, it led him back to Millwall and that is where he feels at home.
The atmosphere and playing style allow him to play to a high standard, despite approaching 35 years of age.
Although some would consider Morison to be nearing the end of his time as a player, he isn’t ready to call it a day just yet.
“So long as I feel fit and I’m contributing then I want to play as long as possible. You’re a long time retired as a footballer and I want to prolong my own career as much as is possible.
“I feel that I’ve contributed well again this season and am looking forward to coming back for training again at the end of June to get ready for another campaign. I don’t look too far forward.
“As a club we’ve got to ensure that this season and the success we’ve enjoyed becomes a platform for progression and even bigger and better things in 2018/19. That has to be our aim.”
There is a lot for Morison to achieve before hanging up his boots. The 100 goals will be on his mind, even if it isn’t his main priority. Also, he will want to continue to play a part in the progression of Millwall.
The Lions finished 8th this season and there will be a desire to go one step further and make the play-offs during the 2018/19 campaign. It would be an incredible achievement for the club to reach the top-flight, but the last 12 months show that it shouldn’t be considered impossible.
Morison still has a part to play and it is clear he has the hunger to deliver sustained progression at the club.
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