Opinion: Neil Harris quickly built a connection with Cambridge — and he knocked it down in less than three months
SHREWSBURY, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 3: Neil Harris the head coach / manager of Cambridge United during the Sky Bet League One match between Shrewsbury Town and Cambridge United at Montgomery Waters Meadow on February 3, 2024 in Shrewsbury, England. (Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images)

Football’s a weird old sport. The loyalty that used to be given is gone. The patience that was needed is gone and the time needed to create change is gone.

Neil Harris departs Cambridge United after just 14 matches in charge, yet this time it isn’t a hastily arranged sacking which lacks common sense. This time it’s an appointment out of the blue from one of the Championship’s biggest clubs, Millwall.

Loyalty is normally ruined by clubs looking to pick up results quickly. Cambridge did exactly that in November, sacking boyhood fan and manager Mark Bonner after a barren run of results. Yet, this time, it’s the manager, Harris, who jumps ship before loyalty could even be tested.

Of course, it’s hard to blame him. He played over 200 times for Millwall and then got them promoted to the Championship as manager. The 46-year-old is ‘Millwall through and through’, but that doesn’t make the reality of Cambridge losing their manager after just 14 matches any easier to take. 

  • A connection ruined in moments

Harris joined Cambridge midway through a season that was rapidly spiralling out of control. A 5-0 defeat away to fierce rivals Peterborough United epitomised that — and it gave owner Paul Barry no choice but to change manager.

But Bonner wasn't your typical manager. He was a Cambridge fan who understood the values of the club. He understood the attitude needed to succeed, showcased by even securing promotion from League Two in 2021. 

The idea of Harris replacing Bonner and then building a firm connection with the fanbase seemed crazy. Yet as the travelling fans travelled away to Charlton for his debut match, it was clear Harris had already done it.

“Neil’s Harris’ amber army,” they chanted, but not anymore.

Just last weekend, Neil Harris was adored by Cambridge fans. A 4-0 win away to Carlisle steered them clear of the relegation battle. As Harris celebrated with the away end in Cumbria, the connection was never stronger. It became a staple hold of his tenure at the Abbey Stadium, as the significance of every win in a League One relegation battle became clear.

Despite improved results, Harris' tenure at Cambridge wasn't remarkable. Five wins in 14 matches helped the club build a narrow buffer over the relegation zone, but it wasn't exactly setting the league on fire. 

His football was defensive - often looking to defend and counter-attack - catching teams by surprise with quick moves. His January signings of Lyle Taylor and Macauley Bonne in the final third were experienced but - most importantly - short-term. It was clear Harris was brought into Cambridge to bring quick results.

Yet, his connection which he quickly built helped fans see the bigger picture. The team had improved — and the idea of Cambridge staying up in the League One relegation battle was becoming more likely. 

But then came today's news. The disappointment that Harris couldn't even last the season, completing his main goal, before jumping ship will be a bitter pill to swallow for their fans. 

  • A confusing appointment

Harris has always been someone who was capable of building a connection with a club quickly. Results have turned sour at every club he has been it, but that came after a successful period with them.

Millwall is Harris' club and you could even argue Harris is Millwall. Yet Millwall aren't a club flying high. They're a club battling relegation from the Championship after their attempted appointment of Joe Edwards in November failed with disappointing results.   

For a team that has come so close to the Championship playoffs in recent years, it feels like a backwards step — and that only makes the situation worse for Cambridge.

The 46-year-old has jumped ship from one relegation battle to another, with there being a high chance the two teams could face one another next season. There is no guarantee Harris' football will bring in short-term results for the South London club.

Harris' unexpected departure leaves the club without a permanent manager ahead of the Cambridgeshire Derby against Peterborough on Saturday.

A permanent appointment, if there even is one this season, will take time. Cambridge used to be a club that symbolised the word 'stability'; now they are a permanent member of the managerial merry-go-round.