The Calvin Report: Not 1985 revisited as myth of Millwall menace lives on

 

The images were a throwback to a darker, more disturbing time. One hundred police, in riot gear, annexed the pitch at the final whistle. Four dogs, snarling and yelping in Pavlovian response to sudden excitement, contributed to the charade of concern. Mercifully, appearances were deceptive.

"What a waste of money," chanted the majority of the crowd at Kenilworth Road, who stayed to watch a brief, utterly unnecessary show of force. Since most were Luton council tax-payers, they had a point. This was not 1985, revisited. Millwall's progress to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup was serene, and relatively untroubled.

A bottle of Coca-Cola was thrown at Rob Hulse as he celebrated Millwall's second goal. The occasional chant, served and volleyed between either set of supporters, was puerile, but no worse than one would hear at any other ground, on any given Saturday. Mock outrage will make a mockery of events.

No babies were eaten. No one's safety was remotely threatened. No further trial by tabloid TV can be justified. But no more hysteria? No chance, while Millwall remain an easy headline on a slow news day. If this evening's draw sends a big club to the Den, the stereotypes will be recycled.

In the interests of transparency, I spent a season embedded at Millwall, for my book, Family: Life, Death and Football. I sought to understand a wilfully misunderstood club. It is an imperfect institution, vulnerable to historic, economic and social challenges, yet has warmth and affecting honesty. Good people do good work against the odds, and against the tide of public opinion. They are as appalled as any other sentient being by knuckle-dragging racists.

Yesterday was a chance to contextualise their problems, and monitor their progress. This was Millwall's 14th visit to Kenilworth Road since the 1985 tie, a game seared on the national psyche. Disappointingly for those who had billed the game as a prospective remake of Green Street, the film which glorified the clichés of hooligan culture, it was closer in spirit to Escape To Victory.

Supt Mike Colbourne, of Bedfordshire Police, made an appropriate man of the match. He organised police from five forces, in a blanket operation which involved six arrests. Unconfirmed reports suggested two West Ham supporters were involved in a pre-match scuffle. Rumours that followers of Barnet and Tottenham would reinforce local hooligans were false.

Segregation involved the installation of mobile metal fences, some six inches thick, across the street which contained turnstiles for away fans. It was eerie, but effective. Andy Ambler, Millwall's chief executive, and Ken Chapman, the club's head of security, were in constant contact with Gary Sweet, Luton's managing director, and Leon Blackburn, their safety officer.

Subtleties were significant. Luton briefed their stewards yesterday morning not to make the mistake of misconceiving Millwall fans' chants in homage to the captain, Danny Shittu, and Jimmy Abdou, their player of the year. "Each one ends with a crescendo of 'ooh,ooh,ooh'" explained Chapman. "To be entirely honest, if you are listening casually, it can sound like a monkey chant."

As it transpired, Shittu was not risked because of an ankle injury. All 1,500 tickets for away fans were sold to season-ticket holders. The indefensible images from the midweek TV programme, of a fan captured on an undercover camera apparently screaming vile abuse at El-Hadji Diouf in a match against Leeds last November, belonged to another world.

Perspective came in the inner sanctum of the away dressing room. It was small and lined, down one wall, by 10 set-piece charts, annotated by Joe Gallen, Millwall's assistant manager. The game plan, as announced by the manager, Kenny Jackett, was stark and simple: "Level heads. We have to keep 11 on the pitch.

"Make sure they cannot use the occasion, and bring the crowd into play. We need this to be a football match. If they get under your skin, and you start losing your heads and making bad decisions, you'll have problems.

"Norwich let them sit off them and underestimated them. Remember, calm, level-headed. Good decisions on the ball. Keep the game moving fast. Don't let them slow things down and waste time. Make sure your fitness tells. We have to play the game and not the occasion."

When his players left, to warm up, Jackett stood surrounded by the detritus of preparation. The floor was already littered with bandages and discarded packets of carbohydrate gel. "This is a fantastic football club," he said. "People need to take a broader look at it. It is a working-class club. The money isn't there, but the passion is fantastic.

"Players love playing for Millwall, but you can't help but worry about the long-term impact of things like this week's programme. This is a big game for us, but it is nothing that can't be sorted with us being three-up after 10 minutes."

His team took 85 minutes to score three and the goalkeeper, David Forde, kept a clean sheet. It is perilous to tempt fate, but Millwall are 90 minutes away from Wembley and Ambler was confident he had lobbied David Bernstein, the FA chairman, successfully. As he said: "For the first time for a while, I can smile."

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