When Millwall announced all-time leading goalscorer Harris as their new boss last week, it was the latest example of a club appointing a legendary player to its top job. Does being a club legend help or hinder a manager, asks Tom Simmonds?
Neil Harris knows that the strategy he is the beneficiary of is one Millwall have taken previously when at a low ebb. In 1998, he was a player in the squad entrusted to the stewardship of legendary Den centre back Keith Stevens, who had 462 appearances and minimal coaching experience to his name when he succeeded Billy Bonds.
This gamble paid off for the Lions; ‘Rhino’, assisted by fellow Den legend Alan McLeary, fashioned a resurgent team containing the precocious talents of Tim Cahill, Steven Reid, Richard Sadlier and Harris himself, interwoven with steel and know-how provided by the likes of Stuart Nethercott and Sean Dyche.
A trip to Wembley in the Auto Windscreens Shield final (now the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) in 1999 was an early reward before a run to the play-offs in what is now League One in 1999-00 ended, as did the AWS final, in an unlucky defeat to Wigan.
Stevens and McLeary were sacked after a poor start to the 2000-01 season, leaving it to Mark McGhee to guide the team they built to promotion.
This is not to say appointing a prodigal son is a failsafe way of ensuring success. There are more failures than successes.
Nottingham Forest’s appointment of club and England legend Stuart Pearce as manager last summer looked to outsiders like a cheap attempt by the club’s board to curry favour with the fans by appointing a sentimental favourite.
Forest’s flying start to 2014-15 always looked like it was built on shaky foundations. When form dipped alarmingly in December and January — during which time they won once in nine league attempts and were knocked out of the cup by Rochdale — the volatile fault lines Pearce stood on ruptured when he was sacked in late January.
Pearce’s City Ground reign was serene in comparison to Norwich’s iconic goalkeeper Bryan Gunn’s 2009 tenure at Carrow Road.
Replacing Glenn Roeder in the January, his opening gambit was to deploy fan-pleasing rhetoric accusing the players of letting the club down. When you have played with such distinction for a club, in a spell spanning 12 years and 390 games, it is inevitable that fans will ascribe more weight to your words.
As Gunn discovered, this has limited use. If fans were willing to forgive him relegation to League One, they were less tolerant of events on the opening day of 2009-10.
A 7-1 home defeat by Colchester blinded angry supporters to his good deeds as a keeper. Some showered him with their season tickets as the U’s ran up a scoreline from a computer game.
This sort of result makes goodwill evaporate instantly, and Norwich took a hard-nosed decision to sack Gunn and appoint Paul Lambert, then the manager of Colchester, to succeed him. It was a shrewd call, as Norwich claimed the League One title under his management.
While it is tempting to view Harris’s appointment as populism, sentiment is a small contributing factor to the popularity of this move among Millwall fans.
Harris has overseen a marked uptick in results and performances during his spell in caretaker charge. He has taken a directionless team, demanded hard work and communicated his tactical commands free of the riddles his predecessor was overly fond of.
There is a solid footballing basis to this appointment in addition to the appreciation of the club’s DNA that Harris demonstrably has. Both give him a great chance of further enhancing his exalted standing in Lions folklore.
Has your club ever appointed a legendary player as manager? How did they fare? If they failed, did that taint their playing legacy for you?
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