Old ways and New Den stories

Richard Williams hears tales from terraces where violence has always been a way of life `They brought a few with them when they came down to your place. So you gave them a good clumping. Then you went up there and they gave you a clumping. That was how it
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The Independent Online
WHEN Chrissie, the loud one in the blue jeans and the black leather jacket, the one he'd gone to matches with when he was a kid, home and away without missing a single fixture - testimonials and pre-season friendlies included - for, what, 10 years, when Chrissie had gone off into the night with Jan the barmaid, completely pissed, still laughing at the one about their old manager - Benny Fenton, King of the Jews, wipes his arse with the Evening News - the man swivelled round on his bar stool and started to talk about what happened on the day he followed Millwall up to Burnley.

I was about 14, he said, which would make it '79, '80. I went up on the special. And after the match I got trapped in a dead end. This gang of Burnley supporters came after me. They were a lot older, and bigger. And there was this really big one at the front, the leader.

He said, Are you Millwall?

I said, Yes. Shaking. Fucking terrified.

He said, Right, lads, Give him a dead leg. And a dead arm.

A dead leg! A dead arm! I couldn't believe it. I thought they'd been going to fucking kill me. A dead leg! It must have been because I was little.

And in an almost deserted public bar in Bermondsey on Thursday night, in the sort of pub where people talk either very loudly and all at once or very quietly while someone else is listening hard, he got off his stool to demonstrate how the big man and his sidekicks had scientifically administered a dead leg and a dead arm to a South London schoolboy. He could hardly stop laughing at the memory.

His name was Brian, and he'd been following Millwall - he said it Mill- WALL, so you knew he was authentic - since he'd started going with his father when he was four or five. It was a family thing. His father had been taken by his grandfather, and now Brian was taking his own two boys.

He'd had good times in the Seventies and Eighties, when he'd been one of three hundred or so Millwall boys who went to every away game. There had been some blows, and a drop of blood spilt here and there, but a lot of laughs too. They were the days, they were.

But last week Millwall fans were among those most often mentioned in the analyses of the violence in Dublin. It was said that Millwall, along with Chelsea and Leeds, was one of the spawning grounds of Combat 18, the fighting arm of the British National Party. And no one was very surprised to hear that, or to see the photographs in the morning papers of a hooded youth in the upper tier of Lansdowne Road's West Stand holding up a large Union Jack with MILLWALL FC emblazoned across it.

Now Brian was laughing at the memory of the Burnley trip. But it hadn't always been funny like that. A year or two later, he'd been at Hillsborough when he heard some of the Millwall fans around him suddenly shouting, Look out, look out! Instead of ducking, he'd looked up, as a reflex.

The next thing, he said, I was waking up on the ground with my hand on my head and blood pissing through my fingers. Later on my mate said I'd been hit by a piece of concrete about a foot square.

Could of killed you, thing like that, a man at the bar said, fingering his pint. Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" was on the jukebox.

'Sright, Brian said. And ever since then he'd been nervous about people throwing things at football matches. Like last night. All them England fans throwing bits of seats down. Did you see them? Could have killed somebody, easy. One of them little boys. Unbelievable.

But look at that, he said, and pointed to a copy of the Sun lying on the bar. The morning-after edition with SICK SCUM on the front page. Now it was open at a page featuring the picture of the hooded Millwall fan and his Union Jack. Look at that, Brian said. Just look at what it says underneath.

Millwall Yob was what it said.

He snorted. They'd have to do that, wouldn't they?

Well, that's Millwall's reputation, after all. Do they have much of a crew nowadays?

Nah. Only for the big matches. They come out then. He laughed.

Like at Arsenal. Ooh, I did enjoy going there and beating them. Or at Chelsea last week. The Millwall fans hadn't started it. Not that they wouldn't have done, mind. There was four thousand, but the Old Bill was around them all night. They couldn't have done nothing even if they'd wanted. But the Chelsea fans, they had no police with them. So when they lost, and they wanted to come on to the pitch looking for Millwall, there weren't nothing to stop them. That's when the horses came on. And I must say they did brilliant then, the Bill. Straight in, no messing.

