Barry Kitchener, Harry Cripps, Teddy Sheringham, Terry Hurlock, Tim Cahill, Neil Harris, Paul Robinson. There have been many players who, whenever Millwall fans reminisce, will eloquently wax lyrical about how these are some of the greatest/hardest/most terrifying players they have ever seen at the Old and New Den. Players who we remember growing up watching wishing we could be, who we would cheer and chant their names from the stands and terraces. But what about the others? The players who when we find old programmes in the garage, we would flip it over and have completely forgotten that these players played a part in successful teams of the past. The ‘Steady Eddies’ who may not have scored hat-tricks or hit crunching tackles every week, but those who were reliable and wouldn’t let you down.
For this edition of Unsung Heroes, you the Millwall fans have chosen the popular Australian defender/midfielder, Lucas Neill. Neill had a stellar career in England and Europe and just like his nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, probably had no idea of the impact he would have on his adopted continent…
When Abba took to the Eurovision stage in 1974 with Waterloo, nobody knew the impact and maturity they would display in the years that followed. Luckily for Millwall, the history book on the shelf was always repeating itself when on the 17th February 1996, Lucas Neill took to the stage for his debut in a 1-0 defeat away at Luton Town. Coming through the ranks of a team with the likes of fan favourites Kasey Keller, Ben Thatcher, Keith Stevens and Alex Rae, Neill shone in the last few games of the season and finished with 13 appearances against the likes of Norwich City, Barnsley and Charlton Athletic to name just a few. Unfortunately for Millwall, the year when Gina G finished 8th with “Ooh Aah…. Just a little bit” for the UK, the Lions finished the season in the bottom three due to too many nil pwa’s and Jimmy Nicholl’s side were relegated to Division Two.
The following 1996-97 season in the English third tier saw a lot more game time for the young Aussie, as he was an ever present in the side and found the score sheet a number of times too. Neill’s first five games of the season in all competitions saw just the one defeat, along with a 1-1 draw with Wrexham on the opening day which was followed by two victories against Peterborough United and Watford in the League Cup and League respectively. Neill’s first goal of the season was the winner against Burnley in a 2-1 home win in August in a game which saw three goals in nine second half minutes. Due to having the ability to play a number of different positions, Neill spent sections of the season at full-back as well as in the middle of the park and the Lions fortunes were equally as inconsistent. The United Kingdom were in jubilation as Katrina and the Waves won the Eurovision Song Contest with “Love Shine a Light” in the Republic of Ireland, but unfortunately the team and fans in South Bermondsey were not walking on sunshine as we equalled the Swedish entry “Bara hon älskar mig” and finished 14th in the table. Neill’s season ended with an impressive 41 games, with goals against Burnley, Notts County and Chesterfield as well as winning the club's Player of the Year award. The young utility man did show his inexperience as times, accumulating seven yellow cards and one red card throughout the course of the season.
Millwall's second season back in the Nationwide Division Two was as unsuccessful and uninspiring as the first and our young Australian featured in only a handful of games. Out of only the seven games in which Neill featured for the Lions that season, the 2-0 win against Cardiff City in the Football League trophy and the 1-0 win over Wycombe Wanderers were the only victories that he tasted. A crushing 3-0 away defeat to Plymouth Argyle, an embarrassing 4-1 away defeat to Bristol City and a forgettable 2-1 home defeat to AFC Bournemouth were just some of these results that Neill experienced. The 1997-98 season saw Millwall finish in 18th place, but in a year that Britain's "Where Are You?" finished in second place behind Dana International, we wouldn't be asking where the future Socceroo would be hiding the following season.
The countdown to the millennium was on and Lucas Neill ensured he would head towards the turn of the century with games and goals under his belt. Neill started the season well and was in the starting 11 for the first four games of the season which saw the Lions only taste defeat once. Along with the young utility man, Millwall had built a young and exciting side that boasted the likes of Robbie Ryan, Steven Reid, Paul Ifill, Neil Harris and Tim Cahill to name but a few and the youthful Aussie didn't look out of place. The 1998-99 season proved fruitful for Neill, who featured in 43 games for Millwall and was on the score sheet six times against Lincoln City, Notts County, York City, Reading, Luton Town and Gillingham. Along with finishing 10th in Division 2, Millwall also made the final of a domestic tournament when they played Wigan Athletic in the Auto Windscreen Final at Wembley Stadium. Neill did not feature in this final which ultimately ended in a 1-0 defeat to the Latics, but as the 1999 Eurovision Swedish winner sang "Take Me to Your Heaven", little did we know it would be the next year where our team would take us to spiritual ecstasy.
Due to the amount of midfield talent that the Lions possessed, the 1999-2000 season saw Lucas Neill play the vast majority of the season at full-back and Bermondsey’s favourite Aussie continued to shine. Under Alan McLeary and Keith Stevens, Millwall were one of the most entertaining sides in the league to watch. Although he tussled for the right-back position with the likes of Matt Lawrence and Ricky Newman and also filled in on either wing when needed, Neill featured in 37 games in all for Millwall and scored one goal against Preston North End. Unfortunately for the Lions, the season would end in heartache as the South London side would be defeated in the play-offs by bogey side, Wigan Athletic, after finishing 5th in the table. The Olsen Brothers were the act victorious when Stockholm hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2000, but it would be our band of brothers who would be successful and celebrating 12 months from that cruel defeat to the Latics.
Neill’s last full season in SE16 was part of arguably the greatest Millwall side to grace Bermondsey. Although spending the majority of the season before in the back-line, Neill would spend most of the 2000-01 season back out on the wing and featured 25 times for the Lions. The goals scored increased with a goal in a 4-1 away victory against Peterborough United and a 4-0 home win against Bury. There were many changes in the managerial hot seat in Zampa Road, but the Lions were finally settled when Mark McGhee took over the reins from Rhino and Alan McLeary and Millwall never looked back. Neill featured in big wins against the likes of Cambridge United, Wigan Athletic, Bristol Rovers and that famous final 5-0 home win against Oldham Athletic which saw the Lions crowned champions. Collecting an impressive 93 points and a top of the table finish, Millwall were singing the tune of the United Kingdom’s 15th place entry and proved that when it comes to aiming for the big time, it would be “No Dream Impossible”.
The Australian's last games for Millwall were only a handful at the start of the 2001-02 season, however he was on the score sheet on the opening day in a 4-0 win against Norwich City at The Den. Neill's final appearance was in an away defeat against Crewe Alexandra and Millwall's longest serving player departed South London for Premiership side Blackburn Rovers in September 2001. At the time of his move, manager Mark McGhee stated, "Lucas has, in reality, been seeking a move from the time of my arrival last September, but now it's officially on the table."
In all, the popular full-back/midfielder featured 175 times for the Lions and scored an impressive 14 goals. Going on to have spells with Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United, Everton, Galatasary, Al Jazira, Al Wasl, Sydney FC, Omiya Ardija, Watford and finally Doncaster Rovers, Neill's time at The Den started with turmoil and third tier mediocrity, but came to it's conclusion with him being a member of one of the most talented sides for generations.