Millwall FC

21 Nov

20 November 2011

The Championship

Millwall FC 01  v  Bristol City 02 (att c.10252)

The New Den, Bermondsey

Team Talk. It seems like I’m never getting to blog a Saturday at the moment. Today’s trip is a Sunday lunchtime jaunt down to Millwall.

Millwall are the closest professional club to Central London and, along with Charlton and Palace are, I suppose, the ‘big’ clubs in South London. Without a doubt, the club is synonymous with South London despite being named after and founded after an area on the Isle of Dogs, north of the Thames.

Originally a factory team with a rich Scottish heritage (hence the blue and white colours), Millwall Rovers played their first game in 1885 in a field behind the warehouses and factories of the old docklands.

Over the next 25 years, Millwall used three other sports grounds in the Cubitt Town/Millwall Dock area before finally moving to south to New Cross/Bermondsey.

Humble beginnings (c) Millwall History Files

With the change of home, came a change of names as The Dockers of Millwall Athletic (having already ditched the Rovers moniker) became the The Lions of Millwall F.C. Their new ground, The Den, would be home for the next 83 years before the wholesale redevelopment of the area led to the club moving to a site a few hundred metres along Cold Blow Lane. Named in honour of the old ground, The New Den has been Millwall’s base since 1993.

In Memoriam

Plenty’s been written about Millwall’s more recent history but I suggest you check out the wonderful Millwall History Files website if you fancy a delve into their last 40 years or so. I’m most interested in possibly the greatest gift Millwall has given the football, no not Eamon Dunphy, but the Southern Football League.

Millwall Athletic were instrumental in founding Southern League – now established as one of the main pillars of the non-league pyramid – and went on to win it in its inaugural season and again the following year. The Southern League continues to grow in dominance and from a small London based league (that also lists Fulham and Tottenham as former winners) to the current incarnation, stretching the breadth of the country to Cornwall. It’s all thanks to the founding fathers in the Millwall docks.

Millwall’s more recent past is slightly more dubious, riddled with tales and allegations of hooliganism and racism. I had always suspected that, like the BBC’s slanderous depiction of Peckham in Only Fools and Horses (actually filmed in Acton and Walthamstow), Millwall’s reputation has been equally tarnished by a media hell-bent on finding a South London scapegoat for all of its ills. The 80s were dark, miserable days for English football and Millwall was undoubtedly embroiled in that, but they weren’t alone. Sadly, it’s a tag that’s stuck with the club and which, I suspect, is keeping a good few people away from the ground.

Make no mistake, I wasn’t expecting to encounter many angels down at The New Den but I wasn’t expecting the Mos Eisley Cantina either.

Today’s opponents, Bristol City come under the leadership of relatively new boss Derek McInnes. Both sides are sitting in the bottom 6 just a few points from the foot of the table. That said, they’re also just a handful of points from the playoffs, such is the wonderful merry-go-round of the Championship.

Park the bus.The New Den is a simple 5 minute train ride from London Bridge (alighting at South Bermondsey). However on this day, Southern Trains had seen fit to cancel the trains and supporters were reliant on replacement buses.

Millwall's rail replacement service in operation. If only.

South Bermondsey station isn’t one to be missed though. A particular highlight is the sheltered seating which on matchdays turns into a police holding area for those who decide to get a wee bit Danny Dyer in front of the Old Bill. Despite an elaborate maze of segregated walkways that keep The Lions away from their prey (see what I’ve done there), the two sets of supporters are allowed to mix freely on the platform. Sensible stuff.

Homefield advantage. The New Den is a ground I remember fondly from my childhood. For you see, Millwall once had a ground sharing partner. From 1997 for ten glorious years, The New Den was converted into the Dragon’s Lair, home of Harchester United, Sky One’s pioneering Dream Team. So whilst Wise, Harris and Cahill plied their trade for Millwall one week, great names of European football like Karl Fletcher, Paul Linger and Luis Amor Rodriguez took to the field the next.

In the absence of a Harchester United game in the near future, I was ready to sit amongst my Transpontine brethren and support the Millwall cause.

The New Den’s location isn’t quite as picturesque as some. Four identical stands loom up out of a south London industrial quarter. Behind a waste incinerator and alongside grizzled railway arches doubling up as mechanics and workshops, I can think of few less attractive settings in the Country, only Sittingbourne comes instantly to mind. But even Sittingbourne isn’t guarded by a terrifying milita of bears.

In the future, this is how all wars will be fought

Once you’ve made it past the bears and you’re in the shadow of the stadium, it feels all very familiar. Merchandising was disappointingly average and not at all tacky. Actually, most of it was of a much higher quality than that found at a number of league grounds. Sadly, no real novelty goods on show.  I was slightly shocked at the lack of unofficial merch vendors. From my scan, I only found one trader although most of his stock was anti West Ham and not pro South London. I can’t help but feel like he’s missing an opportunity.

I'll take a scarf, a novelty foam hand and a horse please

The whole place feels as mass-produced as the clocks in the shops and wasn’t at all like the Millwall I was expecting (somewhere between Ibrox and Basra). Instead it felt very 1990s but I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s sanitised, it’s most definitely not, but it’s a lot more Men Behaving Badly than Football Factory.

Sunday lunch. South London style.

