By Stuart Hammonds
NEIL HARRIS was back on his old stomping ground this week, tearing around the Den like his life depended on it.
Once before, of course, the 36- year-old’s life did depend on something – and that was getting checked out for cancer.
His openness with the Lions’ club doctor when he was 23 prevented his testicular cancer from spreading, and he went onto score 138 goals to become the south-east London side’s record scorer.
That was why on Wednesday morning he turned out for the Men United v Prostate Cancer team and then, having switched sides, for a UK Parliamentary XI – in a game to raise awareness for the ‘Silent Killer’ that accounts for over 10,000 men’s lives in the UK every year and which has been adopted by Millwall as their shirt sponsors for this season.
“It’s brilliant to be back out there for such a good cause,” said Harris. “It’s a message I’ve been trying to get out for the 13 years since I got diagnosed and successfully treated.
“That is that there is a naivety in men to the fact that we are all vulnerable. When we sit in the pub having a pint, men don’t openly talk about things.
“So occasions like this, and the fact that the club is supporting Prostate Cancer UK, are great for awareness.
“Each matchday here you’ve got over 10,000 people and if most of them buy a programme, the messages are loud and clear.
“You’d like to think that the majority of male home fans will read the info and at some point get themselves checked out. One in eight are diagnosed with prostate cancer. It’s frightening.
“I was very fortunate to be in an environment where we, as a bunch of players had a club doctor that we respected and were very close to.
“I was quite an open young man, so when I felt something was wrong I could deal with it straight away. The most fortunate thing I did was having the balls, shall we say, to let the doc diagnose me.”
After a pre-match team-talk from Lions manager Ian Holloway, former League stars including Harris, Luther Blissett, Leyton Orient youth coach Andy Edwards and Millwall chief executive Andy Ambler took on an MPs XI who donated £100 to Prostate Cancer UK for every goal scored.
“They’ll be putting it on expenses, no doubt!” joked Olly. “Remember that this is your chance to have a go at them about our taxes, so trip ‘em up!”
After opening up a 4-0 lead, Harris’ switch and the replacement of former Woking goalkeeper Laurence Batty with Orient youth coach Errol McKellar proved costly in scoreline for the charity’s team – and in pocket for the MPs.
McKellar, the 56-year-old step-father of ex-O’s defender Aiden Palmer, was playing his first game since beating prostate cancer. He let in six as the score reached 6-5 to the Parliament boys – with a little help from referee Dermot Gallagher!
“It was all a ploy to get more money for a great charity,” said McKellar. “I took the test and it saved my life.”
Harris, meanwhile, is back at the club he loves as U21 manager after his final two years playing at Southend, and determined to give young Non-League talent the chance to pass the same football test he did when he first joined Millwall from Cambridge City for £30,000 in 1998.
“My pathway to Millwall was Great Wakering Rovers, Maldon Town and then Cambridge City,” says Harris.
“I spend a lot of time at Non-League games watching young players and hopefully we’ll be a club that gives boys an opportunity to come in and showcase their talents again.
“This is the working men’s club; it thrives on hard work, determination and aggression.”
For more about the match and details of how to take an online test, go to www.prostatecanceruk.org