Millwall fear rows of empty seats will hit European ambitions

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The Independent Online

Millwall continue to be haunted by their troubled past and face making their European debut against Ferencvaros tomorrow in front of banks of empty seats at the New Den.

Millwall continue to be haunted by their troubled past and face making their European debut against Ferencvaros tomorrow in front of banks of empty seats at the New Den.

The club's 'members only' policy means only approximately 18,000 fans - 7,200 season ticket-holders and the rest club members - have the chance to buy tickets for the Uefa Cup tie, and by yesterday morning only 12,000 had been sold.

With no ticket sales available on the day of the game, club officials are resigned to expecting a crowd figure somewhere around the 15,000 mark, with Ferencvaros bringing anything upwards of 800 supporters.

Millwall's manager, Dennis Wise, has pleaded with the fans to snap up tickets by tonight and cheer on his side in what is not only a landmark occasion but a crucial fixture for the cash-strapped club.

"It is a great experience for everyone involved at the club and hopefully we will have a few punters there," Wise said. "I know at the moment we have not sold too many which is a little bit disappointing. It is because of the membership situation, and everything that has happened. But Millwall has changed a bit since I have been here. To get 15,000 would be fantastic. It's a really important game for the club.

"It's always nice to have a full house and have the place buzzing because it lifts you, especially our punters who do get behind the lads."

Millwall qualified for the Uefa Cup via their run to the FA Cup final in Cardiff in May.

Even with security and segregation reducing the capacity of the New Den to a little more than 18,000, there are likely to be thousands of empty seats which were available for purchase by Millwall's members and season ticket-holders.

Wise would love to see neutral fans at the New Den tomorrow but without becoming a member you cannot buy a ticket for Millwall. This policy stretches back more than two years to the riot outside the ground after Millwall were beaten by Birmingham in the First Division play-offs.

The scheme meant the average crowd dropped in the 2002-03 season by more than a third to just above 8,000. It has risen slowly since as the club tried to rebuild the confidence of genuine supporters that they could watch football at the Den without fear of trouble.

"People are maybe worried to come to Millwall. But it is changing. The chairman Theo Paphitis has made sure of that, we are trying to make it change in every way," Wise said. "We want people to come, we want people to come and have a look."

Paphitis is leaving at the end of the season and Millwall desperately need to beat Ferencvaros over two legs and qualify for the lucrative mini-league stage of the Uefa Cup.

Millwall are confident that tomorrow's match - which will be shown live on the cable channel Bravo - will pass off without a hitch and, even though there was crowd trouble at Ferencvaros' Hungarian league game last weekend, they have received assurances over security for the return leg.

Only 1,200 Millwall supporters will make the trip, all of whom are members who have supplied the club with their passport numbers and travel details.

Ferencvaros were one of the clubs Millwall least wanted to draw - they are experienced at European football and have won the Hungarian championship 29 times.

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