Big time beckons for lager league football team: Rhys Williams meets the players of Milldean FC - the Sunday league side set to star in a new television documentary

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The Independent Online
OVER A FEW beers at the Falconwood Club tonight, the lads from Milldean Football Club in south-east London will face the biggest challenge of their 13- year history - watching their network television debut in a Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary.

The club is already feeling the strain of media exposure. Barry Knox, Milldean's unpaid secretary, arrived at last Wednesday's training session complaining about some of the previews. 'Time Out called me 'corpulent'. Bloody cheek. And TV Times is saying we're the 'all-white, Millwall supporting team'. What's the point of saying that?'

Along with 22,000 other teams in England, Milldean play Sunday league football - a ritual which typically involves battling through pouring rain and raging hangovers to a quagmire of a pitch, where half the team has turned up and the only things dodgier than the refereeing decisions are the showers.

Although there is the odd star, the real flashes of brilliance are reserved for the team names - Real Ale Madrid, A3 Milan, Borussia Munchenflapjack, Norfolk Enchance and the all-women side Old Fallopians to name but five. And Milldean? 'Mill from Millwall because all the lads support Millwall and Dean from Dean Martin because being a bit of a piss artist he is something of a hero for them,' Barry explained.

Words of encouragement from the bench are colourful, but there is no denying the commitment. A fortnight ago, a Nottinghamshire referee dived for cover when the player he had sent off drove a van on to the pitch and tried to run him over. Meanwhile, a south London Sunday footballer was jailed for threatening the opposition with a machete.

It has never got that extreme at Milldean. Earlier this season the team's striker, Lee Flockton, was admittedly suspended for five years and fined pounds 200 for punching a referee twice, but otherwise Milldean's misdemeanours run to no more than the odd two-footed tackle and occasional dissent.

Founded in 1981, Milldean hover mid-table in the premier division of the London and Kent Border football league. Honours have largely eluded them - they have never won the championship and lost in the semi-finals of the cup a couple of seasons ago.

Are there any clues to this apparent failure to bag the silverware? For a start, the goalkeeper, Steve Mandry, is nicknamed 'Blunder'. Cue Mark Hutchins, who has been with the club for eight years: 'We've never had very good goalies and Steve was the first who could catch anything. So we used to call him Stevie Wonder. Then he had a nightmare one training session and Lee Jerome said, 'Stevie Wonder? He's more like Stevie Blunder.' And it stuck.'

Then there is the beer. Keith Lockhart, last season's captain, reckoned that when he joined the club he weighed 9 1/2 stones; within two seasons he was nudging 11. 'That's not food, that's beer. Milldean must be the biggest lager lout team in the world.'

Lager aside, what unites the team is not an obsession with winning, but a passion for playing football and watching Millwall.

The other thing that brings the players together is Barry. He washes the kit, buys the oranges, manages club finances, books the pitches, arranges fixtures and chases up the players on match mornings. He organises the tours, which rarely involve any football, and social evenings at Catford dogs to which partners - 'half the club are in relationships, the other half are young enough to know better' - are invited.

'Outside work, everything else is football, which means running the club and watching Millwall. Then there's the wife for the other five minutes of the day.

'I love football and I'm never going to be secretary of Millwall and earn sixty grand, so I may as well do this and get loads of grief. When we grew up round here there was nothing else except football. If you live in south-east London, you support Millwall. It's in the blood.'

Milldean's zenith came at the end of last season when they played at the Den, Millwall's ground before they moved this year. Standing on the centre spot before the game, Barry was moved to say: 'Your footballing life starts on this spot here and hopefully ends up in the back of the net.' Unfortunately it ended up in Milldean's net six times and the opposition's just the once.

'I think the occasion got to them,' said Jamie Donnelly, Milldean's manager and probably the one person among them not to be overawed. Jamie, now 23, played at Wembley for England schoolboys in 1985 while serving as an apprentice at Arsenal. He was released by the club at 18, and, hit by a series of injuries, never really recovered.

Arsenal's loss was Milldean's gain, Barry said. 'We really thought he was going to make it and when Arsenal told him they did not require his services any more, I thought 'yes, we've got him' - which was a bit harsh.'

(Photographs omitted)