Lost Lions: are 57 Millwall hooligans scaring away the real fans?

In day two of our series Lost Lions, we ask: is Millwall’s reputation for hooliganism the reason for their consistently poor attendance?

“Nobody likes us… and we don’t care!”

You can hear Millwall fans chanting this on a Saturday afternoon in South-East London. This sentiment is also scrawled on the St George’s flags, clutched by the middle-aged men clustered together in Millwall’s half-empty Den. This rebellious attitude is a two-fingered salute to those who have ever criticised Millwall for being a violent club.

Millwall’s reputation for hooliganism has come to the fore again in recent months, when two of the club’s FA Cup fixtures were marred by off-the-pitch incidents. Millwall fans made headlines in February when they taunted Leicester City fans after a home victory and then again in mid-March when they were alleged to have directed racist abuse at Spurs forward Heung-min Son in their fifth round tie at White Hart Lane.

It wasn’t always so bleak for Millwall fans. Prior to the Second World War, Millwall were one of the biggest clubs in the Football League but during the war and the decades following it Millwall’s fortunes took a turn for the worst.

War casualties and the Blitz meant that many football clubs were unable to reclaim their former status, and Millwall would suffer worse than most. Severe damage to the Den caused by Germany’s bombing campaign turned Millwall from being one of the biggest clubs in the Football League to one of the smallest.

In the second half of the 20th Century, Millwall became more recognisable for the violent antics of their fans than their football. The club has always had a rough-and-tumble atmosphere; their original fanbase consisted of London’s hardened working class dockers who went to the Den to liberate themselves of the grievances they’d been harbouring for each other all week. But a long string of pitch battles, riots and other skirmishes reached a violent crescendo in the mid-1980s, and subsequently gave the Lions their reputation for hooliganism. It’s a reputation they still haven’t managed to shake off.

This reputation has since been endorsed by a tinsel town brush that has glazed over football hooliganism with a romantic gloss. Films such as The Football Factory and Green Street, which featured Millwall’s hooligans prominently, have made the club appear almost like a violent cult with their football as a sideshow.

But is Millwall’s reputation keeping fans away? Bill May, 69, who owns a business close to the Den, thinks it could be. Bill was taken to his first match by his father  in 1949 when he was only a year old. Now, sixty-eight years later, he still occupies the same seat his father had on match days.

“People took their kids in those days,” says Bill. “Back then, there would have been 25,000 people. You used to get 5,000 for the reserves. You’d get more for a reserve match back then than you would get for a league match now.”

Bill May outside the Den. Pic: Daniel Lavelle

Bill thinks Millwall’s reputation has played a key role in putting off football fans from the Den: “Our reputation f***s us! You see in the old days, in the proper old days, when dockers went to Millwall. They’d all go in, and everyone would be mixed together and they would fight among each other. They were all people who worked with one another and they had their own little issues.”

May  believes the clubs reputation was undeserved and that such hooliganism and violence  took place at many other football grounds across the country at the time.A particular sore point is a a 1977 BBC Panorama programme on football hooliganism:  “I think the BBC just wanted to do a film about hooliganism, and they came to Millwall, because it’s not too far from the BBC.”May believes the programme misrepresented the vast majority of Millwall fans: “It was just bollocks. It was total bollocks, people [the alleged hooligans featured in the programme] were talking drivel, and everyone took the piss out of them afterwards.”

George Lampey, member of the Millwall Supporters Club, and one of the hosts of Lions Radio, agrees: “The reputation is very undeserved. Our community scheme does great work, and the people who work for and support the club are decent and honest people.”

However, statistics on football banning orders suggest Millwall do still go some way to living up to their reputation. Across all clubs in England, 2,085 people are banned from every ground in the country: Millwall have the third highest number of banning orders with 57. They also have the second-highest number of arrests last season, with 69 in total.

And when you factor in Millwall’s average attendance with the other clubs in England, the situation looks even worse. Millwall’s 57 banning orders come from an average attendance last season of  9,108,  – 12 times worse than the country’s biggest club, Manchester United, which had 38 bans from an average attendance of 75,288 last season. Elsewhere, Liverpool had 52,997 with 49 bans; Arsenal had 59,988 with 30 bans, and Newcastle United, who had the most bans with 124, have an average attendance of 51,063.

 

Football Banning Orders

It is highly likely, however, that Millwall’s troublemakers are merely “glory supporters”, only attending the Den for the big games or derbies.

This February, the club were at the centre of another hooligan story, when Millwall fans invaded the pitch after an FA Cup match against Premiership Champions Leicester City. Bill was at the game, and said that the troublemakers were not regular fans: “I take my granddaughters to most matches and there’s never any problems. And then all of a sudden, we get Leicester. I couldn’t get in my usual seat, there were loads of people shouting Millwall this, and Millwall that, and they’re never usually there. And near the end they’re all waiting to get on the pitch.”

However, some believe Millwall’s reputation for violence is not the most significant factor in the clubs fluctuating attendances. Lampey said: “If we were in the Championship our crowds would improve, of course if we were in the Premiership then we wouldn’t have to worry about any spaces being available.”

This article is part of a series titled Lost Lions: where are Millwall’s fans? Tomorrow we visit The Den on match day, explore what Millwall are doing to regain their fans, and how they give back to their local community.

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