Paphitis urges Millwall to prize of respectability

England's most notorious club is changing its image. Work in the community and a membership scheme impress Glenn Moore
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Millwall discovered a century ago that mud sticks. One of their early grounds was built on mud dumped from excavating the London docks. One opponent remarked after falling in it: "The smell wouldn't come off for weeks."

Millwall discovered a century ago that mud sticks. One of their early grounds was built on mud dumped from excavating the London docks. One opponent remarked after falling in it: "The smell wouldn't come off for weeks."

It is an odour of a different kind Millwall are seeking to dispel in Cardiff this weekend. The FA Cup is a big prize but Millwall are aiming for something far more important. The most notorious club in England is seeking respectability.

When the media descended on the Den this week there were as many questions about hooligans as players. This was inevitable. Millwall hold the record for ground closures, prompted Margaret Thatcher's failed attempt to bring in a national membership scheme when their supporters rioted at Luton, and remain a byword for football hooliganism. As Kasey Keller, Tottenham's American goalkeeper, has recalled, when he told one of his University professors he was joining Millwall the response was "Heck, they kill people there". Even the word hooligan is thought to originate from a family of similar name who lived in the Old Kent Road in the 1890s.

Understandably, the pros-pect of thousands of Millwall fans descending on Cardiff, whose own support have an equally fearsome reputation, has police and local residents nervous. Everyone who cares about Millwall fervently hopes there will be no serious problems. There is reason to believe they could be right. If so, it will reward years of hard work.

Theo Paphitis, the current chairman, receives and deserves much of the credit but the story goes back to that 1985 riot at Luton. The headline-grabbing response was the opening of a crèche. Less eye-catching, but more significant, was a pioneering community initiative launched with a supportive Lewisham Council.

This broadened the community's stake in the club, but problems continued, culminating in a riot two years ago this month after the play-off defeat to Birmingham. Two cars were torched, and 47 police and 26 police horses injured. Paphitis bit the bullet and introduced a membership scheme. A few miles away, in Dulwich, Lady Thatcher must have smiled.

The membership scheme, though it only applies to high-profile matches, has been a resounding success. The club has suffered no serious incidents since and arrests are among the lowest in the division. Unfortunately it has also cut gates, by 35 per cent in its first season, with only a mild recovery this campaign. As one supporter, writing in When Saturday Comes, comments: "Perhaps a hefty percentage of our following really were hooligans, simple as that."

Paphitis denies the scheme is costing the club a fortune in lost revenue. "It is very cheap. We are turning away casual walk-up for a few games - compare that to the possibility of those people who don't support the club, but come because of the reputation, coming and the possible consequences." In addition, policing costs are down.

Paphitis added: "I've drawn a line under the dark days a long time ago, but other people haven't. If we sneeze here it is an earthquake. I've constantly tried to explain to our fans, we're under the microscope. We might think it is unfair but we have to live with it. It just means we have to work harder than anyone else."

That hard work can be seen on a weekly basis on the estates of Lewisham and Southwark where the Community Scheme's Social Inclusion programme hosts regular free football coaching sessions. Up to 5,000 children, boys and girls, aged 6 to 16, are involved on around 15 estates with plans to double that. Careers advisers and drugs outreach workers attend sessions, many of which are taken by locals who have earned coaching qualifications through the programme. An inter-estates league is being run this summer in harness with Charlton Athletic's own renowned scheme.

Abbie Walsh, a former player with Millwall Lionesses, heads the programme. "It is very tiring but very rewarding," she said. "We are building community cohesion and increasing self-esteem. It is hard to monitor the full impact but feedback from police suggests that, when the sessions are on, crime is reduced." It is a far cry from "Mad Dog" of F Troop taking on the away end in the infamous Seventies Panorama programme on Millwall. But back then few would have imagined a first-generation immigrant, like Paphitis, becoming chairman.

Paphitis came indirectly to Millwall not taking an interest in them until he moved to Peckham at 17. He had arrived at Liverpool docks as a six-year-old in 1966, his parents having emigrated from Cyprus. The family settled in Manchester and young Theo soon became an Old Trafford regular. "I used to bunk off school and watch the reserves," he said. "It was free. All you needed was the sixpence bus fare - if you paid that.

"Then my father [a musician] was involved in an accident in London and was put in traction. The family moved down. We lived near Highbury and I started going to Arsenal. It was during the Double era, but coming from Manchester I could not find it in my heart to support Arsenal.

"At 17 I met my missus. She was from The Oval and her family were all Millwall fans so I went to a few games. I'm a bit of a maverick, Millwall was always a club that was likely to attract me. I had a connection with Manchester but everyone was a Man U fan, so Millwall it was."

Having made his fortune building Rymans stationers, Paphitis came on board with the club on the verge of extinction. The new Den, to which the club moved in 1993, had been a financial burden. In the long-term, however, it should be worth it. The club would never escape its image at Cold Blow Lane, arguably the most intimidating ground in England.

Many years ago a Lewisham policeman told me after a match there with Leeds: "Their players said when they took throw-ins they could feel themselves quaking because of the baying behind." That Millwall once held the record for an unbeaten home run, 59 matches from 1964-67, is no surprise, nor that the Den rioted when it ended.

Ray Wilkins, Millwall's assistant manager, recalled with a roll of his eyes: "I played at the old ground, that was intimidating. They were hanging off the fences and it wasn't very pleasant. It was all right if you were losing but I won there once with QPR and that was tough.

"But they've worked extremely hard to tackle that image. I'm sure the final will show people that this club has turned around and is supported by a good bunch of blokes."

There was no sense of menace this week as cars passed adorned with mini-Millwall flags and blue and white streamers. Outside the ground - still pristine 11 years after being built, a result, said Paphitis, of fans feeling that it belonged to them - a regular stream of fans visit the club shop. A Smart car, driven by two smart 30-something females, pulls up to buy more merchandise, the team's FA Cup final song booming out of the speakers. It is not the famous anthem "No one likes us, but we don't care", though that is being sold as a banner.

It is not true. They do care. Paphitis and Walsh will know they have cracked it when articles like this no longer need to be written.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MILLWALL

1885: Formed as Millwall Rovers by employees of Morton & Co, a marmalade factory.

1887: Win first trophy, the East End Cup.

1910: Move to the Den, Cold Blow Lane. The club's fifth ground and first south of the Thames.

1911: Den stages England v Wales international.

1920: Join Football League as founder members of Third Division (South). Ground closed for first time after missiles thrown at Newport County goalkeeper.

1937: First Third Division club to reach FA Cup semi-final. Tie against Derby brings Den's record attendance: 48,672.

1961: Harry Cripps joins from West Ham. The defender goes on to become Millwall's best-loved player.

1965-1980: One referee, two linesmen and four opponents attacked in seven incidents. Fined and warned each time.

1978: Ground closed for fifth time after riot at FA Cup tie v Ipswich.

1988: Champions, Second Division. Briefly lead (old) First Division.

1989: Pay £800,000 to Derby for Paul Goddard, still club record. Millwall Holding Plc floated on stock market.

1993: Leave old Den (with a riot), move to nearby new Den.

1999: Take 47,000 fans to Wembley for Auto-Windscreens final.

2003: Dennis Wise appointed caretaker player-manager. Sent off in first match in charge.

MILLWALL LEGENDS XI (4-4-2): Freddie Fox; Keith Stevens, Barry Kitchener, Charlie Hurley, Harry Cripps; Paul Ifill, Les Briley, Terry Hurlock, Tim Cahill; Teddy Sheringham, Tony Cascarino.

Comments