The BIG interview: John Berylson – My best years as Millwall chairman have come since Neil Harris took charge

By Richard Cawley

John Berylson has paid tribute to Neil Harris – saying his best years as Millwall owner have come under the current boss.

Harris – the club’s all-time record goalscorer – hit a milestone last Saturday as he clocked up three years in charge of the Lions.

The South London club have not only won promotion from League One in that period, but also reached the last eight of the FA Cup in 2017 and are flourishing in the Championship – so much so that a late assault on the play-offs has been talked about.

Beryslon has ploughed £62million of his own personal fortune into Millwall since he started bankrolling them in 2007.

Harris is his fourth permanent boss appointment with Kenny Jackett, Steve Lomas and Ian Holloway the other choices.

“It is the best three years I have had out of my 12 here,” said Berylson in an exclusive interview with the South London Press. “Granted we were in the Championship for a long time and this has only been one out of the last three years at that level. But it has been three years of steady progression, steady improvement.

“I saw Neil manage when he didn’t want to manage. He was interim boss and had just seen his team get destroyed at Southend [in January 2014 when Lomas had been dismissed the month before].

Millwall manager Neil Harris leads players into Villa Park

“Neil was grateful not to be the manager, to not have that responsibility. When it came to him [the second time] it was a bit ‘let’s see how it goes’. It wasn’t a test. I thought he would do well.

“He had a near-impossible task – 10 or 11 games left and effectively we had to win six or seven and only lose one or two. I said to him ‘you’re my guy, my manager – if you want this’. He wanted it. He was 37, the timing was better. He had two more years of coaching.

“I knew his quality. I was the one who originally brought him back from Forest [as a player] in January 2007. I wasn’t the chairman, I’m not sure I was even on the board at that stage. But he came in with David Brammer and Chris Hackett. Neil was the first target.

“I’ve known him since then. I know him very well – our families – I’ve watched him grow up. He told me 10 years ago that he had every intention of managing Millwall in his 50s, he has missed that by 13 years on the short side! I’m so lucky he was ready when he was.

“I look at my managerial appointments and there have been some mistakes. I’ve made some good moves and some bad moves.

Millwall Chairman John Berylson with the trophy after the Sky Bet League One play off final at Wembley Stadium, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. 

“Ian Holloway was a disaster for the team. It almost killed us. Kenny was great. He started well and he taught me the game.

“In English football there is such a habit of retreads. In the States – Boston is an example – they have taken younger people, put them into positions and they have done very well. Younger people have new ideas and aren’t prisoners of the past.”

Jackett had just under six years in charge. Lomas, his successor in the summer of 2013, was gone before Christmas – his strong West Ham links an instant PR disaster with the fanbase.

Holloway kept the Lions up that season but his 13-month reign ended with a bloated squad plummeting down the Championship table. Harris was tasked with rebuilding in English football’s third tier.

“Lomas could’ve turned out to be a phenomenal manager – gone undefeated – and I still would have lost with that one,” said Berylson.

“Neil is the guy who benefitted from the education I had. The Eddie Howes and Neil Harris can be great managers. They are young guys and do have a different relationship with players. They are not equals, but the fact Neil Harris can have a relationship with Tony Craig and Fred Onyedinma speaks volumes of his leadership skills.

“If it wasn’t going to be Neil [as manager] it was going to be someone who knew Millwall – the culture – and understood the fanbase; what we are. We can’t go against the fans. You can see it now at West Ham – everything the ownership has done there has been in the face of the fans for years.

“I know better now. I tried to make the right decision. Lomas was a big one in the face, I didn’t realise it was. There are a lot of clubs who do things in spite of the fans and try to force their side rather than listening. I do listen. People tell you stuff at games. Peter Garston was a great fan on the board, the same as Micky Simpson – I’ve learned an enormous amount from them.”

Millwall manager Neil Harris

If squad unity keeps getting mentioned in connection with Millwall’s recent success, that’s because it is an integral part of Harris’ approach. A good changing room brings out the best in players, bad character traits can poison the mood.

“Going down gave Neil a chance to remake the team in his own image, people he wanted to manage,” said Berylson.

“There was a serious financial hit for us. I had to spend more money. We had something like 19 players who left and I had to pay a lot of them to leave. Then I had to bring people in – it was a double hit.

“It was a roll of the dice anyway. I’m still here. I had to do something. I wasn’t selling my club. It had to be fixed. It was his chance to fix it and I backed him. I have done every single time and have no intention of doing otherwise. He and I talk a lot, four or five times a week.

“We have been talking about the summer transfers for two months already, even before January, and the playing style. I like to know what is going on with every single player and he keeps me abreast of everything; their strengths and weaknesses.

“Under Neil we have been a second-half of the season team. Under Kenny it was the reverse – the first half would be good and then fall apart a little in the second bit.

“I didn’t know we would do this well. I can’t give a reason. It probably is  because the players are closer. Someone like Steve Morison is goal-hungry but is team-hungry as well.  One player might not have played well but they are more worried we won. Five or six years ago a player would be more happy if they scored two or three goals, even if the side lost.

“Neil knows what we need. It is about having talent with character. If it is talent without character then that player won’t be playing for us.

“We’ve had a number of talented players with mediocre character. That is unlikely to occur under Neil’s leadership or it will be exorcised very quickly. It’s turned out to be one of my best decisions.

“Neil hit the ground running. We had that relegation year but we all know who really got us relegated. Neil almost pulled a miracle in keeping us up. But if we had, I don’t know if he would’ve been able to make the changes he did.

“I really didn’t want to be promoted and thinking about being 20th or 21st. You don’t enjoy that. Someone might have made money if they bet the right way as I think six of the seven previews had us 24th, the other reckoned 23rd.

“I have complete confidence in Neil’s decisions on the pitch. That wasn’t always true for me with other people.”

That forward planning might get a lovely curveball if Millwall do reach the play-offs and open up the prospect of Premier League football.

Photo: Brian Tonks

“We have nine games left and five against teams above us,” said Berylson. “If we continue to win at this level then it is definitely possible. If we make it – great. If we don’t – great. We’ll just keep building the team and it will have been a very fine year.

“No-one should be disappointed with the outcome.

“I don’t care whether you finish third, fourth, fifth or sixth – whether you are home or away first in the play-offs. It doesn’t matter in the grander scheme of things.

“I’m glad we are winning these away games now. When I played sport, nothing gave me more pleasure than beating other teams on their home patch – leaving them in a shambles. How much fun is that?

“If we somehow sneak into the play-offs, all the credit goes to Neil and the players.

“It starts at the top – with Neil and the character he is. That then is sifted down to the players. They do things the right way and work hard. If they do it, they deserve it. If not, maybe next year.

“This is a team that no-one gave any chance to.”

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