In 1972 Marshall Cavendish were publishing an Encyclopedia in weekly parts entitled “Book of Football”. When they got to Millwall they were scathing, Indeed it heralded the start of the No One Likes Us culture. Life with the Lions
Twenty minutes from the end of the Second Division match between Millwall and Preston at The Den on Saturday 29 April 1972, the 20,000 crowd suddenly erupted, singing and dancing and shouting. Nothing had happened on the field to cause such a demonstration.
Club captain Harry Cripps thought it meant that Birmingham were losing at Sheffield Wednesday. If that was right, Millwall would be in the First Division for the first time in their 87-year history.
Cripps jigged round the pitch. “We’re up,” he told the Preston players. “We’re in the First Division.” Millwall were leading Preston 2-0. There was no danger of their losing. If Sheffield Wednesday could keep their lead for a few more minutes Millwall, not Birmingham, would be joining Norwich in the First Division later that year.
On-the-field skipper Dennis Burnett was less convinced. “I wasn’t going to believe it until I knew for sure,” he said. “Those last few minutes were agonising. We played on in a dream. It was the longest 20 minutes ever for me.”
The twenty or so journalists crowded in the tiny press box were mystified. They knew the score from Hillsborough. Birmingham were leading, not losing. Millwall manager Benny Fenton, sitting in the dug out, also knew the score but his voice could not be heard above the hubbub.
As the end of the game approached, the crowd jammed the touchline, waiting to cheer off the Millwall players. The pressure behind Millwall’s goal was so great that the woodwork began to buckle.
Centre-forward Barry Bridges ran back to appeal to the fans to be patient. When the referee blew for the last time – suspiciously early – half the 20,000 crowd stormed on to the pitch. Cripps was carried aloft and some of the other players lost their shirts.
Fenton slipped round to the dressing room. He knew that the headiest crowd scenes ever experienced even at The Den were based on mistaken information. Millwall were still a Second Division club unless Birmingham were to lose their remaining match at Orient the following Tuesday.
Two minutes later the correct score from Hillsborough was announced and the crowd fell silent and faded away.
In the Millwall dressing room Fenton broke the news to his players. The tension Fenton had experienced in that last hour – so near to a lifetime’s ambition – came to the surface in interviews with journalists, whom he accused of having started a rumour to make a good story.
“Photographers came round to take my picture,” he said. “It was a put-up job. This is a cruel game without that. Those boys of mine are in there now with broken hearts.”
He almost came to blows with one reporter, who walked out vowing never to come to The Den again. But Fenton’s rage was understandable, if misplaced. And the remaining journalists were able to convince him that no such information was put out from the press box.
How the rumour began will probably never be known. But with a crowd such as Millwall’s it is not hard to picture a joker or two launching the false news for sheer devilment. After all, worse things have been done by the fans at The Den.
Chairman Micky Purser vowed he would not be going to Brisbane Road on the Tuesday to see Birmingham’s last match. “I couldn’t sit through that,” he said. But Fenton went and so did some of his players. Orient manager George Petchey said his team would be going all out to win, not to help Millwall, but to prove to themselves they were a good side.
Birmingham, whose support in the packed crowd exceeded that of Orient and Millwall put together, took a lead and held it. Some fifty Millwall fans ran on to the pitch in the second-half hoping forlornly that the match might be abandoned. Fenton accepted his team’s fate stoically. “Good luck to Birmingham,” he said. “They deserved it.”
The evening was not over however. Minutes after the final whistle an announcement came over the loudspeakers: “For God’s sake get out of the main stand.” Police dragged people over the wall out on to the pitch. There was a loud bang – a firecracker as it turned out. Police later explained they had received a warning that a bomb was timed to go off minutes after the end of the match. They could hardly afford to take any chances. Millwall’s tired players went home to bed, and that was the sorry end of their best-ever season.
Had they really wanted to be promoted with a staff of only 16 professionals? “Of course we did” said Barry Bridges. “It would have been great.”
Chairman Purser said the money was available if Millwall had gone up. Weeks later Fenton paid a club record £44,000 for Alf Wood, the Shrewsbury striker. Purser praised Fenton’s work. “He’s all on his own you know,” he said. “He does the coaching himself and he’s also the general manager.”
Fenton, a former Millwall wing-half, took over as Millwall manager in 1966. He was not immediately successful. After one particularly bad result hooligans stoned Purser’s garage in the Old Kent Road. For the next few home matches police had to guard the premises. Purser talked of quitting, so great was his disgust, and this led to another unsubstantiated rumour, that singer Tommy Steele was to become a member of the board.
New Cross, near London’s dockland, is one of the city’s toughest areas and Millwall’s fans do not exactly have a good reputation. Dockers, not noted for their gentility, form a large section of Millwall’s support, and the dockland character reaches even into the boardroom. Director Bill Nelan is the proprietor of a fleet of Thames barges, three-quarters of which are named after Millwall players and one is even called ‘Promotion’.
