Millwall in for a good time, not for a long time

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The Independent Online

A mobile rang outside the ground: "I'm queuing down The Den. It's rocking - get yourself down here. Yeah, queuing! I know. It's amazing; I've never ever queued to get in before. I don't know what to do, I don't know how to handle myself."

A mobile rang outside the ground: "I'm queuing down The Den. It's rocking - get yourself down here. Yeah, queuing! I know. It's amazing; I've never ever queued to get in before. I don't know what to do, I don't know how to handle myself."

Millwall played their first competitive European match on Thursday. The supporters were up for it, even though they were a bit bemused. The players, though struggling to find form in the Coca-Cola Championship, handled it comfortably and were unlucky to be held to a 1-1 draw having taken the lead through player-manager Dennis Wise's free-kick against the vastly experienced Hungarian champions, Ferencvaros. Reaching May's FA Cup final and playing Manchester United was a great tour, and with it came a passport to Europe and another new adventure.

Unfortunately, the mystery mate on the other end of the mobile couldn't come down to The Den, as ticket sales are banned on the day of a Uefa Cup game. "Gonna watch it on Bravo, then? It's a TV station. Remember the one that did the weather with the topless Norwegian bird? Yeah. Well, it's about eight pegs down from that standard." Bravo might beg to differ, but they were the only station willing to shell out a paltry sum of around £10,000 to broadcast Millwall's historic night.

The fans and players loved it, but such is the broader lack of interest in the Uefa Cup these days, Millwall will be lucky not to lose money.

Their chairman, Theo Paphitis, had to shop around before finding Bravo, and the ticketing rules restricted the historic first-leg crowd to just 11,667. Ferencvaros and Hungary have a proud footballing history, but not a wealthy one, and only 245 away supporters added to what was still a cracking and intimidating atmosphere for a feisty encounter; Ferencvaros were fortunate to have only five players booked.

The tie generated such interest that the press box was full, and I was handed a seat in the crowd. Once inside the ground, there were more new Europeanisms to adapt to. One typical response to the Uefa signs indicating the customary ban on alcohol was: "No [f***ing] beer? Is it all worth it?" Financially, the answer is "No". For fun and experience, it's a big "Yes".

"These are exciting times, because it is not every day that you see Millwall in the Uefa Cup," a proud Paphitis said. "It has taken the club just over 100 years, but we are there now. You do not, as a Millwall fan, plan your year around playing in the FA Cup final against Manchester United, because if you do, then you are nuts. But we did play in it and we did qualify for Europe. It is just surreal to see the Uefa flag flying high over The Den, but an honour. Some 300 million households saw the FA Cup final and now know Millwall FC for the right reason. And it is great for so many people to see us in Europe.

"This tie is not worth anything financially. If you get to the group stage you can make a few bob, but no great riches, because it depends who you draw." Peter Lipcsei's late equaliser means Millwall are even more unlikely to make the next phase of the tournament, but that will not stop the Millwall faithful travelling in numbers to Budapest for the second leg, on 30 September.

It can only be hoped that the old-school nutters, who have previously given Millwall such a bad name, stay at home, for the Hungarian supporters' reputation is not exactly holy. They were once known for loading ping-pong balls with explosives before chucking them at rival fans, and were memorably described as "having hatred in their hearts and mayhem on their minds" when they drew Manchester United in a European tie in the Nineties.

Wise's assistant and mentor, Ray Wilkins, just hopes the European tour does not take his players' minds off their main task of winning promotion to the Premiership. "We could win this round, but we are not going to win the Uefa Cup," Wilkins said. "We can challenge for promotion and that is what the players shouldfocus on. If not, they can play in the reserves." Or watch it on Bravo.

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