The headline in the London Times “sport” section declared the 2014-15 English Premier League season finished at week two, at least according to the bookies. Manchester City and Chelsea were in charge, they said. The rest of the usual suspect teams will most certainly fall into place for another predictable fixture list running through the winter months and into next spring. Leave it to the killjoy Brits to rain down a storm of ho-hum on a pro soccer season just getting started.
I had one Saturday remaining in England, and it was week two of the EPL. London provides an a la carte selection of games, but due to proximity I was leaning toward another trip to Chelsea. It was their first home match, probably a walkabout against yet another newly promoted team Leicester City. The multi-millionaire Blues had crushed Burnley on the opening weekend. I’d watched the second half of that one in a pub called The Swan in Iver, a London suburb, where a boozy skinhead guy insisted I was Canadian.
As the glorious late August morning wore on, I knew I was facing a pricey afternoon ahead if I was to engage in the tiresome single-ticket scalping process outside Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s ground suddenly seemed surrounded by too many tapas bars and gastropubs crowded with many of the same Japanese tourists who dominate other sites such as Windsor Castle. So I went for plan B and hailed a taxi and asked the driver if he could please take me to Millwall Football ground. He said yes, so we were off to the Den with grit on the menu and the resurgent Lions set to play newly promoted Rotherham United FC who were making the trip from Yorkshire.
Millwall—yes the same organization with the “Millwall Bushwackers” tough guys immortalized in the movie Green Street Hooligans— toil in the Sky Bet Championship, the league just beneath the big-time EPL. It’s a fine system American sports could learn from. A playoff among the top teams of the Championship league will determine which teams are promoted to the EPL, meanwhile the bottom three squads from the EPL are sent packing (relegated) to the lower league at the end of the season.
The taxi ride was a lengthy and wordless journey from the fringes of Chelsea in west London to the industrial gutters of Bermondsey in south London. As we sped out of Chelsea I could see from the roomy rear of the cab the doorman at the Bulgari store somewhat slumped as noon approached, though he was not as bad as former England footballer Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne who had been found “slumped with a bottle of gin” outside his residence a few days earlier.
The boutiques and skyscrapers and mobs of tourists soon gave way to odd-angled mini-strip malls laid over former roundabouts with McDonald’s and various lumber yards levelling the landscape. When you cross the Thames the storefronts get tinier and more ramshackle and then box stores appear. As south London oozed in front of the driver, there was an Ali G type of guy on Old Kent Road wearing a New Orleans Saints cap tilted to the side. Soon we passed a Dalmatian mutt straining to poop in a playground. We were bound for Zampa Road.
The quiet cabbie (probably “not into football” as most of them told me on this trip, especially the one with the depressing Yankee Candle air freshener) found the ground with professional aplomb. Zampa Road had plenty of oversized speed bumps, a primary school down a side street and then a phalanx of police in high-visibility vests. The taxi eased into the front parking lot at the Den with two hours to spare before kickoff. I was wearing somewhat neutral colors—black jeans, dark navy collared shirt over a very old MetroStars t-shirt, a navy Fred Perry ballcap, and black-and-white Pony sneakers, all of which clearly placed me in the early 1990s milieu of failed MLS fandom. I had no idea what to expect upon arrival, though I can’t say I was nervous. No worries, then, as I stepped from the taxi and promptly purchased a local fanzine sold by a middle-aged man. I Left My Heart at Cold Blow Lane came with a vintage Millwall postcard inside. It is a 40-page Xeroxed black-and-white zine with its own ISSN. Issue number 13 costs two pounds with plenty to read inside, including the piece on page 14 headlined, “Why I Hate Overpaid Prima-Donnas and the Premier League." It’s refreshing to see soccer fanzines still rolling along outside stadiums and in parking lots.
Another reason it was time to go to Millwall: ticket availability is not a problem. You can walk up to the window and for 23 pounds buy an unreserved seat (ticket has the slogan “Stronger Together” on it) in the Cold Blow Lane section and enjoy an afternoon of old-fashioned English football. The Den has its own undersized Millwall souvenir store, which was already crowded when I arrived, and a KOA campground style “Millwall Cafe” snack bar that was jammed with seniors and families. I bought a questionable cheeseburger from a food truck parked in front of row of auto collision garages which bristle very close to the Den much like the ones in Willets Point, Queens, loom beyond the right-center field wall at Citi Field. On the other end of the Den is a Dumpster storage yard with huge iron bins stacked precariously higher than the fences around the facility. A few dozen yards beyond Dumpsterville is an enormous smokestack plant/transfer station that converts rubbish into power, according to its sign. And in the space between the Dumpster pile and the Den is the “Carslberg Ice Garden” outdoor bar. It’s basically a white tent roof covering a few plastic chairs, one guy standing in the open in front of a keg of Carlsberg and another guy collecting the four pounds it costs to have a cup. Needless to say they were quite busy as there were very few if any Chardonnay drinkers at Millwall.
I stood at a perfect angle to watch fans stream in from a pathway beyond the Dumpster yard and group after group of older, scarred and menacing-looking skinheads walked right toward me. There were groups of four, five and six at a time coming in a steady stream, gesturing toward their pals already drinking beers in the shadow of the Den. Even the kids they brought with them had scowls and the wee ones were the only people without a lit cigarette working their pieholes. The grannies and granddads also had an edge and several less teeth as they greeted their friends seated in the plastic chairs.
