Standing in the prison camp that is certain relegation like Richard Attenborough’s character, Roger Bartlett, in the Great Escape, Neil Harris was shackled with the handcuffs that were the guarantee of a return to the English third tier. The prison guard that paced the room represented all the expectations that many had for the Lions upon their return to the Championship.
Looking at Millwall’s squad and summer signings, the guard could see that Neil Harris was going to try and escape from this seemingly inescapable camp telling Millwall they would not escape their inevitable fate of dropping out of the Championship.
“This is quite close to insanity and it must stop! Give up your hopeless attempts to escape.” Demanded all the pundits and Millwall’s opposition who had “in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch this basket carefully.”
Bravely standing there and listening to the threats, our ‘Big X’ was not intimidated in the slightest. Yes, the expectation was to remain in this barbed wire prison until the war was over, where we would be both depleted and defeated, but our Squadron Leader knew that although this would be a difficult task, his boys would prevail.
“There’s only one way to put it sir: they are the common enemies of everyone who believes in freedom!” Neil Harris stated to our Group Captain, John Berylson. The freedom ‘Big X’ was talking about was the freedom for the Lions to show what they are made of. To show we are not going to be constrained by the chains of the big boys of the Championship, but that we were here to escape from our certain doom and fly over The Alps to another season in the presumed Premier League’s deputy.
Jumping off the back of the pre-season lorries into the camp, the Millwall players were stalking the ground, looking for weaknesses in the league’s infrastructure that can be exploited. The first attempt to get a foothold was at the City Ground, with the team jumping into the back of the open backed lorries and hiding with the chopped trees that are behind the cabin. Our experienced tunnel king Steve Morison tried to get in with the Nottingham Forest players and although he found the back of the net, the goal was ruled out for offside. The Lions were discovered trying to get the three points and were rounded up by the enemy after Barrie McKay found the back of the net in a 1-0 defeat. Our boys were discovered on the back of the lorries and marched back to their cabins. A first defeat in an attempt at survival, but the team were unfazed and even more determined to get out.
Our Cooler King, George Saville was tossing his baseball around and casually threw it over the barbed wire perimeter, scoring the first goal against Bolton Wanderers, but Filipe Morais fired his machine gun from the guard’s tower, equalising from a free kick in a 1-1 home draw.
“What were you doing by the wire?” the pundits were asking.
“Well, like I told Max…. I was trying to cut my way through your wire because I want to get out.” Saville bravely replied to all those who doubted him.
“Unfortunately, you were shot down. So we are both grounded for the duration of the war.”
“Speak for yourself, Colonel.” Saville said, before picking up his baseball and making his way back to the Cooler of the final whistle. “Oh, uh. You’ll still be here when I get out?” Was Saville’s reply, confident of the fact his team would leave the camp while Bolton Wanderers would remain in the relegation zone.
‘Big X’ had rounded up the troops for a meeting. He could see that there was potential in this army and if they all pulled together and efficiently, then there wouldn’t be the question of if they would escape, but when. Neil Harris knew spontaneous and the one-off man escaping would not result in success. The home defeat to Ipswich Town where we showed potential but again ultimate failure was an example of this, so the plan was to be streamlined, rationalised and effective. Not pulling up any trees or making a show of ourselves. Going unnoticed. Going about our business. Going under the radar where no-one would notice us. Going underground.
“Well that’s exactly what we are going to do.” Neil Harris explained, whilst laying out his plan to the others in SE16. “We’re going to devote our energies to sport… all the cultural pursuits as far as they’re concerned. In fact, we are going to put the goons to sleep. Meanwhile, we dig!”
“All right… but did you say first tunnel?” Our Scotsman Jordan Archer asked, requesting more information when our Bartlett mentioned the plan.
“I did, there will be three.” Chopper said, “We’ll call them Tom, Dick and Harry.”
Neil Harris’ plan was outrageous, but with these three game plans in place, we would not get out 250 like the MGM Classic wanted, Harris would get out nearly 10,000. The 10,000 fans who watched the Lions every week and supported them in their escape effort.
The tunnelling began successfully, with the goons caught totally off-guard. A 0-0 away draw at Bristol City was followed by a wonderful 4-0 home victory against Norwich City. Our scrounger on the right wing, Jed Wallace, had managed to infiltrate the enemy defence that game. With the Norwich defence believing he wasn’t fighting for the cause of the Lions, Wallace caught everyone totally off guard and managed to get the equipment needed to help build the tunnel. Wallace was exceptional that game and scrounged the vital pieces that were needed to get out the relegation camp: a valuable three points.
Our tunnel building was going to plan, although a slight cave-in against Wolves and an away 2-2 draw against QPR meant that Millwall had to look for stronger resources. Lee Gregory found himself buried in the soil during the QPR game, with the weight of the red card and a three-match ban equalling that of the dirt that fell on top of him.
Luckily for Millwall, Aiden O’Brien went down in the tunnel to continue digging. Millwall’s defensive players were singing in perfect harmony, like singing Christmas Carols in summer, while the forward line continued the hard work and excavation effort. Aiden grabbed his shovel and scooped a huge piece of dirt out of our way, with a great goal in a 1-0 victory against the then impressive Leeds United. The enemy was shocked, they knew something was going on, but couldn’t put their fingers on what exactly it was.
The tunnelling was continuing to go well, with a 0-0 away draw at Preston North End followed by our Cooler King inspired 2-1 victory over Reading. But all work had to be halted when Barnsley came to Bermondsey and delayed the escape with a 3-1 victory over the Lions. Just like the forging team who created the wrong passports and had to start all over again, Big X knew more hard work and a grittier dig was required. An away defeat to Brentford after Lee Gregory again was caught in a cave-in from the penalty spot stalled the escape, but the digging resumed and the tunnel was finished and ready to use after a fantastic 2-0 home victory over Birmingham City and an impressive 0-0 away draw to Cardiff City.
We were on our way to safety; the American national anthem was playing in our heads and John Berylson was marching around celebrating with the soldiers. “To Tom!” ‘Big X’ toasted, with Millwall’s assistant manager going back for a second drink.
However, it was around this time that our opposition and pundits had worked out what we had done. They had poured hot coffee over our hidden tunnel and had worked out how to stop the Lions. Consecutive losses against Sheffield Wednesday and Burton Albion, followed by two draws against Sunderland and Hull, meant that our tunnel had been found, shut down and we were exposed.
“Oh my God they’ve found Tom!” we screamed, as the ball hit the back of the net at Craven Cottage, with Fulham victorious over Millwall. Our main tunnel was closed, the opposition knew what we were now capable of and the barbed wire fences had been reinforced. Players in the Cooler, squad members out of action with injury after more tunnel collapses and our tunnel kings struggling to find the back of the net. But our Plan B tunnel, Dick, has been built. Our team are ready in the tunnel, waiting for the right moment to make it to the woods. George Saville has bravely stuck his neck out and looked around, but the view is not inspiring.
“Hold on to yourself Bartlett, you’re twenty feet short,” Millwall’s Steve McQueen says. Millwall’s Plan B at the moment is not delivering and it’s only the successful digging of the first tunnel that has got the Lions out of the camp and ready to go. Dick does not have the same foundations and length of quality that the earlier tunnel Tom had and it will take one daring and final push to make it out of the camp and into the woods of Championship safety. The Lions cannot disperse during the escape. We cannot have half the team on the train to Berlin, a few of us flying over The Alps and our most effective players sailing to Spain, we must all pull together and work as a team to get out. We are twenty feet short and after tunnelling so far and so successfully at first, it would be a shame that this small gap of only a couple of points or a negative goal difference will keep us in the prison camp of relegation.