Arriving at The Den for the first time was a chilling experience. An industrial archaeologist would glory in the maze of disused railway arches and manufacturing decay, but to a visiting supporter this dark, brooding labyrinth confirmed and then enhanced the descriptions of football annuals of long ago that said the place was intimidating.
Which makes the trip from the old ground to the pristine New Den more of a shock to the system. You arrive with your cynicism heightened by descriptions such as the 'finest football stadium built since the Second World War' and depart wondering how a modest club with a less than healthy bank balance have managed it. Millwall, who open the ground to the public on Wednesday when they play Sporting Lisbon, have moved no more than half a mile but in one leap they have gone in football terms from back-street terrace to a mansion.
Trains still rattle within yards of the main stand and the skyline is dominated by an industrial eyesore, but they are like visual souvenirs from the club's past. Reg Burr, the chairman, says when he took one supporter on a guided tour the man could not believe what he was seeing. 'Is this really for us?' he asked, and it is hard to believe. Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur you could imagine at home here, but Millwall?
It used to be the blue and white corrugated iron which intimidated - now it is the statistics: 20,000 seats, 32 executive boxes, 17 fast-food and beverage stands, conference and entertainment suites, closed-circuit television throughout. The most basic of amenities, toilets, best illustrate the grandiose nature of the scheme. To comply with regulations, Millwall needed to provide 69 but, with concerts and other entertainment in mind, there are 350.
The chairman, who was met by a banner reading 'Here lies The Den - murdered by Reg Burr' at Millwall's last game at Cold Blow Lane in May, says that 90 per cent of supporters were against the scheme when it was first mooted and now 99.9 per cent support it, even though there have been implications in terms of buying players. 'They are sensible people,' he said. 'When the facts were put before them they realised that if we stayed sooner or later we would drift down the League and probably go out of existence.
'Last year's Coca-Cola Cup ties with Arsenal were a perfect example. Over the two legs there was hardly any difference in the size of the gates yet Arsenal took in around pounds 150,000 more than us because their superior facilities allowed them to charge more. When we were in the First Division we could compete with them in terms of football but we were hopelessly disadvantaged financially. How could we match them over transfers, signing-on fees and wages?
'The clubs who have Yo-Yoed between the First and Second Division in recent years, ourselves, Derby, Charlton, Notts County and Crystal Palace, have one thing in common. They don't have grounds that can bring in enough money. They can get into the top division but they can't stay there. This is Millwall's attempt to compete with the big clubs.'
Burr was persuaded by the Taylor Report that an uprooting was inevitable. The all-seater recommendations would have left Millwall with a capacity of only 11,000 even if they could have raised the money to meet the requirements. By moving, the Lions have been able to receive pounds 5m for the sale of the old ground, pounds 2.6m from the Football Trust, pounds 250,000 from the Football Association and pounds 2.6m from Lewisham Council.
This last grant was important for its size but more so for underlining the relationship with the local council which has been fostered by its sponsoring of the club in the past and its present funding of the 'Football in the Community' scheme. Whereas Bristol Rovers, Brighton and numerous others have been stuck in planning quagmires for years, Millwall's application raced through Lewisham's chambers after permission was applied for in January 1992.
Which has ironic undertones because the initial impetus for the community scheme was the club's need to be seen to be doing something after a riot at Luton in 1985. 'That incident had a terrible effect on the club's reputation,' Deano Standing, the club's publicity officer, said. 'Even now, every article in the papers makes reference to it. It also cost us money. What company would want to be associated with a club that to the outside world looked to be supported by a load of thugs. I would accept, however, that it did lead ultimately to closer links with the council which has been the key element in the move. It has been a happy by-product of an unhappy night.'
A concert next month featuring James Brown was announced this week and an England Under- 21 international will be played there in September. 'It's a gamble,' Burr said, 'but only in the sense of changing the basic football stadium into something which can cater for much broader forms of entertainment.'
For the sake of football's future, it is a gamble that needs to succeed.
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