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, we look back to a player who although was traditionally played as a centre-back, slotted excellently into the midfield role, Tamika Mkandawire.
Watching the coolness and composure of Mkandawire in the middle of the park always reminded the fans of the sophistication that oozed from the Rat Pack at the height of their popularity.
"Like the wallpaper sticks to the wall. Like the seashore clings to the sea. Like you'll never get rid of your shadow. You'll never get rid of me", sang the midfielder to whoever would finish the game nestled deeply into his pocket after yet another fantastic display. Signing for the Lions in June 2010 after promotion from League One, Mkandawire was brought in to compete for the centre-half positions that were filled by Paul Robinson and Darren Ward. Speaking at the time of his signing, Tam said, "this is a great move for me. I'm really looking forward to playing in the Championship with Millwall. Having played against them last season and watched the Play-Off games I could see that there is a very good squad with a great team spirit at The Den. I know I will have to fight hard for a place in this side, but I will give it my best shot."
Despite being brought in to strengthen the back-line, the fans were taken back to see the former Leyton Orient man featuring just in front of the back four and a more of a defensive midfielder role. Although some thought this may be too much of a step up and a drastic change of position for a player who had featured deeper in the lower leagues of English football, Mkandawire wasn't broken by Jackett's decision and like a flower bending in the breeze, he would bend and sway with ease into his new setting in the Millwall team. Tam was an ever present in the South London side and was a huge factor in a successful season which saw the Lions finish 9th in their first season back in the second tier. In all, Mkandawire featured in 38 games, scoring a solitary goal against Swansea City in the 2010-11 season and went on to win Millwall's Player of the Year.
Huge things were expected from the utility player in the following season and Mkandawire again was a regular in the starting eleven and contributed with a goal against Morecambe in the 2-0 win in the Carling Cup. The former Hereford man was instrumental in wins against Nottingham Forest, Ipswich Town and Coventry City, however a knee injury and a cartilage operation saw his season prematurely ended in a devastating way and his final contribution was in November in a 1-0 defeat to Blackpool. Kenny Jackett told the club website when Mkandawire was about to go under the knife, "he has been available for games but struggling to train fully and it has been very irritating for him. The specialist decided to go in and have a look." The home fans were devastated with this news and knew the Lions would be missing that expert composure that Mkandawire brought to the team for the rest of the season. At the end of Tam's 2011-12 campaign, he featured in 15 games and again for the second consecutive season scored the one goal.
Mkandawire's final season as a Millwall player saw him spend the majority of his time on loan at Roots Hall at Southend United to try and get back his match fitness. The Malawi born utility man never featured for the Lions again and was released at the end of the 2012-13 season after making 20 appearances for the Essex side. After leaving Millwall, Tam went on to play for Shrewsbury Town before ending his career in America with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
In all, the popular midfielder featured 53 times for the Lions and scored 2 goals. Tamika Mkandawire's time in South London may have been brief, but he was a phenomenal player for the Lions and was the stand-out choice for his Player of the Season award with 44% of the vote. His performances would fly fans to the moon and have us playing amongst the stars and whenever the players around him appeared to be out of their depth at times back in the Championship, the defensive midfielder rose to the occasion. He faced it all and he stood tall and did it his way.