Ian Holloway is back in the game. He is football’s equivalent of Mr Wolf (the character brilliantly portrayed by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction). An immaculate man with a plan, whose simple introduction is: “I’m Mr Wolf. I solve problems.”
Many aspects of Millwall Football Club would befit a Quentin Tarantino script, but since the surprise departure of Kenny Jackett at the end of last season, life at The Den has been more akin to Hostel than the True Romance Lions fans enjoyed in almost seven years with Jackett.
The Millwall board were keen to use the long close season to carefully select their new manager, but as soon as it became clear that Steve Lomas was their number one target, fans became restless.
For many, Lomas’ past association with hated rivals West Ham was too much to stomach, although most admitted that they would find it in themselves to forgive his claret and blue past if he was able to emulate his success at St Johnstone. The other problem was the fear of repeating past mistakes.
Back in 1996, Millwall were faced with losing their Manager Mick McCarthy to the Republic of Ireland. After some painfully protracted managerial negotiations that saw McCarthy’s side slump from a place at the top of the Championship at Christmas to mid table by the time he left in the Spring, the club sought out a new boss with a growing reputation to steer the team back towards the Premier League target that had looked so close earlier in the season.
Jimmy Nicholl was recruited after performing miracles at Raith Rovers in the Scottish Premier League. It was considered a major coup, but Nicholl quickly found himself out of his depth and incredulously, Millwall fans watched their team’s slide continue all the way to a last day relegation.
Football club boardrooms are not made up of lifelong fans with their painful memories of past mistakes and expert knowledge of what it takes to manage their team. The words of George Santayana should be carved into every boardroom’s oak panelled walls or etched into their fancy glass meeting tables.
Lomas was given the job and grudgingly accepted into the fold by the Millwall faithful. He was helped in small measure by a few encouraging new signings (along with the recruitment of Lions legend Neil Harris to the coaching staff) and some useful sound bites to persuade the floating voters.
More cynical old heads reserved judgement and allowed him no more luxury than a much shorter fuse. After an opening day home defeat to Yeovil, many had already started to spark up the blue touch paper.
“We’ll be bottom, and Harris will be manager by Xmas” was one terrace-hardened wag’s response to that opening day defeat on an Internet message-board.
Fast forward to Boxing Day. A 4-0 defeat at Watford, 20th position and five wins in 22 matches, increasing talk of dressing room unrest and the sack for Lomas. He was replaced, temporarily, by Neil Harris.
The overwhelming favourite among fans for the job of saving Millwall’s season was Ian Holloway. There were a few shouts for Neil Warnock and Steve Claridge, but Holloway it was felt would be a perfect fit. The trouble was, he wouldn’t come cheap and fans had lost confidence in a board which was suddenly sounding out an unwilling Harris to extend his caretaker role until the end of the season. It was the cheap option that would almost certainly result in relegation.
But they hadn’t reckoned on American owner John Berylson, who crossed the Atlantic and spent over four hours selling Millwall Football Club as only Americans can – to Ian Holloway – and, just for once, fans of a less fashionable football club got the manager they wanted.
To say Holloway’s arrival at The Den has been a whirlwind is an understatement. Within days he had run the rule over the squad, identifying it as one of the most unfit he had ever worked with, but with some of the most promising young players he had seen in a while. He brought in new coaches and plugged a leaking defence devoid of confidence.
There are already two new Holloway loan signings: Young Spurs starlet Ryan Fredericks made an instant impact with the winning goal on his debut. The other is DJ Campbell, the experienced striker who scored Premier League goals for Holloway at Blackpool, a signing that previously would have been the stuff of fantasy. The team itself appears completely transformed and have been whisked away to a Portugal training camp where Holloway has promised they will certainly not be improving their golf handicap.
Suddenly, fans who were preparing themselves to return to the likes of Walsall, Rotherham and Swindon next season are daring to wonder if their new manager can repeat his miracles at Blackpool and Crystal Palace. But before they start dreaming of warm sunny Wembley days in May toasting a first ever trip to the Premier League via the play offs, there is the task of staying up which is still very much top of Holloway’s agenda.
Just like Mr Wolf, Holloway will have it noted down to the nearest detail. Nothing will be left to chance. Words will be short, sweet, carefully chosen, succinct and to the point. No paying lip service with clichés of ‘what Millwall fans expect from their teams’ – only to produce a side that crosses the line on Saturday afternoon with no semblance of the honest graft that is the minimum requisite of any football supporter.
The common cry from fans as their team foundered under Lomas was: “We want our Millwall back”. After disillusionment following his departure from Crystal Palace just a few months ago, Holloway has described his arrival at The Den as “like coming home”.
For Lions fans, the feeling is mutual. Ian Holloway has brought their Millwall back. Whatever happens in the next year or so, it certainly won’t be dull.