by Kevin Henning

“At 6.45pm the Millwall supporters were taken under escort towards the stadium. As they passed a public house. a group of 30-40 males came out and bottles and glasses were thrown and pub windows smashed. After a short while it became apparent that both groups were from Millwall and each thought the other were Bristol City supporters.”
National Criminal Intelligence Service report, March 2001.

Now I don’t often confess this but from the safety of being behind a keyboard in my own front room, I don’t mind admitting – I don’t actually mind Millwall Football Club. I know, I know, their fans have re-arranged the away ends of most English football grounds and ran amok through town and city centres everywhere, but I find them strangely fascinating. They’re the club that fans dread visiting no matter how poor the Lions line-up. The original crazy gang, the nightmare fixture. Had the writers of Roy of the Rovers come up with a club nicknamed the Lions, who played at the Den down Cold Blow Lane, it’d have been perfect comic book exaggeration to describe a hostile, often nasty, always intimidating place to visit. Have a virtual stroll down Cold Blow Lane on Google Maps and see how intimidating it looks. For me though, some of the true stories I’ve heard about them during my football following life have been stranger than any fiction.

The first experience I had of Millwall was when my team, Manchester City were drawn to face them at Maine Road in the FA Cup in 1990. I was 11 years old and had been allowed to travel to games alone a few times and was looking forward to this cup tie. My Dad had other ideas and told me there was no way he was prepared to allow me to attend this one by myself. We travelled together to witness a boring draw on a cold January afternoon, but it was the day that my interest in the Lions began,

Stewards were attacked, policemen injured and a large number of plastic seats in the North Stand were left in need of repair

My Dad regaled me with tales of his regular visits to South London as a child to visit an Auntie and Uncle. He stayed in a place called Rotherhithe which was just a short walk away from the Den and would take in a match whenever his trips to the smoke coincided with a Millwall home fixture. He told me of the longest unbeaten home record of 59 matches being interrupted by Plymouth Argyle in the 1966-67 season when the Millwall fans took out their frustrations on the area surrounding the Den. He’d been at the home match immediately before the Plymouth game when the record was intact and all was well. Apparently, after finally losing a home game, coaches were overturned, policemen attacked, the clubs own reception and souvenir stall ransacked and all manner of chaos ensued. I’ve never known whether my Dad talks of this day with relief that he missed this game or rues the fact that he missed the carnage by a week or so. He’s no hooligan and was only a child of 14 years at the time, but the fondness with which he speaks of it makes me wonder.

I’ve witnessed similar behaviour from Millwall fans myself. During the 1998/99 season, they came to Maine Road to play out a Division 2 fixture. When City scored two quick goals in the second half, all hell broke loose. Stewards were attacked, policemen injured and a large number of plastic seats in the North Stand were left in need of repair after some of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever witnessed at a football match. This was the day that both Manchester clubs’ fans came into contact with South London’s finest. Whilst on the way to watch United at Nottingham Forest, the red devils’ support were waiting for a connection at Stockport station when Millwall’s fans alighted their Piccadilly bound service in an attempt to avoid being given a Police escort. The two sets clashed in the station and Lions fans had had some fun before even arriving in Manchester. The travelling Londoners thirst for chaos clearly wasn’t quenched and the ‘Curry Mile’ on Wilmslow Road bore the brunt of any lingering excitement.

Millwall are a pantomime villain that I find impossible to tear my eyes from.

My favourite tale of Millwall though is one told to me by a close friend whose first ever football match was a Boothferry Park fixture between the Tigers and the Lions. He has been a Hull City season ticket holder for almost 33 years but believes he will never see a fixture like this one again. It was 1978 and my pal Andy had decided it was time to visit his local team. Much like my own father 12 years later, Andy’s Dad was not prepared to let his boy run the gauntlet of a Millwall fixture alone and insisted on accompanying his lad to the game. Andy and his Dad stood in a stand known as the ‘ ‘ that day, opposite the travelling fans who were held in the Kempton Road terrace. Hull City’s Alan Warbuoys hit a hat-trick in a 3-2 home win but it was other events that captured my friends imagination. Millwall legend Barry Kitchener was sent off by the referee who was subsequently chased by a pitch invading Millwall fan who first legged up the match official before aiming a boot at his head whilst being grabbed by stewards. Bizarrely, Kitchener left the field with his arm around the hooligan’s shoulder. Maybe it wasn’t his playing talent that made him a local hero. The referee was able to continue after receiving treatment which consisted of a heavily bandaged cranium.

Now I would never condone such behaviour and would be ashamed if fellow Manchester City fans acted out any of the above incidents, but there is something strangely enchanting about the Lions. Football is theatre and every play needs a bad guy. From afar, I watch with bewilderment at the antics of an element of Millwall support that the club have long tried to eradicate. Up close, I don’t mind admitting I was scared and disgusted by the scenes both inside Maine Road and on the streets of Moss Side. For me though, Millwall are a pantomime villain that I find impossible to tear my eyes from. Andy the Hull City fan summed it up perfectly when I asked him what he thought of Millwall in a word. “Entertaining.” was his reply. It would seem that Lions fans are wrong when they claim that “no-one likes us, we don’t care”, I know of at least three people who don’t mind them.