Mention the fact that you’re a Millwall supporter in any kind of social situation. Ranging from a chat over the office water cooler, through to after dinner drinks – or even meeting prospective in-laws for the first time. And the likeliest reaction you will get will be an aghast combination of surprise mixed with horror. It’s true, the reputation of the club outside the thin ranks of its support base is one of being almost single-handedly responsible for the worst excesses of football hooliganism.
A cliche? Well nobody in their right mind can ever say that cliches aren’t based just a little bit in the truth. And I certainly have never shyed away from the damage that the reputation has wrought on the club. But that isn’t the whole story. Not at all. Let me tell you about the other side of the coin – Because the good is as real as the bad. It just doesn’t make such juicy news…
As amazing as it will be for some, Millwall FC led the way in what we have come to call ‘football in the community’ work. Born in the bleak 1980s, the Lions’ community scheme came to be seen as the role model for all of the other excellent such initiatives that followed. The idea that sport – specifically football – could overturn the damage wrought by the hooligan culture of those times by reaching out to the economically deprived communities around their grounds began at the hard-edged, unforgiving Den located on Cold Blow Lane in New Cross.
Whether it was an elderly support group, developing the women’s game via the Millwall Lionesses or even having the first creche at a professional game, it was at the unlikeliest of locations as many would see it where this movement began. To this day the Millwall Community Trust conducts fantastic work reaching local kids and encouraging both education and sport in their lives.
Not only that, the fanzine-led movement to ensure that supporters voices were heard within the game also found a ready home at The Den. Titles such as ‘The Lion Roars’, No One Likes Us’ and ‘Tales from Senegal Fields’ flourished. To this day the club supports two such independent magazines, including my own ‘I left my heart at Cold Blow Lane’. A co-operative fanzine which donates its profits to charity – over £8,000 since we started in 2012.
If the other side of the coin is your thing, I could also take you to meet Millwall fan Sean McCarthy. A man who each year takes two weeks off work to sell poppies at Cannon Street station. Last year he raised over £65,000, how much overall? Over £100,000 would be my guess.
Or else maybe the hundreds of fans who contribute so selflessly to causes ranging from the Headley Court military injuries unit? Or our own pin-badge sales supporting local children’s hospices and even the Peckham foodbank. Millwall of course is not alone in supporting so many good causes. It is to football’s credit that many many other clubs do too. But take us away from the Bermondsey area and – whether it’s palatable or not to some – a large chunk of that community contribution would end and may never return.
Nowadays the football world swims in a sea of cash and these once local small-scale, fan-led or community responses are seen as mainstream business thinking by the biggest clubs. Despite the swirl of money within the game and the corrosive effects of the ever rising London property market, somehow Millwall FC still finds itself able to play its traditional role of being a fortnightly focal point for the area, as well as a seven days a week power for good in the community. Just.
We can all only hope that this continues. Because the club’s relocation away from SE16, the sure effect of not securing a viable income stream from outside matchday takings in my opinion, wouls be a crying shame for all that enjoy their football there. Many see it as an extended family and this is no exaggeration.
Maybe words like community, family and kinship matter to those who are able to influence them. Maybe they don’t. Like all ordinary fans all that we can do is await the outcome of the impending public enquiry with trepidation and hope that they do matter. Because the loss to us all – both fans and local residents – of Millwall FC moving away will be far greater than many of us care to imagine.
Achtung! Millwall podcast
CBL Magazine editor