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Millwall's Ryan Leonard on Neil Harris, the Den and a midfield battle with Bradley Dack
Last Updated: 09/01/19 8:45am
After a slow start to the season, Millwall have hit form and pulled away from the Championship relegation zone. In an exclusive interview, record signing Ryan Leonard explains what's changed and why he's eager to repay former team-mate and current boss Neil Harris…
"He's not changed a bit. Not one single bit." Ryan Leonard has fond memories of playing alongside Millwall manager Neil Harris at Southend. In 2011 Leonard was taking his first steps as a professional and looked to Harris, who was playing out the final seasons of his career at his boyhood club, for guidance.
Last August, seven years on, Leonard signed for Harris' Millwall on Transfer Deadline Day from Sheffield United, for a club record fee. It underlined the impressive progress Leonard, now 26, has made - and the faith Harris has in his former colleague.
"For me, I'm not one who looks into fees or anything like that," Leonard tells Sky Sports ahead of a chilly training session marshalled by Millwall's record scorer-turned-manager. "It was just nice to get back on the pitch again after I had a little spell where I wasn't playing.
"To be fair, the manager has helped me out a hell of a lot. He's shown me what he wants me to do and how he wants me to play and I've really enjoyed my time here. I think my performances have shown that - and long may it continue.
"He was exactly the same on the pitch as he is off the pitch. He was like a manager on the pitch anyway, he was very vocal and knew what he wanted from the lads. He's a good guy, a top man. I got on really well with him myself and I'm just thankful he's brought me here. He's put his trust in me and hopefully I can repay him."
On the playlist...
While at Southend, Leonard was followed on Twitter by pop singer Justin Bieber after suggesting listening to the Canadian's music pre-match had helped him go on a scoring streak. But there's a different soundtrack in the Millwall dressing room.
"We're on the Greatest Showman now," said Leonard. "Aiden O'Brien and Big T, Tom Elliott, they've taken over the music and they love a bit of Greatest Showman now. So if Hugh Jackman wants to drop them a line this summer, it wouldn't be bad would it?"
Leonard has certainly made a strong start to life in south London, becoming a mainstay of the Millwall midfield. However, while last season brought a push for the play-offs, Harris' men struggled in the first half of this campaign.
But, since Boxing Day, Millwall have won three Championship matches in a row and progressed to an FA Cup fourth-round tie with Everton. Leonard says the mood in the camp is optimistic.
"Our performances have warranted a lot more points than we've got but it's just started to turn for us a little bit," said Leonard. "The lads have been working really hard with the manager and the staff on the training pitch. We've been getting more clean sheets, which has obviously helped, and we've had a little turn in fortunes and confidence is on the up.
"Hopefully we can build our way back up the table and get away from the end of the table we're at. We don't want to be there - no one wants to be there - so if we can get away from that as soon as possible it will be good for the fans and good for us."
Millwall have the opportunity to do just that when they host a Blackburn Rovers side four places above them in the league on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Football from 5.15pm.
Blackburn haven't won on the road since the start of October, while only six teams have earned more points at home in the Championship this season than Millwall - and Leonard believes building on that form at the Den will be key.
"When I was an away player I hated playing there," he said. "It isn't the nicest place to go to as an away player, the changing room isn't the best and the fans get on your case. But for us as a home team it works really well and I really enjoy it. The fans create a great atmosphere for us.
"But it's going to be a very tough game. Blackburn have done really well and started the first half of the season on really good form. They've got players playing in the right areas, on form and scoring goals."
Blackburn's chief threat this weekend will be midfielder Bradley Dack, who has found the net 13 times this season across all competitions, including his equaliser in Saturday's FA Cup draw at Newcastle. Leonard is relishing the prospect of going head-to-head with him in the middle of the park.
"I've played against him a few times and he's a good lad and a good player," said Leonard. "I played against him in League One at Gillingham but I think he's playing at the level where he deserves now, he's scoring goals, getting assists.
"It is going to be a tough battle but it's one I'm looking forward to. Hopefully if we can keep him quiet, along with a few other players, I think we'll be alright and hopefully get the points."