IF ANY London football club is representative of its local environment it is surely Millwall. Earthy, tough, passionate and defiant – Millwall are not the most appreciated of institutions outside their own locality, but unlike many football grounds today, there’s an atmosphere at the New Den.
Many people might not relish a trip to the New Den, but it is much better than a visit to the old one – especially if you’re an away fan. To me, it has more going for it than a lot of homes of the game and there’s something slightly nostalgic about Millwall that reminds you of the days when a football crowd had a bit of vigour about it and wasn’t preoccupied with “selfies” and videoing penalty kicks with a smart phone. It is not to everyone’s taste – and I am certainly not an advocate of football hooliganism, I witnessed Millwall v Chelsea, September 1976, after all – but I certainly enjoyed my last trip to Bermondsey.
The club could fall victim to the dreaded “d word” – developers. Lewisham Council is looking to regenerate the land around the New Den as part of the “New Bermondsey” scheme – a “groundbreaking neighbourhood bringing renewal to inner London”. Right bang smack in the middle of this is the Millwall stadium, a somewhat uncomfortable neighbour for a “creative and media quarter”, hotels, conference centre, health facilities and a church, along with two and a half thousand new homes. They claim it is an “underused 30-acre industrial site”. Even though the CGI looks very impressive, if I were a Millwall fan, I would be concerned, for when it comes to inner London, developers and the chance to make money, once the steam-roller gets moving it is hard to stop it. What’s more, Millwall is now bordering trendy, with Bermondsey a sought-after area for young professionals working in the city, media types and foodies. It’s come a long way from Harry the Dog and Tommy Steele. And when that happens, places on the map become even more lucrative.
Lewisham councillers have agreed to sell land around the stadium to offshore property developers – the mysterious and hard-to-track Renewal Group is “New Bermondsey’s” partner. A compulsory purchase order was supposed to be pushed through this week, but Millwall now have a month to drum-up support – London Mayor Sadiq Khan is already onside – to avoid being marginalised.
Millwall are talking about a relocation to North Kent if the land around the stadium is sold. One of the attractions of the club’s move in 1993 was that the new site, literally a few hundred yards from the old Den, had room for the club to breath. It’s a dilemma that virtually all London clubs have experienced. The metropolis is crowded and old football grounds are usually hemmed-in by the urban growth around them. Many of them are sitting on sites that could command millions of pounds in real estate development, making them very attractive for the opportunist. Apparently, Millwall offered to buy the leasehold on the ground, for which they were given a 150-year lease, but they were told it was not for sale. The land in question is a site the club currently rents to house its café, car park and other basic parts of the club’s much-praised community activities.
Millwall – attendances down the decades
|Season||Average crowd||League (step)|
|2016-17||9,318||League One (3)|
|2006-07||9,234||League One (3)|
|1996-97||7,743||League Two (3)|
|1986-87||4,304||Division Two (2)|
|1976-77||10,601||Division Two (2)|
|1966-67||16,190||Division Two (2)|
|1956-57||11,545||Division Three (3)|
|1946-47||21,841||Division Two (2)|
|1936-37||19,009||Division Three (3)|
|1926-27||14,173||Division Three (3)|
But are Millwall really serious about becoming men of Kent? It would be a disaster for the club, a county with sub-optimal (and that is polite!) rail services, lots of dormitory towns and a patchy history when it comes to football. Millwall would lose their identity and it is unlikely that the good people of North Kent would welcome the club and its fans. Consider that Kent has just one Football League club, Gillingham. Both the Gills and non-league Ebbsfleet have expressed their concern about a Millwall relocation on their doorstep. At the moment, Millwall’s chairman has just refused to “rule-out” a move but if it came to that critical stage, how would the club fund any such shift? Their finances tell their own story.
Millwall – some key financial figures
|Operational loss||Revenues||Staff costs|
Football clubs around Britain should be warned, however. If Millwall do get squeezed out of Lewisham, the scoreline will be Developers 1 Football 0. There’s always been plenty of public pressure when it comes to football clubs and their homes, but if Millwall do succumb and the finger points to the local council as being pivotal in the process, it would send shock waves through football, not to mention local politics. A solution will surely be found, because if it all goes wrong for one of London’s most durable clubs, the next question will be, “who’s next?”.