Neil Harris has described the Christmas period as a ‘mini-season’ for Millwall and claims Saturday’s trip to Stoke City represents as good a chance as any to claim a potentially season-turning away victory.
The Lions remain without a win on the road this campaign, but the manager has praised the spirits of the squad in training this week ahead of our first meeting with The Potters in almost 12 years.
“The message to the players is clear that it’s a massive 10 days for us, and the message to the fans – travelling in their numbers to Stoke – is to come and enjoy it and get behind the boys,” Harris says.
“We can look at the next four games as a mini-season, but ultimately it’s all about winning the next game, and training has been excellent as ever. On Monday, we went through the Preston visit – we were more on the front foot in the second half and put them under a bit more pressure, getting closer to the ball and creating more chances.
“It was good for the boys to see it in the video footage, that it was another away game in which we’ve created chances well into double figures. We scored two goals, but then we conceded. The third one with the deflection was just luck evading us again, but we certainly could have been better in the build-up to the first two goals.”
Whilst players including Murray Wallace and Tom Elliott featured for Kevin Nugent’s U23s at Calmont Road on Tuesday afternoon, Harris says the productive week in training will help confidence-wise for the trip to the bet365 Stadium, against Gary Rowett’s team “who can hurt you all over the pitch.”
“This week has been a good learning curve, and some boys got important minutes under their belts in the U23s on Tuesday. We know what a tough task it is going to Stoke, with a Premier League setup and players. But we also know it’s a great challenge for us as a huge underdog, and we go with good confidence to go and get our first away win of the season.
“The boys are in good spirits, and I also think the trip to the hospital on Thursday was a reminder of how lucky we are to do what we do.
“Stoke have very good individual players who can hurt you all over the pitch. We have to make sure that we’re at our best, be reliable defensively and try and match them without the ball; then going forward to create chances and be really hard to play against.”
The boss explains the contrast between navigating the Christmas period as a player and as a manager, and insists that the festive fixtures are used to The Lions’ benefit as the season passes the halfway point.
“You have to approach [the busy period] one game at a time. As a manager, it’s completely different to when I played. As a player, it’s all about making sure you’re ready in yourself; as a manager, it’s making sure your staff and players are prepared, thinking about team selection, injuries and suspensions… There’s a lot on your mind over the course of the period.
“You have to try and balance it out with good family time, seeing the kids open their Christmas presents, but that’s the beauty of the industry we’re in. Christmas in football is hand-in-hand, fantastic. A lot of the season disappears in the next 10 days, and we have to make sure that we use it to our advantage, and think about reeling in the teams just above us in the League.”
Harris finally gives the latest on team news for the weekend, with Jiri Skalak doubtful to face Rowett’s side.
“Jiri Skalak has unfortunately been ill with a bacterial infection, so we will have to see with him. Tom Bradshaw is of course long-term, and Willo [Shaun Williams] is getting better – edging closer all the time – but we will be without him over Christmas.”