Even in the this age of stadium sanitisation, a trip to Millwall does make you a little apprehensive. There’s a good reason for that. Picture this: a 17 year-old making his first trip to South-East London to see the London derby between Millwall and Chelsea. Alighting at New Cross, there was a tense atmosphere, a few missiles, stand-offs and police and their canine friends by the dozen. Burly “geezers” with thick necks stood on street corners eyeing the arriving Chelsea fans. That 17 year-old pushed on, not really knowing if he would get back home in one piece. Although the worst that happened to him that afternoon was to be sprayed with a can of beer that had been thrown onto the terrace, he vowed never to go back – certainly not without an armoured car.
I was always aware that a trip to Millwall would be a new experience. I had read that when the Lions’ long unbeaten home record ended in 1967 that outraged fans targeted manager Benny Fenton and then went on the rampage in the area. Millwall was a “hard area”, I was told. I wouldn’t have argued back in 1976 and wouldn’t question it today.
When the BBC screened a documentary about Millwall, they revealed the sinister side of the club’s followers – the systematic way in which their more colourful following went about its business. A character named “Harry the Dog” became national news and a byword for hooliganism. I saw him once, dressed in a pork pie hat and hurling abuse at policemen. The BBC documentary, which the club claimed gave a misleading picture of Millwall, also brought to light “F Troop”, “Treatment” and “the halfway line”. If ever an away fan needed advice on whether to visit Millwall or not, the answer was here.
While Millwall were incensed by this portrayal, there could be no hiding from the facts when the club met Ipswich Town in the FA Cup in 1977-78. It was a high-profile quarter-final tie and was punctuated by fighting, pitch invasions and abuse of the Suffolk club. Down the years, there have been outbreaks of severe violence involving Millwall, notably the game at Luton Town in 1984-85, but the club has made great progress in making their new home, also now called the Den, a more hospitable place to visit.
That’s why there were no fears of a repeat of New Cross 1976 when I attended Millwall v Ipswich. There’s still this air of defiance about some Millwall fans, witness the chanting on the train from London Bridge to South Bermondsey: “No-one likes us….we don’t care…”, a throwback to the days of the “Millwall brick” and the “We are Millwall”. But you only have to see the attempts of the club to engage with youngsters and all segments of the community to know that Millwall are more than that these days. On the field of play this season, though, patience is wearing thin.
Manager Ian Holloway is, to term a popular phrase, “under fire” at the moment. Given his Chairman is a former US Marine, I would be worried if I were “Ollie”. As Holloway walked out before the game, the inimitable London humour came to the fore: “Look carefully in the tunnel, can you see Ollie’s suitcases. He’s out if we lose this one.” The reply was short, sharp and to the point: “He may as well go now, then, ‘cos the tractor men will spank us today.”
Certainly the form guide suggested that Millwall wouldn’t end their current dismal run. Before the game, there was a long queue at the entrance to the Barry Kitchener stand. This wasn’t for match tickets but, allegedly, the queue for refunds after Millwall’s capitulation at Bradford in midweek – a 4-0 defeat in the FA Cup. The chairman had promised to refund the travelling fans because of the club’s poor performance – a nice gesture. He’s also issued a “vote of confidence” just before the Ipswich game (never a good sign), so the honest broker that is Holloway may have more time.
Millwall had not won in 11 Championship games and had lost their last four at home. They last won at the Den was in October against Cardiff City, one of only three successes this season in Zampa Road. Ipswich, by contrast, were going well, although they had lost their last two games, one in the FA Cup against Southampton and a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of promotion rivals Derby. They arrived at the Den in third place, with Millwall in the relegation zone at 22.
Both clubs have been busy in the transfer window. Millwall had seen plenty of comings and goings and five new players had arrived: Shaun Cummings (Reading), Paris Cowan-Hall (Wycombe Wanderers), Dan Harding (Nottingham Forest), Diego Fabbrini (Watford) and Stefan Maierhofer (Wiener Neustadt of Austria).
Ipswich travelled to Millwall with a healthy away following, making for a good atmosphere. Also in the crowd was former Conservative MP Michael Portillo, donning a Millwall scarf! Apparently, he was filming a TV documentary – no doubt something to do with railways, and given the Den sits between two railway lines, there’s no ground closer to the subject matter.
Millwall’s on-pitch problems were clear to see from the start. Defensively, they were dire, with goalkeeper David Forde (not especially popular with the Millwall fans) uncertain and unreliable. In the shake-up being orchestrated by Holloway, 19 year-old Sid Nelson (now there’s a good name for a Millwall player…) was appointed skipper, but also looked unsure of himself.
Millwall were determined to give Ipswich the upper hand, although Fabbrini, on his debut, should have given the home side the lead early on. Ipswich took the lead on five minutes, however, and it was soft and avoidable. Stephen Hunt played the ball through to his brother Noel was allowed to poke his effort past Forde and the watching Millwall defenders.
In the 14th minute, it was 2-0. Again the Millwall defence was caught in the role of “casual observer” as the ball pinged around the area. Kevin Bru’s mis-hot ricocheted off Dan Harding and Hunt was there again to tap the ball home from very close range. This inflamed some Millwall fans, who jumped out of their seat and raced to the front of the upper deck of the Dockers Stand to vent their feelings against (1) Holloway, (2) the referee (who was poor) and (3) Forde.
Such an early two-goal lead made you fear for Millwall’s goals against column, but to give them full credit, they battled back, despite concerted efforts to hand Ipswich another goal through bad defending. In the 43rd minute, Magaye Gueye (who impressed me), shot home to reduce the arrears.
It made for an interesting second half and, for a while, dreams of a Millwall comeback were on. But Ipswich wrapped the game up with a third goal on 77 minutes, Freddie Sears knocking the ball on for Jonathan Parr to run on and shoot past Forde. A little bit a tension spilled over and resulted in some evictions, but at 3-1 to Ipswich, it was a fair result.
I enjoyed my visit to Millwall and although the vibe can be raw, the Den has a buzz about it that is missing from other London grounds. There’s something “against the odds” about the club that is appealing, and I especially liked the “Chas n’ Dave” soundtrack that isn’t just about a pre-match tune. On the pitch, they have a tough job on their hands, but they are not stranded at the bottom and there are plenty of teams around them who are also involved in the battle to stay in the Championship. They showed plenty of spirit in the second half and Holloway’s new signings will need time to settle in. Let’s hope he’s there to see them bed in….