Millwall vs Leicester City: Passion, community and honesty is what Lions thrive on, insists Steve Morison
16 February 2017 • 9:38pm
Steve Morison has been at Millwall long enough to know a thing or two. He knows, for example, to avoid the parking spaces near the pitches when he arrives at training, because your car will inevitably end up getting boxed in. He knows that you can argue with the fans, but you had better be prepared to back up your talk on the pitch. Most of all, over his three spells with the club, he knows what Millwall means. “Passion,” he says. “Community. Honesty. They’d be the three big ones. I have a go at the fans, they have a go at me. But we know it’s all love. Yeah, they have their moments, but it’s only because of the other word I used. They’re passionate. Give this club a bone, and they don’t let it go.” Morison is talking about more than football here. For most of the season, Millwall have been scrapping for their very future. A spirited campaign has seen off the immediate threat of a Compulsory Purchase Order by Lewisham Council that would have forced them to leave London. And even if they are not entirely out of the woods yet, the struggle has awakened some very familiar sensations. Through bad times and worse: this is a club that sticks together. “I think it’s bonded the fans and the players,” Morison says. “It’s given them something to get behind.” A club’s link to its community is based not just on good words, but on good works. Nine academy graduates give a strong south London flavour to the first-team squad. A campaign to save Lewisham Hospital exposed Millwall as a club with a conscience. Morison himself spent Thursday afternoon at a local Frankie and Benny’s, serving meals to junior members as part of a community event. “There’s three or four of us going down,” he says. “Two days before – effectively – our biggest game of the season.”
For on Saturday, the Premier League champions are in town. Morison’s goals against Bournemouth and Watford helped Millwall into the FA Cup fifth round, and a home game against Leicester City. Yet with Millwall flying in League One, and Leicester fighting to stave off relegation, a third consecutive Premier League scalp would not, paradoxically, be an enormous surprise. “They’re struggling at the minute, aren’t they?” Morison observes. “It’s that second season syndrome. After the Lord Mayor’s Show, and all that kind of stuff. This year they’ve got a different kind of pressure. And it doesn’t seem like they can deal with it.
“People go: They’re not trying as hard.’ I reckon they’re trying too hard. It doesn’t work. Football is a natural game. You play it without thinking. Once you overthink it, it starts to become hard work. Whatever team turns up, they’re going to be looking for confidence. We need to prey on that.”
Leicester could scarcely have picked a worse time to visit. Powered partly by Morison’s 15 goals, Millwall are on a run of 12 games without defeat. Morale is sky-high under Neil Harris, once Morison’s partner up front, now the club’s highly-rated young manager. “You have to take your hat off to the manager and the owners for bringing the right people through the door,” Morison says. “I was here when we had a couple of bad years, and the selection process of the people who came here was the reason for that. It wasn’t right. I’ve been at Leeds, where the same things happened. It was like two different dressing rooms.”
Ionce read an interview with Morison in which he said of Millwall: “This club makes or breaks people.” What did he mean by that? “You either cut it here or you can’t,” he replies. “Many a player – I won’t name them – they’re top goal-scorers at their relevant clubs, but they can’t do it here. It’s just one of those places. Players have come here with unbelievable pedigrees, but they haven’t been able to do it. “It’s one of those places where you have to take the criticism on the chin. You can react to it, but you’ve got to react to it positively, on the football pitch. If you brought someone through the door here who thought he was way above his station, they wouldn’t last very long.” After a turbulent few years, culminating in relegation from the Championship in 2015, Millwall finally feels like a car pointing in the right direction. “Changing the identity of a football club is very hard,” Morison says. “Managers have tried, and fallen flat on their face. Now you walk through our dressing room door every morning, and there’s always a smile on everyone’s face. It’s a good bunch of lads. I love playing here.”
On Saturday the Den will have its first sell-out since the play-off semi-final against Bradford City last year. Tactically, Harris has borrowed liberally from the Leicester model: making Millwall tough at the back, well organised throughout, a team prepared to play long periods of the game out of possession. “He says: ‘I couldn’t care less if we don’t have the ball all game’,” Morison reveals. “All that matters is winning.” And what of Morison himself? He is 33 now, and beginning to think of his future. The greyhound business, which he went into a few years ago with his former Norwich City team-mate Grant Holt, is more of a hobby than a viable career (“It doesn’t make us any money. More to the point, we don’t lose any”). But coaching does appeal: he already has his Uefa B Licence and is scheduled to finish his A Licence this summer. “I enjoy the tactical and mental side of the game,” he says. “You’ve got to think about the future. Because I ain’t sitting at home, for no one’s business. That’s boring.” Before that, of course, there is a cup tie to be won. And before that, there is an appointment at Frankie and Benny’s to be kept: burgers to serve, hungry young mouths to feed. Just another day in the life of a club that seems to delight in defying the ordinary.