Had he been involved in the trouble at Fulham Broadway tube station after the game?

Nah. Got a cab home.

He takes his two sons now. Just like his father took him, and his grandfather took his father. His boys - one's 10, the other's nine - they love it. One of them's getting a bit too involved, though. Brian gives a wry grin. Sometimes when the away fans are giving them some stick, he turns round and there's the boy with his fingers up. Brian's face contorts viciously as he imitates his small son, miming an angry V-sign.

It was little Billy's birthday the other week. He got him a Millwall shirt with ROBERTS on the back, Andy Roberts being his favourite player. And since he knows Andy really well, he got him to come down the pub that night. You should have seen Billy's face when he walked in. Smiling from ear to ear. Couldn't stop. And Andy only went and played a game of table football with him, didn't he? Right over there.

Brian and his boys, do they like Millwall's smart all-seater New Den, only half a mile away from Cold Blow Lane?

Nah. Not really. 'Salright when there's a crowd. Then you get some atmosphere. But when Grimsby or somebody come down, and there's only three or four thousand in the place . . .

I told him I retained some vivid memories of the old Den, which was closed four times as a result of hooligan activity during its 83 years as the home of Millwall FC. The most bitter and typical memory was of going there to watch Forest, my team, in the third round of the FA Cup on a sunny January day in 1972, and our soon-to-be- relegated team of fallen aristos (Ian Storey-Moore, Peter Cormack, Tommy Gemmell) getting thrashed as much by the minatory mood of the crowd as by a team including Barry Bridges and Derek Possee.

Forest! he said, brightening up. That was a place you were scared to go. They had a reputation, too. Forest and Cardiff. They brought a few with them when they came down to your place. So you gave them a good clumping. Then you went up there and they gave you a clumping. That was how it went.

He remembered going up to Forest the first time. He'd bunked up to Nottingham in an ordinary train, not the special, with a couple of mates, and they could hear the Forest fans, thousands of them, chanting as the train came out of the tunnel into the station. Christ almighty, he thought they were in for a good hiding then. So they lay low on the platform till the special came in with the rest of the Millwall fans, and they were escorted, all three hundred of them, down to the ground, with the Forest fans marching alongside, trying to get at them the whole time.

The thing about Forest was that the ground backed on to the Trent, and they'd try to push you in the river. There was a sign there that said you entered the ground at your own risk. Sometimes you got so scared you'd want to shout to one of the Old Bill, 'Scuse me, copper, here I am - I ain't done nothing yet, but I might do, so come and take me!

And Derby. Remember the play-offs last year, when Derby went four-nil up on aggregate in the second leg and the New Den exploded? Fighting in the east stand, fighting in the west stand, half the crowd on the pitch trying to get it stopped, the referee taking the players off twice, the Derby goalkeeper getting knocked down and their two black players being substituted for their own safety three minutes from time. That was a bit naughty, yes. But in the first game, at the Baseball Ground, the Millwall fans had been gobbed on and coins and things had been chucked at them, so, you know.

He was looking forward to yesterday's cup match at QPR. Fifth round, another London derby, another Premiership club that might turn out to be ripe for an upset.

So what was the furthest Millwall have ever got in the cup, Brian?


Yeah? When was that, then?


Slow laughter, like the midnight creaking of a ship's timbers.

Let's face it, being a Millwall fan means being famous for violence, and not much more than that. No one who was there or who even saw the TV news footage that night will forget the rage in the faces of the Millwall supporters as they invaded the pitch at Luton during a cup quarter-final 10 years ago this March, hurling torn-up bits of plastic seating at their mystified rivals. It's a strange legacy to hand down from father to son.

"See you," his mate Chrissie had said as Jan the barmaid dragged him out of the door, on their way home to argue about whether to watch The X Files or Crimewatch UK. "And if you can't be good, be lucky."