In the final part of our series Lost Lions: where are Millwall’s fans? we visit The Den for Millwall vs Port Vale to soak up the match-day atmosphere and explore what the club is doing to win back the fans.
Whiffs of vinegar and ketchup from the burger stands dotted along Bolina Road waft over the blue and white shirted groups of Millwall fans , as they head towards The Den, catching up on the weeks football gossip.
There is a comforting familiarity in these matchday scenes which are experienced by thousands of football fans every week, except one thing. It’s quieter.
There were none of the battle cries of fans that typically punctuate a walk from the nearest train station to the ground among those heading towards The Den. In fact, the overall atmosphere was very, well, tame. And that’s not a word people associate with Millwall, particularly after the scenes at White Hart Lane a few weeks ago where their FA cup tie with Tottenham was marred by alleged racist abuse targeted at Spurs forward Heung-min Son following violent clashes with the police.
Outside the stadium, the atmosphere remains chilled. There are fewer people milling about than I expected – though with an average attendance of under 9,000 I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. Perhaps the prospect of a tie against Port Vale meant the crowd was not exactly buzzing – with no disrespect to Port Vale.
The pre-match atmosphere couldn’t have been friendlier. Opposite the ground, fans hang about Millwall café, munching on their cheesy chips and burgers. The café has set up picnic tables and a burger van by the entrance. There are few police in sight.
Turn right towards the car park, and there are indications of a club under siege. At the far end of the car park a blue double-decker bus with the words ‘Save Our Den’ printed onto it has attracted a significant crowd around it. As well as this, banners line the fences voicing opposition to Lewisham Council.
Millwall’s identity as a club has been put under threat, and drawn overwhelming support from the football community as a result. Lewisham Council is trying to sell land The Den sits on to an offshore company called Renewal in order to build flats and offices, despite the fact that Millwall have said they will build what they must in order to keep the land. This could potentially force the club to relocate.
“Am I worried? Yes I am,” says Brian, a representative from the ‘Save Our Den’ campaign group.
“This company – Renewal – all their money is abroad,” he continues. “From what I’ve heard, they’re broke. Whether right or wrong, they’d get it through a CPO [Compulsory Purchase Order], and then sell it off to friends of theirs. Obviously I hear comments from supporters and the like and we just think it’s ridiculous that a socialist council have gone for rich people who haven’t got an office in this country over our chairman [Berylson].”
Outside the bus, a large crowd has gathered as former players pose for photographs and sign autographs as part of ‘Dockers Day’ – a day to celebrate Millwall’s history.
There is certainly an older demographic than one would think, considering the club’s reputation. Under a marquee, groups of older fans share drinks and jokes with the easy camaraderie of those who have been going to games together for years.
A much younger element comes into view right beside the stadium, where young children and their parents stream out of the Millwall Community Trust. The Trust is a centrepiece outside The Den, and attracts a lot of attention. Clearly it is very important to locals and fans seem to be very proud of the work it does, and very proud of their club.
Inside, the receptionist, taking down balloons in a full Millwall tracksuit, explains that they open the indoor AstroTurf pitch and put on football-related activities for kids every home game. Today, they have set up a bouncy castle and the under-23 team are mingling inside. Anyone can rent the pitch during the week.
The Trust also runs schemes such as the Disability Pan Programme, allowing anyone with a disability to get involved in a variety of sports, as well as a walking sports scheme for over-fiftys.
The Trust was the first of its kind when it was set up in the ’80s, and has been heavily involved in the community ever since. More recently, it was involved in the successful campaign to save Lewisham Hospital A&E.
Charlie Smith, Deputy Mayor of Southwark Council, says he has seen first hand the work the Trust does in the Docklands Settlement in Rotherhithe, where it helps mental health sufferers take part in sporting activities. What’s more, the Trust has allowed him to play football again as part of the over-fiftys walking football scheme: “It gives us older people the opportunity to return to the game we all love but had to stop because of our years. You can play the game at a slower pace and everyone gets on with each other. For some, it will be the only opportunity they have to engage with other people.”
Perhaps Millwall do not deserve their reputation as a violent, dodgy club. Potential fans might be warned to stay away, but this is unfair, and people are beginning to realise this. The media has picked up on their fight against Renewal, and the football community has made their support vocal.
Despite an average home attendance of under-9,000 so far this season, nearly 20,000 people have signed the petition urging the council not to sell to Renewal. Clearly the support the club enjoys among the people of south London goes further than simply matchday attendance.
This, along with the work the Trust does (with a focus on potential hotbeds of Millwall supporters) should be helping the Club win back their reputation – giving optimism for the future for what many now see as a likeable, friendly club.
As the club’s Chief Executive Steve Kavanagh told The Telegraph: “With what’s happened recently, people have had a glimpse underneath the skin of what we do.”
“And having seen that, they realise: ‘You know what? We actually quite like Millwall.”