Football: The Lions savour their Den of dreams: Millwall are facing the future with a smart new stadium, which was opened last night. Ian Ridley reports

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Let 'em all come dahn to the Den

AND they duly did last night, singing the same old song but with a different meaning since Millwall moved back a few hundred yards from the Den in Cold Blow Lane to the new one in Senegal Fields.

A good crowd of 17,887 in the all- seat stadium witnessed the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, open the New London Stadium last night as Millwall took on Bobby Robson's Sporting. In an often ill-tempered match the Lions of London took a 16th-minute lead through John Kerr but Jorge Cadete equalised for the Lions of Lisbon four minutes later, and four minutes from time Andrzej Juskowiak snatched a winner.

April anger, when the last vestiges of resentment at the move were seen, had given way to August anticipation. Lord Justice Taylor would have enjoyed it all: not a stewed onion was to be sniffed.

Football's Acid House has become its Mansion House. The details tell of an opulence unusual in south-east London. There will be 32 executive boxes, a 600-seat restaurant, 58 places to buy food, (wholemeal bread for the hotdogs), 80 television monitors around the concourses and 350 toilets.

The finances, too, are striking. The bulk of the pounds 15.5m has come from the sale of the old Den ( pounds 5.2m), the Football Trust ( pounds 2.75m) - which is so impressed it is ready to advance another million - the London borough of Lewisham ( pounds 2.6m) and a rights issue in May ( pounds 3.2m).

The last two illustrate the will required to realise the project. First there has been a rare enlightened council acknowledging the value to its community of a professional football team. Its approval of the scheme when permission was applied for only 18 months ago illustrates how mountains can be moved.

The successful rights issue at a critical time for the project has shown how good ideas can find fulfilment. In addition, season-ticket sales are up 25 per cent and pounds 400,000 has also been raised from an incentive scheme offering discounts on tickets in the future.

It is all a short walk but a far cry from the former fencing and forbidding atmosphere of malice. 'Teams hate coming to the Den,' wrote Eamonn Dunphy in his diary of a professional footballer, Only a Game? He detailed the dingy back-streets, the dungeon of an away dressing-room and the bumpy pitch.

Now the hope is that all will respect their environment and not foul their own territory. Certainly, the theory the fans will respond with civilised behaviour when not brutalised will have the best guinea-pigs in those Millwall fans for whom the adjective notorious has been the oft-quoted euphemism.

'I am a believer that if you treat people like animals that's how they respond, but if you treat them properly they won't,' John Stalker, the former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester and now a special adviser to Millwall, said.

'Millwall fans have a lot of passion but I am pretty sure they will treat this place with respect. It's got to be better than the old Den. The stuff at the end of last season was just frustration,' Paul Rowe, 33, who works in nearby Forest Hill, said.

'The worry is that the football team will get swamped,' said his friend, 27- year-old Steve Burrows, referring to plans by the stadium's American management company, Ogden, to live up to the Entertainment Services part of their title. 'There's not much evidence of Millwall FC around, very little mention.'

The forward-thinking chairman, Reg Burr, has already said that more income must come from Millwall's attendances, and cheapest seats of pounds 10, compared with a previous terraced pounds 8, reflect it. 'It all depends on the standard of football and it's worrying that three players have already been sold,' Rowe said. 'I can afford it but some will pick and choose matches.'

For all the doubts and details yet to be completed, first impressions were favourable. Millwall will have to work on the intimacy, intimidation even, of the old ground - last night's noise was a good start - but the new stadium at least retains football as its focal activity, with an uninterrupted view and no athletics track to distance action.

Gordon Jago, the manager of the club in the 1970s, once wanted to lighten the atmosphere around the Den by getting the council to change Cold Blow Lane to Montego Bay Avenue. This could be Senegal Fields forever.

(Photograph omitted)

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