Old prejudices haunt the New Den defender

Paphitis hits back at the detractors as Millwall stand 180 minutes from an unlikely European odyssey

Despite being a man who has made much of his personal fortune out of lingerie, Millwall's ebullient chairman Theo Paphitis insists he is not one for covering up sensitive particulars. The driving force behind La Senza and Contessa (as well as the stationery firm Rymans) just wishes that the same embarrassing old matters had not been exposed once again in this particular week.

Instead of revelling in the anticipation of an eminently winnable FA Cup quarter-final at home to Tranmere Rovers, the club have been on the back foot, answering accusations of racist abuse posed by the manager and the most high-profile supporter of their victims in the previous round. When Burnley, beaten 1-0 at the New Den in the fifth round, returned to lose an equally fractious game 2-0 in the First Division last weekend, their manager, Stan Ternent, claimed that his left-back Mohammed Camara had been the subject of monkey chants.

Alastair Campbell, journalist turned spinmaster turned journalist, agreed, though he admitted that some of his fellow Burnley supporters - "a few too many to turn on" - had retaliated by abusing Millwall's non-white players.

Soon Paphitis was defending the home support, saying it was routine booing regardless of colour after a bad tackle in the previous game; Ternent was accusing him of "hiding his head in the sand" and muttering about a BNP stronghold; and Frank Maloney, the boxing manager and Millwall fan, was defending a crowd that he is apparently happy to take his three-year-old daughter into (she must have a rich vocabulary for her age by now).

In a series of pre-match interviews on Friday, Paphitis tried at first to avoid the subject, but was later honest enough to confront the issue of the club's reputation for racism and hooliganism that has remained the bane of his seven years as chairman. "We were founder members of the 'Kick It Out' anti-racist campaign and we were described by [former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality] Lord Ousley as a beacon against racism," he said. "We treat racism with zero tolerance. Our community's a mixed-race community and they love us."

As a first-generation immigrant - he arrived from Cyprus as a six-year-old just in time to watch his first football match, the 1966 World Cup final, on television - he takes these accusations personally. Consequently, the frustration after all the work Millwall have done, which includes banning 200 people from the ground, has at times tempted him to go back to his bras and biros.

"You want to enjoy it. That's what's disappointing about the Burnley game. It would have been nice just to enjoy a bit of success. I don't mind people having a go as long as they're right. I say to my customers, 'Thank you for telling me if something's not right'.

"I want to know if fans misbehave, I don't want to sweep it all under the carpet. But what saddens me is we're an easy target. You feel like saying, 'I can't be bothered any more', but after you've calmed down, it gives you that inner strength. No, we're not gonna give in, so we just pick ourselves up and work harder."

Reputation is everything, and not easily changed. His own was established as someone who could take an ailing business and turn it round, which seemed the ideal qualification for taking on Millwall Football Club in 1997. "We'd started the fad for building a new stadium then going bust, followed by many clubs afterwards."

He soon learned that business is business and football is... well, different: "Business is dead simple. If you do A followed by B, the outcome 99.9 per cent of the time will be C. In football, you do A followed by B and still don't know what's gonna happen. Not only are you relying on human beings out there, but there's another 11 buggers trying to stop them. The highs are very, very high and the lows are very, very low. To anyone who takes drugs I'd say, 'Pack it in and use the money to come to football'."

And what will they find down at the New Den, squeezed in between the railway bridges and housing estates? A team of triers - Millwall Man will tolerate nothing less - who have blossomed since the brave appointment last October of Dennis Wise as player-manager in succession to Mark McGhee. When Wise ("an infectious character, a winner who I think will go all the way") suffered the Manager of the Month's usual fate last Tuesday by losing at Sheffield United, it was his team's first defeat of 2004.

Daniele Dichio from West Bromwich Albion has been the only signing, after much haggling, but the added impetus to Millwall's attack has propelled them into the play-off positions, with that tantalising vision of the promised Premiership land.

Given the luck of the FA Cup draw (Walsall, Telford United, Burnley and now Tranmere) they are also on the verge of a first semi-final since playing Sunderland as a Third Division South club in 1937. A repeat of that meeting and Paphitis could be filling out the bulky Uefa Cup form that arrived on his desk last week: "We've put it to one side for the moment. But we're 180 minutes from Europe. And I don't mean by easyJet."

A fat television fee for this afternoon's game has brought in some much-needed cash for a club who recently declared a £1.2m loss, which would have been more than double but for selling the Irish international Steven Reid to Blackburn Rovers. Existing on crowds of 10,000, they are not scheduled for a single home televised match all season apart from today's, so money is tight. Just as important, Paphitis believes, is the chance to showcase the club round the world and spread the gospel of New Millwall.

Asked to identify himself for a radio interview, he says: "I'm Theo Paphitis, chairman of the best club in the world." Drugs, who needs them?

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