But it soon became evident despite the aggro faces that it was all mellow under the sun near the power plant, Dumpster joint and the beer tent. These long-time supporters were all perfectly happy to drink their pre-match beers in the industrial wasteland, which explains the famous Millwall fan chant of “No one likes us, we don’t care!” City planners certainly don’t like them, nor do Chelsea ponces I left behind, or even the hatchet-faced stadium stewards who seemed to be locals who were jealous they couldn’t join them for beers. Thus, the legendary Millwall supporters do not care. They drink their beer standing, showing off nationalistic calf tattoos and wearing lots of Ralph Lauren and Izod polo shirts and ancient Millwall kits. I also liked that there were very few of the ubiquitous Mumford & Sons hairdos floating around the Den. The amount of skinheads would discourage any Hairclub for Men sponsorship and the hipster beard can be checked at London Bridge station, thank you very much.
I admit I teared up a bit when the traditional pre-match song “London Calling” blared over the sound system. Goosebumps. Hearing Joe Strummer’s voice booming over the steam punk-without-irony South London landscape was something I’ll never forget, especially since it was just Joe’s birthday and I’d come from near Bridgwater in Somerset where he spent his final years and The Clash have clearly left their stamp on England’s football culture.
Unpolished remains the theme throughout the Millwall experience. The flags flying overhead on the stadium roof are so faded they are unreadable and as tattered as some of the flags outside the kebab shops near the Surrey Quays train station. The Den itself looks slightly like a kids cardhouse with toothpicks and low angle breeze screens covering the sides of the triangular facades of the four separate stands.
Sitting very close in the Cold Blow Lane end, I noticed more urgency from the players as compared to a Premier League tilt. Millwall and Rotherham were trying harder, as they should at this early point in the season. The ref and linesmen seemed less interested in grabbing the spotlight, with the linesmen making several mistakes that had to be overruled by the ref, who pretty much swallowed his whistle most of the time.
Inside the Den the main advertiser along the upper stand edge is Dean Wilson Family Funeral Directors. The scoreboard in the far corner of the away stand was dark. It never came on during the game. It’s sponsored by the London Bridge Experience with the slogan, “See it. Feel it. Fear it.” Two out of three ain’t bad as most fans had to refer to their own wristwatches to check the match time, and there was no scoreboard per se. I also noticed the ballboys were empty handed. If the ball went into the stands, players had to wait for however long it took to retrieve it. It appeared Millwall only had one soccer ball with which to play a Championship league match! I was incredulous, but had to hide it and remind myself this isn’t fancy Chelsea.
In the hallways under the stands, cold beers, sausage rolls and steak pies are all available for reasonable prices. You just can’t bring the drinks to your seat. For a high-profile place of such renowned sporting danger, there were very few rules posted anywhere within the Den, unlike, say, modern Yankee Stadium II or any U.S. sports facility for that matter. The Den is a venue refreshingly free of corporate stench and the grubby fine-print trickery of bloated insurance brokers.
The fact Millwall was playing relatively obscure Rotherham might explain why the atmosphere at the Den was relatively tame for this game. Had it been local rivals Charlton or West Ham or any of the other London clubs, I’m sure the crowd would have been much larger and more boisterous. The stand opposite Cold Blow Lane held the 200 or so Rotherham supporters who were treated with the usual high-security escort measures extended to all opposing fans who make the trip to Millwall, death wishes notwithstanding. Seeing them boxed into an upper section reminded me of the incredibly lame MetroStars games at Giants Stadium when the New England Revolution “Midnight Riders” fan club would make an appearance and try to intimidate the Metro fans from afar. Too much echo. Too many empty seats—conditions that can, and will, kill the drama.
Oddly enough, the favored Lions didn’t fare so well against the Millers. The home side lacked a killer instinct outside the box and instead chose to pick around with circuit passes waiting for some type of miraculous break in the Rotherham defense. Rotherham’s backline of Craig Morgan, Scotsman Kirk Broadfoot and Icelander Kari Aranson were just too big for Millwall to get by. Boy band lookalike midfielder Ben Pringle netted a decent goal 10 minutes into the second half and that’s all Rotherham needed for an impressive 1-0 road win, handing Millwall its first loss of the young season.
Toward the end of the match, I hadn’t felt so much fan anger in a stadium since my days visiting the Vet for baseball in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s. The aforementioned Millwall grannies as well as the aging skinheads were heavy on the c-word in every utterance. “The liner is a cunt!” they screamed in unison at linesman Daniel Leach as he blew yet another crucial offside call. Everyone, apparently, was a “fucking cunt” for the torturous final minutes of this match.
Still, there were tender moments at the Den. A tattooed dad pinning a shiny Millwall badge on his young son’s sweater, making sure he was warm in the cool breeze outside the season ticketholder’s private Arry’s Bar attached to the stadium. I also heard another dad explaining in great detail to his son in full Millwall kilt why and how a drop-ball happens during the game. Also, the daffy drunk guy in my row (also there by himself) who fell during player intros was helped up by at least four guys in front and behind him. I was a little slow with the helping hand because I wasn’t quite sure why he picked my row and the seat quite near me to perform his soccer version of Foster Brooks.
There was no trouble after the match, either. I followed an ant-colony march of angry skins down a narrow path stretching behind housing estates along railroad tracks and into an area near Southwark Park. I went into a pub called Whelan’s that was brimming with what appeared to be retired hooligans. A cider later I was dodging big raindrops and boarding a train bound for anywhere near Paddington, noting that, unlike most people, I like Millwall.
If you watch the countless YouTube videos about Millwall fan violence, including the BBC’s seven-part No One Likes Us documentary, you’ll see the brick archway train trestle just outside the Den in the background of much of the fighting. Under that very arch I found a slightly bitter man with extremely calloused hands selling tiny souvenir pins of a black velvet tray. There was no one near him except two Arab teens in hooded sweatshirts eating meat patties and drinking large cans of Kronenbourg. I spotted one pin on his tray that I had to have. It’s the size of the dime with the team’s trademark rampant lion and three words around the edge: “Millwall. Enough Said.”