The club’s history is dotted with incidents involving troublesome spectators. The club have been fined several times and even had their ground closed. The closures occurred in 1920, 1934 and 1950 after crowd disturbances, and in 1947 when a spectator threatened the referee. Millwall supporters wrecked a train returning from Norwich in 1967 and caused most of the coaches to be taken temporarily out of service.
The Plymouth incident of January 1967 added to their reputation as bad losers. When Argyle came to The Den and ended Millwall’s record run of 59 home League matches without defeat, the fans took it out on the Plymouth team, stoning them and smashing the coach windows. The club were again reported to the League.
But the most publicised incident of even Millwall’s eventful history came on 14 October 1967, when referee Norman Burtenshaw was knocked to the ground by a rush of spectators at the end of the game against Aston Villa. Burtenshaw was assisted from the pitch and later claimed to have been knocked unconscious. The League fined the club £1,000, and Millwall agreed to raise the height of the wall running around the pitch. The referees’ association thought the punishment was inadequate, and even threatened a boycott of The Den.
Derek Possee, Millwall’s diminutive striker, soars above Bill Maddren of Middlesbrough Not long afterwards (there were two similar incidents not involving Millwall,) the pitch was invaded at Plymouth and a woman attacked a referee at West Ham. In neither of these cases did the League fine the home club. This, and other factors, made the Millwall directors think they were being persecuted and they wrote a protesting letter to the League. Millwall’s problems emerge nowhere more clearly than in the character of their crowd’s favourite footballer, Harry Cripps. Despite the many fine players who appeared at The Den in the sixties and seventies, despite the worthwhile efforts of managers Gray and Fenton to give Millwall style as well as bustle, it was still the boisterous, robust Cripps who unfailingly drew the loudest cheers.
Cripps has broken the club’s appearance record, has played for them in three divisions of the Football League and has proved a match winner with his aggressive running from left-back and his more recent appearances as tactical substitute.
No sight is awaited with keener anticipation at The Den than that of Cripps jogging on to the field to rescue Millwall from a sticky situation, no moment more noisily savoured than Cripps inducing a panic-stricken melee in the opposing goalmouth. The fans even invented a unique ape-call chant to accompany the more frenzied activities of their hero. Many a side has been unhinged by the frightening combination.
Millwall have played at a number of grounds. When the club, known as Millwall Rovers, was formed in 1885 they played at Glengall Road, Millwall. At the end of that season they moved to Manchester Road. Five years there were followed by a move to East Ferry Road, then to another ground within 300 yards of the old one, and finally on to The Den at New Cross, their present ground, which is across the river from Millwall itself. In the early days the crowd were entertained by an old horned gramophone pushed around the ground on a perambulator.
Millwall turned professional in 1890 and, four years later, became founder members of the Southern League, which they promptly won two years in succession. Millwall were founder members of the Third Division in 1920 and their early years were promising enough.
In 1926-27 Dick Parker set up the existing scoring record of 37 goals. The following season Millwall were the Third Division champions with a record 65 points and 127 goals (still the most they have scored in a season).
The outstanding players in that era were Parker, Jack Landells, Jack Cock and ‘Peanut’ Philips, and, when they left, the club fell back to the Third Division (1934).
Charlie Hewitt, the new manager, stopped the slide in 1936-37 when Millwall became the first Third Division club ever to reach the semi-final of the FA Cup. In four home ties they beat Fulham, Chelsea, Derby and Manchester City, finally losing 2-1 to Sunderland in the semi-final at Huddersfield.
The forties and fifties was a depressing period for the club, and in 1957-58 they finished last but one in the Third Division South and so dropped into the new Fourth Division the following season.
Ron Gray took them up in 1961-62, but they were relegated again in 1963-64. Gray was sacked midway through the relegation season and replaced by another Gray, Billy Gray, the former Chelsea and Nottingham Forest winger. The younger Gray was a tremendous enthusiast and in 1964-65 he took the team back into the Third, and in 1965-66 up to the Second.
Gray had some good players on his staff – like goalkeeper Alex Stepney, later to be sold to Chelsea for £50,000, centre-half Bryan Snowdon and centre-forward Len Julians. Between 1964 and 1967 Millwall set up that remarkable unbeaten home record.
But the unhappy fact was that Gray had been unsettled for sometime before he left at the height of his success. He was a man of strong moral principles, who would not even allow his players to swear. He insisted that Millwall play the same educated soccer that he himself had enjoyed with Nottingham Forest’s 1959 Cup-winning side. The Den fans, strongly addicted to he-man tactics, did not meet with Gray’s approval, and the state of his relations with some players was betrayed by disputes.
Since Fenton took over in 1966 he has tried to give Millwall a new image. He has succeeded on the field. “I’ve not got one kicker in the side,” he said. “I won’t have anyone who won’t play fairly.”