After our jaunt round the local perimeter, we headed through the turnstiles and into our seats. I’m quite convinced that this compact little ground has one of the best atmospheres in London. The New Den is designed not so much to enhance the supporter experience, but more so to allow the support to get closer to the action. Even from our first half lofty position in the top deck of the Cold Blow Lane Stand, we still had an excellent view and didn’t feel at all detached from the action. The lower tier, whilst close to the action and some of the local characters, has a very shallow rake and makes for some less then perfect viewing angles.

The atmosphere is really something else. Patience is clearly something the good people of SE16 were born without. “Wake up, you C*nts!” That was the second minute after a perfectly timed interception. The support is not so much angry as livid. Expectations are clearly high, relegation is not an option. “Kenny Jackett, change it up you fucking c*nt”, that was 10 minutes in. It continued for the entire game from every single quarter of the support with the final insult coming a few minutes before the end when a bunch of under-10s caught a stray matchball and didn’t immediately return it for the throw-in, provoking volleys of “Give him the fucking ball back” (mostly from the disappointed parents) who no doubt blamed the loss on the kids. Rightly so too. Every second counts…

Prawn sandwiches. There are a couple of options outside the stadium, an arry of takeaways line the surrounding roads, one offering “Spageti Boglnese”. Needless to say, we didn’t order anything. Once in sight of the ground, there are plenty of traditional burger caravans but the most popular option seemed to be the Millwall Café, a large en bloc facility by the main club shop. The queues were moving swiftly but I couldn’t be bothered with the wait, although the battered sausage looked pretty damn good.

The Caff

As we wondered round, we encountered ‘Arry’s Bar, a private members establishment in the West Stand for season ticket holders. More akin to dodgy night club than the executive suites at the Emirates (or the Champion Hill bar), it’s safe to say that we didn’t feel like we’d missed out by not getting in.

If your name's not 'arry, you're not coming in

There are a series of snack bars and stalls inside the ground under the stands. These were not cheap. Drawn away from the expensive Carlsberg which I knew would be abhorrent, I thought I’d chance a cider. Big mistake. A 500ml bottle of unbranded £3.80 cider at 1pm was not my smartest moment and as every drop of moisture was seemingly extracted from my body by this pint of dry acid, I decided that Bovril would have been a much cleverer move.

…and the game. Whilst entertaining, the game was rarely captivating. Bristol took an early lead through Nicky Maynard and looked in control throughout. I suspect they won’t be in the bottom half come the end of the year. They played with a controlled aggression that Millwall really struggled to break down. Millwall’s creativity vanished as soon as Brian Howard was substituted. Darius Henderson looked to make an impact but struggled and too was replaced by former Lincoln and Rangers man, Dany N’Guessan, Millwall code name: Danny Doughnut.

Liam Feeney stood out as the most talented man on the pitch but was tightly guarded all game much to his frustration. The equaliser was a well worked effort and marked Jay Simpson’s only contribution and he nearly missed that too. Maynard picked up his (and Bristol’s) second goal just 5 minutes later and despite a handful of half-chances, Millwall couldn’t really muster another comeback. I think they’re in for a long hard season.

Man of the match. This weekend was family weekend at Millwall. Instead of taking a child along with me, I took a man with child-like exuberance for the beautiful game, Mr Rogue Cannons of the famed Ode to the Wee Red Book blog. Family fun was all over the place at The New Den. Of particular interest was Zampa the Lion. Not Zappa the Lion as I had casually read. Whilst a moustachioed guitar-wielding mascot would have made my day, if not my year, Zampa was an adequate replacement. No Sammy the Tammy, but good value nonetheless and certainly better than the programme write-up which listed special family activities as hip hop classes (BOOM! Straight Outta London), face painting and entertainment from Zampa, with the insinuation that most of the time, poor Zampa does very little entertaining.

Zampa’s highlight was supposed to come when he took on Bristol mascot, Scrumpy, in a relay race. Sadly, Scrumpy bottled it and Zampa had to make do with a penalty shootout against some kids to the soothing sound of Walking in Memphis. Not ideal for a Lion physically and mentally prepared for a sprint. Never one to shirk in the face of adversity, Zampa was determined to pick up a clean sheet by making a couple of spectacular saves. Disappointingly, someone had a word and he started letting them slip past him.

Everyone cheered as Zampa’s antics kept the surly crowd from revolt…well everyone except an angry little boy sitting in front of us who proceeded to boo Zampa, boo the penalty takers and boo the junior team who ran round the pitch before the second half: “BOOO! BOOO! Especially YOU number 9! Booo!” Tough words from the kid who also proceeded to give David James in the Bristol goal an earful throughout the second half. Joint MOTM honours for Zampa and the angry little boy.

Zampa. Take a bow!

Post-match rubdown. Look, I know non league football is somewhat of an acquired taste. I know it’s not everyone’s bag and I know that some people are genuinely interested in bigger, arguably higher quality games. If you fall into that category, Millwall would be a fine team to go and visit. Much like their neighbours and rivals Charlton, there’s a real sense of community but I’d say it’s far more introspective in Millwall. The old notion of ‘no-one likes us, we don’t care’ has never rung more true. As a kid who always cheered for the bad guy in panto/films/Button Moon, I like that attitude a lot.

If you’re in the New Cross-Peckham-Camberwell borders, I’d still recommend a trip to Dulwich Hamlet on a Saturday afternoon, but if like this weekend, you can do both, then leave your preconceptions at home and take a trip to the New Den. You won’t be disappointed but it’s not for the faint hearted.

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