Last season was a campaign which started with much uncertainty, with many senior players signed by previous managers Steve Lomas and Ian Holloway leaving the club, it was tasked by many as a huge rebuild for club legend Neil Harris; who had just landed the job on a full time basis following an interim spell. The decision to release most of these players was greeted positively from fans, with Harris promising to present a Millwall side, and a team fans could relate to and be proud of.
The appointment of Neil Harris as full time manager was an appointment that many agreed with, however there was the element of doubt from some if Harris was ready to take on the job. A section of fans were critical with the board perhaps taking the easy option, opting for a club legend to bring the fans back onside after previous turmoil. I think looking back I personally was for the appointment, asking the question of who else out there would come in and understand the club ahead of its biggest rebuild in some time.
It’s often seen as a cliché, “The Millwall Way” – what does this mean? Well to a fan, in my opinion it’s a team of players who want to work for the club, and when crossing the white line at 3pm on a Saturday will do all they can to earn a win. You don’t have to be the technically gifted player who can take on a whole team with skill, of course this helps but you also need the work ethic, and would play in the manner the fans would if they were lucky enough to pull on the Millwall shirt.
The club waved goodbye to players who had probably over stayed their welcome, with the likes of Alan Dunne heading for the exit door, and even David Forde told he could look for a new club should he wish to do so. Of course Forde never found a club willing to take him on, and despite starting the season in goal was quickly replaced by new arrival Jordan Archer. We welcomed additional signings with Tony Craig and Steve Morison returning, along with left back Joe Martin arriving on a free transfer from League One rival Gillingham.
However, the most notable additions into the senior side came internally, with the likes of Aiden O’Brien, Sid Nelson, Fred Onyedinma and Ben Thompson all promoted on a full time basis to the senior squad, all four had been in the youth ranks for some time and had tasted first team football in spells for the senior side. With Harris knowing the players from his time as Under 21 coach, he trusted these players and believed they could do a job in the senior side when required.
With this being said, looking to next season it makes me wonder who will be next to come through the Under 21’s and play a part in the senior side, below are four players who I believe could make a notable impression to us fans:
A forward with already one senior goal to his name, at Wolves in our final game in The Championship, Jamie Philpot is a forward who has been around on the scene for a while now. Perhaps a similar situation to O’Brien, whereby Philpot has been forced to wait for his chance in the side, however being part of numerous match day squads last season, and having the occasional cameo appearance there is now an element of expectancy and many hoping we will now see the best of Philpot. Unfortunately for Philpot he has found himself on the end of a few injuries which seem to keep knocking him back a peg or two, and when he looks like he is about to make a name of himself the chance is taken away through injury. Perhaps this is a case of being unlucky, or could there be a problem which needs to be addressed for the young forward? He has often been singled out for praise by Harris, who firmly believes there is a player in there that can benefit Millwall going forward for the long-term future.
Having been offered a contract and signed for another year with the club, through proving he has the natural instinct in front of goal by scoring consistently for the Under 21’s it can be argued the senior side is yet to see the best of Philpot. Perhaps one other element which might hold him back is the competition for places, with a seasoned pro in Steve Morison and goal machine Lee Gregory in the way along with Aiden O’Brien. Philpot won’t be directly competing for the role Steve Morison plays for the side, but with Lee Gregory firmly in his position he has stern competition to dislodge the top scorer from last season. If speculation is anything to go by we might face a tough summer to keep Gregory, which may present the chance to our own Jamie Philpot.
Next up we have another who has tasted first team football with 18-year-old full back Noah Chesmain, fresh from a spell on loan to local conference side Welling United, Chesmain is another who has often received praise in the media from Neil Harris. During his time at Welling the youngster managed a sustained run in a team at a very competitive level, for an 18-year-old it is the ideal development and something every club strives to reach for their crop of youngsters.
On Noah’s loan at the time Harris said: “Noah has had a very good year in the youth team. He has the attributes to be a modern-day Millwall player – he is quick and strong. He is not the biggest but this loan will enable him to test himself against big, physical players.”
Great words of encouragement from Harris for the youngster, and when thinking of competition at left full back we have Joe Martin, who has been a solid player but I feel if Chesmain gets his chance he could be another Mahlon Romeo and remain in the side for a sustained period. Harris likes his full backs to be athletic and have the ability to provide assists from the wide areas, in Chesmain you feel he ticks these boxes and could push into the first team on a regular basis.
Having represented his national side Czech Republic at Under 18 level, Kris Twardek is one of the youth players who has been on a different journey to many of his peers in the Under 21’s. Having played in Canada until 16, Millwall picked up the winger and made him part of the Under 18 side, going on to make an impact and earn his first professional contract last summer. Harris clearly liked what he saw of the winger and also included Twardek in the pre-season squads with Twardek making a big impact in the friendlies away to Bromley and Wimbledon, catching the eye of most including myself.
Playing like your typical youngster with lots to prove, he was eager to get on the ball and press from the front on the left hand side of the pitch. Unfortunately, similar to the fortune of Philpot an injury held back Twardek’s progress last season, but inclusions in the match day squad on a few occasions towards the end of the season indicates Harris sees something in the winger. Twardek also was rewarded with another years contract to have an additional opportunity, and with only Shane Ferguson on the books at the minute on the left of midfield it seems an opportunity will presented to Twardek to impress.
Finally, my last pick of the Under 21’s who could impress next season is central defender Christian Mbulu. Having been flagged up by our player recruitment department last summer, Mbulu was signed from non-league Brentwood Town, with media outlets comparing the defender to Manchester United player Chris Smalling. Described as a towering defender many see Mbulu as a late bloomer and a player who could make their mark in professional football. Mbulu was a crucial part of the Under 21 side last season and captained the side on a few occasions with Justin Skinner very vocal of his praise for the young defender.
Mbulu’s form for the Under 21’s has also seen press speculation regarding his future with the likes of Crystal Palace, Watford and even Chelsea rumoured to be keeping close tabs on the defender. Having made the match day 18 away to Doncaster, Mbulu will be another youngster keen to impress during this coming pre-season, having also penned another years deal with the club. With the future of Mark Beevers also up in the air, it could provide a chance for Mbulu to put his name in the hat as central defensive options going into the coming campaign.