The young player whose only fight is for health

Partying is not so crucial for Harris, says Alex Hayes, but recovery is
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In a week when footballers and some of the sport's supposed fans find themselves in the dock, it is perhaps worth remembering that not every young player has more money than sense. Neil Harris may be a rising 24-year-old star with a price tag of £5 million, but he has more important things to do with his free time than spending it drinking and fighting. Sobering business, this cancer.

Harris was just 23 when, one routine Monday evening last June, he discovered he had testicular cancer. Instantly, his life was transformed. One of the country's most exciting young strikers, whose 28 goals had helped Millwall lift the 2000-01 Second Division championship, was now looking at life from a very different perspective. The weekly battle to beat defences was suddenly swapped for a daily fight to defend his immune system.

To this day, he can still vividly remember the moment he first felt the lump. "It sounds almost comical now," he said, "but it was just a case of a bloke with his hands inside his trousers having a bit of a scratch and thinking: 'Something isn't right'.

"I was watching TV with my fiancée, Clare, when I suddenly felt something odd. I obviously checked it out. To touch it, a lot of people might have dismissed it, but one of my testicles did not feel right and I called our club doctor the following morning."

The news was not good and, while many men might have kept their condition a secret, Harris decided to act immediately by summoning his nearest relatives. "I come from a very close-knit family," he said, "and on the day I was diagnosed we all went out for a meal at a local pub. For those two hours, we were as close as we have ever been and we had a fantastic night."

By the Friday, Harris had had the testicle removed. "I think it's fair to say that it was a bit of a traumatic week," he said smiling. "For 48 hours after the operation, I was a mess. I would put it all into perspective – or at least think I had – then I would burst into tears again. I didn't sleep for three days, but Clare was always there with me, letting me talk or talking to me, and that got me through the initial period of trauma."

A further shock soon followed. Just a week after he had finished his radiotherapy treatment, Harris found out that Clare was pregnant. "When we got the news," he said, "we were shocked. I didn't know what to think. I wanted to feel excited but I felt so tired and frustrated. The radiotherapy had really taken it out of me. But, eventually, the fact I was going to be a dad did sink in and we are now both very excited."

Perhaps buoyed by the news he was soon to be a father, Harris accelerated his recovery programme in a desperate push to be fit again for the new season. Having been operated on in June and then undergone a lengthy course of radiotherapy, the doctors became suspicious about the speed of his recovery. They were right to be.

After making two substitute appearances in September, Harris suddenly showed signs of extreme fatigue. Tests proved that, rather than being fit and ready for the new campaign, he was actually mentally and physically drained.

"Both myself and the club got carried away with the euphoria of being given the green light," the former Cambridge City striker said. "I was over-training, which made it hard for my immune system. I was constantly tired and could not fight little things like cold sores. In the end, it got close to becoming a serious illness. Fortunately, we realised just in time and we decided we would make sure I was fit enough to do myself justice when I came back properly."

The big return took place on New Year's Day, when Harris was thrown on for the final 20 minutes against Watford. He was delighted just to get a run-around, but did even better by marking the first page of 2002 with a wonderful goal. He had spent seven long months dreaming of the moment he would find the net again, and had even planned a special celebration. Instead, he simply froze.

"I imagined the moment a thousand times," said the man who has received support from another cancer sufferer, Alan Stubbs. "But when the ball went in at Watford, everything went out of my head. I stood there thinking: 'What do I do now?' "

His team-mates made his mind up for him, carrying him on their shoulders to be paraded around the ground. "The lads have told me it was a moment they'll never forget. That makes it even more special for me. Maybe new year equals new era."

The next 12 months promise to be busy. Apart from preparing himself for fatherhood, Harris wants to score goals again and push for a place in the Scotland squad. He also plans to continue raising money for his charity by organising several events in 2002. In one of them, the Millwall assistant manager, Steve Gritt, will head a team in the London Marathon. The 44-year-old is said to be dreading the prospect, although compared to Harris's road to recovery, a 26-mile jog in London seems like a doddle.

Neil Harris Everyman Appeal: