Confession is good for the goal when late into the Lions' Den

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON THE SIN OF MISSING THE KICK-OFF
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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS we can't get away from confessions these days. Switch on your TV or your radio, and what do you hear? "I love my boyfriend - but I've been sleeping with his brother for the last six months... I got married in secret the day before my wedding, so the guests were watching a re- run... I'm living with my pregnant girlfriend, but I can't keep my hands off her Mum..."

Where will it all end?

And what purpose does it serve? Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. Say three Hail Marys, and talk to a television researcher...

Anyway, call it exhibitionism if you like, but I don't see why I should be left out - so here is my confession. Actually, on reflection, I don't think we'll go into that... but I am willing to talk about the time I was late for Millwall.

"Late" possibly doesn't cover it. Very late. That covers it. Embarrassingly late. Even better.

In retrospect, I can see that the whole thing stemmed from overconfidence. On the day I was due to cover an evening match at the New Den, I visited the offices of this newspaper which, as the crow flies, are little more than a couple of miles away.

I left an hour for the journey by car. To borrow a phrase from Aqua's tune of the moment, "If I Could Turn Back Time", I would have left two hours. Three perhaps. Or perhaps I would simply have left my car and walked.

My problem was that I had to cross the River Thames - not as the crow flew - and all routes were clogged with other motorists selfishly intent upon doing the same thing...

Blackwall Tunnel? Ha bloody ha! Rotherhithe Tunnel? Closed, as it happened, for long-term repairs. So it was Tower Bridge, then. And less than half an hour until kick-off.

Locked into a traffic jam that extended all the way down The Highway to the aforementioned crossing point, I conceived of a cunning plan. Sliding off left through relatively car-free side streets, I arrived at Wapping tube station, gateway to the South.

After parking with a flourish outside some mews flats - so easy! - I sprinted into the entrance and inquired of the man behind the glass whether New Cross Gate was the nearest station to Millwall FC. It was. And when, I asked, was the next train? "Next year."

Wapping tube station was closed due to work on the Jubilee Line.

There is a point in the John Cleese film, Clockwise, when the desperately late headmaster cries out in his torment: "It's not the despair. It's the hope!" All very clever, I'm sure - but wrong. At that moment, with kick-off less than 10 minutes away, hope had left town. And despair felt very bad indeed.

As I inched across Tower Bridge, I tried to derive some comfort from telling myself that there were still 85 minutes left to play. Then still 80 minutes. Then still 75. It wasn't comforting though. Passing New Cross Gate station, I was assailed by a sudden doubt over the exact location of the New Den, being as it was new, and not, by definition, the old Den. I stopped at a petrol station. They didn't know where the football club was; but they did give me directions to a nightclub.

I eventually parked outside some flats and ran towards the floodlights, drawing pathetic comfort from the fact that my ears were not being filled with roars of acclamation or outrage from the assembled supporters.

Then there was a problem with my pass.

By the time I had talked my way in, only two minutes - give or take injury- time - remained of the first half. Frankly, I could not face the press- box - grinning faces, "good of you to turn up" comments delivered in mocking tones, that sort of thing. I sneaked into the press lounge where two ladies were setting out the half-time sandwiches and tea, but most importantly the TV monitor in the corner of the room - oh thank you, Jesus - carried the following information in its top left corner: Millwall 0, Birmingham City 0.

I had been lucky. As the swiftest of the reporters settled to the serious business of loading their plates, their conversation confirmed a lamentable lack of incident up to that point. Bad for them; good for me.

It finished 1-0 to the home side, thanks to a goal - not necessary but thanks anyway, Jesus - in the final minute.

My curious timing was, inevitably, commented upon, and although I toyed with the idea of saying I had been engaged in a Day in the Life feature which didn't necessarily require me to be in my seat, I decided honesty was the best policy.

"So where did you park?" someone asked. I told them. "Ooh," they said, with a swift intake of breath. "You didn't leave it there, did you?..."

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