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 at a player who had arguably the greatest potential of anyone to ever pull on the Millwall shirt, but whose career was cut short by a recurring injury, Richard Sadlier.
Although playing for the entirety of his career in South Bermondsey, the Dublin born striker rose through the ranks of Leicester Celtic and Belvedere in the Republic of Ireland before making his way to Zampa Road in the 1996-97 season. The young forward was only eighteen years of age when he made his debut for the Lions, coming off the bench in the 2-0 away defeat at Bristol City in the 75th minute for Ricky Newman. Featuring in ten of the Lions' games against the likes of Luton Town, AFC Bournemouth and Crewe Alexandra, Sadlier was a bright spark in a disappointing season which saw Millwall finish in 14th place in Division Two on 61 points.
After playing under two different managers in his debut season when John Doherty replaced Jimmy Nicholl, Sadlier found himself with a new boss when Billy Bonds was brought into the hot seat for the 1997-98 campaign. Although the up-and-coming star did not look out of place in a team including such names as Neil Harris, Paul Shaw and Brian Law, Sadlier's game time was considerably reduced and he only featured in five fixtures in all competitions that year. The minutes on the pitch may have been less, but his goal return had increased and Sadlier found the back of the net three times against Brentford, Preston North End and Southend United. The managerial revolving door continued to spin and Bonds was dismissed at the end of the season nearly a year to his appointment as Millwall finished in 18th place with 55 points, only five points above the drop zone.
A radical overhaul was required and club legend Keith Stevens was appointed Millwall manager for the 1998-99 season. Stevens was passionate about promoting from the youth systems and only choosing players who had a "never-say-die" attitude and this fitted Sadlier perfectly. A huge increase in game time saw the Irishman be an ever present for the Lions and the striker rewarded his new manager with goals against the likes of Northampton Town, Gillingham, Burnley and Wigan Athletic. The South London side's form improved also and along with a 10th place finish and 62 points, Millwall also made the Auto Windscreen Shield final and Sadlier was part of the side that started that day against Wigan Athletic. The Latics broke Millwall hearts with a late strike in injury time, but the season overall was one of success for the young forward as he netted a total of seven times in 40 games.
Another manager was brought into Sadlier's career prior to the 1999-00 year, however this time it was due to the club wanting to appoint joint managers and it was Alan McLeary who was asked to assist Rhino at the helm. Millwall continued to thrive and climb the table and Sadlier again was an important player who helped to spearhead a season which saw the Lions finish in the Division Two play-offs in 5th place on 82 points. Scoring important goals against the likes of Notts County, Bristol Rovers and Swansea City, the Irishman scored six goals in 30 games in all competitions, but the season was again to end in heartbreak as Millwall were eliminated in the play-offs by Wigan Athletic.
The 2000-01 campaign was arguably one of the most famous for the Lions. Sadlier continued to excel and along with Neil Harris and Paul Moody, the trio contributed to one of the most dangerous forward lines in the division. Chopper may have taken the plaudits with his twenty-seven league goals, but Sadlier's strikes against Port Vale, Cambridge United and Swindon Town helped the Lions gain promotion to the English Second Tier under new manager Mark McGhee and the future was starting to look very bright in SE16. Millwall could boast the likes of Tim Cahill, Christophe Kinet, Paul Ifill and Steven Reid in their ranks and Sadlier fitted in well with these stars of the future and rightly received the plaudits throughout the season for his hard work, determination and unquestionable ability. The season ended with a Division Two winner's medal and seven goals in 33 appearances.
Division One was calling in the 2001-02 season for Sadlier and although there was a step-up in class from the season before, the striker took to it like a duck to water and was unstoppable. McGhee's youthful side was packed with raw potential and had made the jump to Division One look seamless with victories against the likes of Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, Coventry City and West Bromwich Albion. Netting an impressive seventeen times in 40 games for Millwall, Sadlier's impressive form also saw him rewarded with the opportunity that most young football fans can only dream of: an international call-up. Coming off the Republic of Ireland bench for the friendly with Russia in the second half, The Den faithful were as jubilant as those from the Emerald Isle as one of our own took to the international stage whilst playing for the Lions. Millwall again made the play-offs for the second consecutive season and Sadlier's performances contributed to this, but again the Lions fell short and lost to Birmingham over the two legs.
Richard Sadlier's final two seasons for Millwall were hampered by injury and the striker was restricted to only seven appearances over both the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, scoring one goal in the draw with Burnley in March 2003. Sadly retiring at the age of just twenty-four years old, Sadlier said at the time of his retirement, "It got to the stage where every day I was getting pain in my back and my hip just doing the most basic of activities...I was told 18 months ago that it was possible that I wouldn't play again and at the time I refused to take that seriously and was convinced that I would. Whilst I did manage that, it never lasted for more than two or three games, and it just seemed that after all this time I hadn't made any progress and the symptoms were getting a lot worst." Then-manager McGhee led the tributes to Sadlier by saying, "I've managed at four clubs now and Richard Sadlier is the best young centre forward I've seen. He had the potential to go right to the top" and club-chairman at the time Theo Paphitis concurred these sentiments when he stated, "This is a tragedy for Richard and a tragic loss for the club. He is a top-class player, a model professional and a thoroughly decent lad who deserved better than to see his career end at the age of just 24."
In all, Richard Sadlier featured in 165 games for Millwall and scored 41 goals. After retiring, the forward went on to be a media columnist and a successful football pundit. A player with undoubted talent and unlimited potential, Sadlier could have been arguably one of the best players to have ever played for Millwall. It is a testament to his abilities and character as a man, that even with a restricted spell at the club, he left such an impact at The Den and is still talked about as one of the all-time Millwall greats.