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  • Writer's pictureBy Kaz Mochlinski

Valentine's Day massacre sums up the lot of 'unloved' Millwall and still lingering yearnings for the old Den




Valentine’s Day at Millwall.


If you are going to watch a football match on February 14, then it feels fitting for it to be at the club whose fans’ iconic song is “No one likes us, we don’t care”.


There is something dangerously attractive about the completely non-conformist attitude of Millwall’s supporter base throughout the club’s recent history, although they have frighteningly taken it too far at times.


More than at any other London ground, being among the fans can seem like time-travelling back to the seventies. Probably never was a club less suited to moving to a modern stadium than Millwall.


Incredibly, last year the Lions celebrated the 30th anniversary of departing from The Den to The New Den. But the impression persists that their heart still remains on Cold Blow Lane.


The new stadium is located on Ilderton Road, some way from Cold Blow Lane, but it has a Cold Blow Lane Stand. Then again, the old ground was on Cold Blow Lane, far from Ilderton Road, but had an Ilderton Road End.


To be fair, Ilderton Road was the nearest street to the West Terrace at Millwall’s former home, it is just that a long trek was required between the two. But it perfectly fitted the idiosyncrasies associated with the club.


It is a-quarter-of-a-mile from The Den to The New Den, built on the site of the Senegal Fields playground (and, yes, subsequently commemorated with an international played by Senegal, against Ghana, at the stadium).


Despite staying in roughly the same neighbourhood, still beside the railway lines out of London Bridge station, many Millwall diehards refused to make the move to the new arena in 1993.


It is extremely easy to forget now exactly how innovative a club Millwall was, three decades ago. Bravely, there was a deep desire to leave hooliganism and standing terraces behind it by modernising.


Millwall’s was the first new all-seater stadium in England to be completed after the Taylor Report on the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. It was designed with effective escape routes built-in for optimal crowd safety.


It was also the first new stadium constructed for a professional football team in London since 1937. Of course Arsenal, Brentford, Spurs, Wimbledon (and West Ham United) have all since followed Millwall’s lead.


Indeed, Millwall were playing at the London Stadium long before West Ham took that name when they wanted to change the title of their current venue from the Olympic Stadium after the London Games of 2012.


Millwall’s present ground was originally called The New London Stadium, but the club’s fans soon got it switched to The New Den, a name specifically linked to the Lions rather than something general and aggrandising.


The club hierarchy at the time was commendably ambitious, looking to host international fixtures in South London, and being rewarded with England Women and England Under-21 matches. Executive boxes and corporate hospitality facilities were installed.


However, while you can gentrify a stadium, it is far harder to gentrify a core support which was unwilling to be reconstructed. The typical Millwall fan is still widely seen to be the broadcaster, Danny Baker.


His joke about the Police Horse of the Year Show being staged at Millwall, linked to games like the visit of Leeds United, feels quite realistic when the Met’s heavy presence around the stadium is witnessed on matchdays.


The truth is actually that Millwall has lately lost its biggest local rivalries, with the fall of Charlton Athletic and the rise of West Ham, the other London Docklands team from just across the River Thames.


Above all, the Lions were desperately unlucky with the timing of losing their top-flight status, because vitally it happened just before the stadium switch. And they have never since regained that level, not once getting into the Premier League in all the years at The New Den.


It matters more than ever now, with seven London sides in the Premier League, half the total number of league clubs in the capital (including Watford and Sutton United). Moreover, two of the three teams in the Championship, Millwall and QPR, are presently facing the severe threat of relegation.


Even Millwall’s last taste of glory, with a remarkable run to the FA Cup final 20 years ago, feels very distant now. Conversely, after over 30 years, The New Den still seems somehow new, mostly due to the contrast from the previous ground, which was the Lions’ home for 83 years, and as old-fashioned as possible.


So it is strange that the club has dropped the word ‘New’ from its stadium’s official title, wanting it to be known only as The Den, because surely there can never really be another arena with that name, after the uniqueness of the original version.


At the same time, there has been a strong focus on heritage around the club’s current facilities, with “Cold Blow Lane” incongruously emblazoned above the South Stand and the main stand renamed in honour of Barry Kitchener, Millwall’s appearance record-holder.


The Dockers Stand along one side nicely reflects the club’s original backing from dock workers, but on Valentine’s Day there is a sense for outsiders that as much as ever Millwall is hard to love.


The club has stopped producing official programmes, leaving it to committed fans to fill the void with a supporters’ version. And, in a tough moment on the pitch, there is evident apathy in the stands, with huge stretches of empty spaces at The New Den / The Den.


The attendance announced by the club for the Valentine’s visit of Ipswich Town was 15,890, with 2,962 away fans filling their allocated section. But that seems to include all season-ticket holders, many of whom decided against turning up for a late kick-off on a Wednesday night.


The match being shown live by Sky Sports, and other priorities on Valentine’s evening, will have been big factors in the low levels of enthusiasm for this particular fixture. But the precarious league position of Joe Edwards’ team hardly helps matters.


What Edwards has done with the squad following Gary Rowett’s departure four months ago is not without merit. They try to move the ball at pace when in possession, and they are well set-up to challenge at set-pieces, whether in attack or in defence. But there is an obvious vulnerability evident under pressure.


Plenty of the home fans, who came along to the Ipswich game, inevitably headed for the exits after the visitors’ second goal, not staying to see the completion of the 4-0 rout. As well as the usual “Is there a fire drill?”, the Tractor Boys taunted those who were leaving with chants of “It must be your bedtime”.


Very unusually, Valentine’s Day this year coincided with Ash Wednesday, which for many Christians marks the start of Lent and its period of self-denial. You can insert your own joke here, but multiple Millwall fans will consider that they have already been wearing ‘sackcloth and ashes’ since the beginning of this year, and they have had enough.


The presence in the press box of the great Mick Mills was a reminder of an even worse result for the home side - in a previous Millwall v Ipswich encounter, back in 1978, which was one of the biggest occasions ever witnessed at the Lions’ old ground.


The former Ipswich and England captain, who still attends matches as a co-commentator for BBC Radio Suffolk, led his club to a memorable FA Cup win 46 years ago, before they became one of top teams in Europe with a subsequent success in the UEFA Cup.


On the way to Wembley, Mills and Ipswich had to overcome Millwall in the quarter-finals at The Den, and they did it spectacularly, winning 6-1, on one of the days which marked them out as a very special side. Coping with the intimidation from rioting local fans made it even more of a memorable achievement.


The Lions faithful remember probably as many such bad times as the rare better moments. They have needed to develop a lot of resilience over the years. And they will require that in abundance to get through the remainder of this season.


The official Millwall motto is: “A club like no other” - which is corporate, and bland, and undoubtedly accurate in this case. But on this Valentine’s Day, it was a line from the voices on the terraces which seemed to be more authentic: “No one loves us, we don’t care”.


1 Comment


simonturnbulluk
Feb 16

A wonderfully evocative read, Kaz. Captures the uniqueness of Millwall. Brought back memories of my one visit to the old Den: the fear, the thrill, the sheer relief of escaping intact. Rekindled the sprit of Harry Cripps, Gordon Hill and Co.

Simon Turnbull, Tyneside.

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