In our match previews on MFW we always try to provide something different and this time we have certainly succeeded.
Martin Penney started the ball rolling by asking Nick Hart – of @CBL_magazine on Twitter and creator of the “Achtung! Millwall” podcast – one basic question and before he needed to ask anything further this is what developed (beware, nailed-on sensible football political philosophy is about to emerge from the depths of Lewisham, South London).
Martin: We all know your song (“No-one likes us, we don’t care”), but what is the spirit behind it?
Over to Nick in entirety from hereon in…
I took an enquiry from a French journalist the other day. In English thankfully. He was doing a piece on Harry Kane’s time at Millwall. In amongst his questions was one which I thought both amusing and thought provoking: ‘Apparently Millwall fans hate Tottenham, can you explain why?’
Er well, ‘Millwall fans hate everyone!’ was my flippant and yet somehow serious answer. As the chorus to one of our unprintable in a family website songs has it, ‘F*** ‘em all, United, West Ham, Liverpool’. Yep that’s right, eight European Cups, untold league championships, trophies galore and er… West Ham. Somehow that is the company that the club’s fans have contrived to keep in the unofficial ‘hatred’ league of which we are champions a few times over. Ask any of them, the feeling is mutual…
So, what’s the truth of our beloved Lions? The panto villains? The Sex Pistols of football? The biggest small club in the world? That’s how we like to describe it. Everything you think it is, is true – as indeed is the total complete opposite. All at once. Life is certainly lived on the edge at The Den and things are never boring, that is for sure.
My first match came back in the dinosaur era of 1972. At the time the Canaries were gunning for the old Division Two title and we were locked in a battle with Birmingham for the second promotion spot. In the end it was triumph for Norwich, who were promoted as champions, but heartbreak for Millwall. A classic side, the team of Harry Cripps, Barry Kitchener and Derek Possee amongst others. The truth is that at my tender age of 12, I didn’t appreciate that this was not just a footballing defeat, but also the passing of an era too. The Surrey Docks that had nurtured the fierce, hostile and enclosed spirt of the club, were on the brink of closure and the traditional industries of the area were closing faster than you could say ‘economic decline’.
As the docks went, so too did the traditional population. And for many years, inner London found itself marooned as a forgotten and uncared-for island in the big city. Millwall’s fortunes similarly plummeted and by the mid-1980s the effects of the national situation and yes, the hooligan reputation of our fans, meant that our much missed but totally outdated stadium at Cold Blow Lane was coming to the end of its useful life.
But, as so often in the Millwall movie, the script always demands great drama – just as you think the plot is fading away to a ‘death in your sleep at the hospice’ ending. So, came the miracle year of 1988. A year which saw us promoted as champions of Division Two into (at last) the top flight, fired by the goals of the iconic duo Sheringham and Cascarino up front and the midfield bite of Terry Hurlock and Les Briley. If you want one golden year of my football life for a desert island somewhere, then 1988 would be mine.
The adrenaline surge of the old Den in those opening months, as we briefly went top of the table and were actually title contenders until the last months of the season, will never leave me. Danny Baker once described a visit to the Cold Blow Lane terraces as being akin to being plugged direct into the National Grid – a description that I can only agree with thirty years on.
Speaking of electric jolts to the system, the experience of top flight football also powered the move to the new Zampa Road stadium in 1993 – a necessary if not loved move. Strangely however, as the years have passed, the rust has set in and the stadium decor has moved toward the kind of ‘prison chic’ that we Lions’ fans secretly adore, the place has wormed its way into my affections. Many teams crumble in front of its intense, claustrophobic and raucous atmosphere – including of course Norwich earlier in the season as the Lions put four past you with our high energy, full powered assault style. Sorry, but you’re the opposition and for that reason alone you have to be shredded on and off the pitch. No hard feelings, it’s just how it is.
As we have said however, life with the Lions is lived on the edge of the precipice. And currently we find ourselves locked in a death struggle with the local Lewisham Council, who want to give the surrounding land of the stadium to a developer. Yes, it’s the old ‘British Virgin Island tax haven company formed by an ex-mayor and head of Lewisham Council repairs service’ routine. You’ve probably heard it a thousand times before. It is however part of a wider story of community versus the power of money, that is currently being played out across the capital and indeed the country. Big issue.
Once upon a time Lewisham Council and Millwall led the way in working together. Indeed the 1988 shirt carries their name across the chest, ironically given the current state of war between the council and our club. The Lions’ award-winning community scheme that led the way in anti-racism, education and outreach schemes, is put at risk thanks to Lewisham’s desire to exclude the club from the benefits of regenerating South Bermondsey. All in favour of ‘Renewal’ an offshore registered developer with some individuals on its Isle of Man board who were named in a French financial scandal in 2014.
The current directly elected Labour Mayor of Lewisham is Steve Bullock, a man who in the past has traded on his working-class love of football and who unveiled a plaque on the site of the old stadium in 2006. He and his cabinet voted 6-1 in favour of allowing ‘Renewal’ to appropriate the surrounding lands and so exclude Millwall from developing an off-field stream of income as so many clubs have done around the leagues.
The club have said that if this scheme goes ahead, we will have to move grounds again. A move which would be a crying shame for Bermondsey and possibly the area that has to accommodate us too…
Met by a fan campaign that fully exploited social media, found wonderful support from The Guardian’s Barney Ronay and even generated world-wide attention when Willow Winston (a local resident ) stood as a candidate in the June General Election, Lewisham suspended the compulsory purchase process. The campaign drew a huge amount of TV and radio attention and served to remind both Lewisham and the wider football world of the huge issues at stake for the game.
As these notes are being written, the football world is giving magnificent support to Wembley FC who are being (incredibly) legally pursued by the so-called guardians of the game at the FA over their name and logo. Next time the Canaries are at the national stadium, be careful you don’t find yourselves at Vale Farm capacity 2,500 by mistake. Easily done. This then is the cultural and economic signs of the times. From Millwall’s fight, to the Combined Counties League Wembley FC, big money sees small clubs as items to be exploited or crushed as the situation demands.
Yes, it’s really true that ‘no one likes us’ and that ‘we don’t care’. That will never change at The Den. But given recent news that Lewisham are talking about reviving their compulsory purchase orders after the success of the fan campaign earlier in the year, our fight is in the end, everyone’s fight. Yours too if you stop and think about it.
We either all collectively fight for the communities our clubs serve, or we become one massive regenerated block of flats for overseas investors. Take your pick, because it is that stark.
There, Millwall’s fight is your fight too. You’re a Millwall fan, but just never knew it … I shall have to email my French journo and tell him too …
Martin had mentioned to Nick that all his family except himself were West Ham fans but he agreed to speak to him anyway. Which, under the circumstances, was taken as something of a compliment…
Cheers to Nick for a brilliant view on the modern state of football.