Peter Corrigan: Pint of bitter and a packet of Cripps

The Millwall I knew
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The Independent Online

Before I go to watch Millwall play Manchester United in the FA Cup final on Saturday I shall give Harry Cripps's jockstrap a pat for luck. I ought to point out that Harry won't be wearing it at the time because, sadly, he died almost 10 years ago, but you can be sure that his spirit will be a powerful presence at the Millennium Stadium.

Before I go to watch Millwall play Manchester United in the FA Cup final on Saturday I shall give Harry Cripps's jockstrap a pat for luck. I ought to point out that Harry won't be wearing it at the time because, sadly, he died almost 10 years ago, but you can be sure that his spirit will be a powerful presence at the Millennium Stadium.

The jockstrap is in my possession because of my oft-declared admiration for the legendary Millwall left-back who dominated activities at The Den throughout the Sixties and early Seventies. In 1969, when I left the national newspaper for whom I had been a football reporter for several years, my colleagues gave me some mementos as a farewell gift.

One was a brick from the wall surrounding the Gillingham FC ground over which I once had to climb. I had spent so long trying to find words to describe a goalless draw between Gillingham and Barrow that they had locked up and gone home without realising I was still in the press box. Another souvenir, and my most prized, was Harry's jockstrap, which carried his signature. I was never sure he had signed it, because Harry was not the sort of man to be party to such an intimate gesture and I certainly was not the type of man to have the courage to ask him about it.

Never mind, it is the thought that counts, and I regret that a heart attack at the age of 54 means that he is deprived of the sight of his beloved Lions in the greatest fixture of them all.

It is more of a pity because Millwall could do with all the support they can get. Not only are they up against the superior pedigree of United but they are unlikely to get much encouragement from neutrals.

If not regular supporters of the teams involved, most of those who watch the FA Cup final discover a soft spot for one side or the other. Millwall's reputation does not encourage the sympathy vote. People favour the underdog, but not one with a reputation for snarling.

If outsiders find it difficult to warm to them, anyone who has had close dealings with Millwall tends to be less meagre with the admiration. I had the pleasure of helping to compile their match programmes and write the manager's comments for Gordon Jago and George Petchey during the Seventies, and an interesting exercise in communications skills it often proved to be. The experience left me with an empathy for those who have laboured to keep the club viable while the flak has burst around them.

It is not too dramatic to describe their home in London's docklands as football's Fort Apache, and the marvel is that a football club have not only survived there for 120 years but have occasionally managed to blossom on the upper slopes.

They have provided a heartening reminder that there are heights to be achieved in the game without vast battles for supremacy being fought from the vaults of faraway banks. Football needs to flourish from the roots, and only by becoming involved is it possible to appreciate the effort that is required to make progress. Millwall's millstone through the years has been a following apt to take their devotion to extremes.

Apart from landing the club in trouble on many occasions this also ensured that The Den was a forbidding place for visiting teams. The intimidating atmosphere also applied itself to the Millwall team. The fans require their football to be played wholeheartedly, and the incentive to slacken has never been very high. This lack of vulnerability at home led to a run of 59 unbeaten League games from 1964 to 1967.

Harry Cripps missed only eight of those matches, and therein lay his appeal to Millwall fans. Cripps, who served a two- year apprenticeship at West Ham before joining Millwall in 1960, made 447 first-team appearances before younger players began challenging for his place in 1973. That was the year Eamon Dunphy, a slight but richly skilled Irish international who was eight years at Millwall, produced his critically acclaimed book Only A Game? based on a diary he kept during the 1973-74 season at The Den.

It was to be Harry's last season at Millwall, and Dunphy wrote after one arduous training stint: "Today I watched Harry Cripps, at 32 the oldest player on the staff, exuberant as ever and enjoying it as if he were 15 again. A truly great professional, not particularly gifted, except for boundless enthusiasm and a love for football and the life we lead."

Boundless does not sound quite right, because he was at his best when he was bounding upfield. He wasn't quick. The club stopwatch revealed him as the slowest player they had, but when he moved forward the motion gained in irresistibility what it lacked in speed.

I would hesitate to take the analogy any further, but he had a shot like a mule - he scored 40 goals - a tackle like a combine harvester and his uplifting effect on the crowd was equalled only by the effect their urgings had on him. Every club has a Harry Cripps tucked away in their history. Not famous outside their parish, but an essential essence of the game within it.

It has been fashionable for some time now for us to forsake the more rude and rustic traditions of our natural style and embrace the silky skills and creative tempos of more sophisticated football. I'm not sure it's working yet, but we must progress. Meanwhile, the Cup final, maligned and mistreated as it has been of late, still has the power to connect us with our past; even more so with the presence of a team like Millwall, admirably designed and directed by Dennis Wise... and, just for a day, a dirty old jockstrap can be an emblem of our game.

The cheat prospers

Forlorn as it might have been, Wales's attempt to force Uefa to ban Russia from Euro 2004 because of the drug scandal involving Yegor Titov does raise some uncomfortable questions.

It may be easy to dismiss the Welsh move as a pathetic attempt to get into the championships through a legal skylight, but the fact remains that Titov played against Wales in the play-offs last November while under the influence of a performance-enhancing drug, bromantan.

The player has received a 12-month suspension, and under Uefa rules that is as far as it goes, unless it can be proved that the national association knew about it and can be implicated as accomplices. Wales could prove that Titov took the drug while with the Russian squad, but it would have taken an investigation of Hercule Poirot proportions to provide evidence that those in charge of the team were party to the offence.

So no matter what advantage Russia gained over Wales by having at least one drugged player in their team they could not be punished. This would apply if Titov had scored three goals, headed four off his own line and had been the outstanding man of the match.

It is a tenuous connection, but there is a parallel with the decision to strip the Great Britain 4 x 100m relay team of their world championship silver medals following Dwain Chambers' failed drug test.

Uefa seem determined to demonstrate a laxity about drugs that certainly was not present in the Rio Ferdinand case. The plain fact is that under their present rules a football team can happily field one or more drugged players and, even if the players test positive, can still reap the benefit of their contribution. That cannot be right.

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