Millwall: Once or twice a season the old violent myth takes hold

This Wembley punch-up did not mark the return of 1970s hooliganism


My teenage son was being watched on Saturday when he gave up his seat for an elderly woman on a raucous Tube to Wembley surrounded by fellow Millwall fans. A fiftysomething man in a faded Parka, studded with enamelled badges glorying 1970s Mod culture, fixed him with a gimlet stare. There was no hint of a smile as he reached inside his pocket and solemnly passed my son a sticker. Decorated with a retro lion, it read: “Treatment. Millwall.” This was the calling card for an infamous hooligan gang from the days when Harry Cripps and Barry Kitchener patrolled the Lion’s back line at the aptly called Cold Blow Lane.

The man reached in his pocket again and offered my son a disposable surgeon’s mask. Jake looked bewildered, as anyone would who hadn’t seen the BBC’s Panorama exposé of Millwall’s infamous hooligan culture four decades ago – a distant world when, for the cameras at least, Millwall’s lunatic fringe supposedly dressed up in surgical gear before going on the rampage.

The retired hooligan, with a shrug, then muttered by way of explanation: “It’s yours if you want it, ’cos you did a good thing.” So when the weekend headlines screamed again about Millwall’s “shame” and the return of the English disease, I thought of a middle-aged man reliving his inglorious youth by doling out stickers to reward public-spirited acts of generosity by today’s teenagers.

Yet the mythology of Millwall is hard to escape: violent, racist, a hooligan cancer threatening the national game. It’s an easy narrative regularly trotted out by television and newspapers. The reality today is different. Three generations of my family have watched decades of mediocre football sparsely punctuated by fleeting moments of success.

The crowd is tough, ageing and hard-bitten. It’s drawn mostly from what’s left of south-east London’s white working-class, although thousands of supporters now commute from north Kent. They scream more at their own players than at the opposition – this is anger-management therapy, but here screaming obscenities costs £25 per 90-minute session, hardly Hampstead prices.

Millwall is a club tied fast to its past. Its supporters are bound by loyalty and a shared history. For the most part, this is a strength when so many old London rivals are busy trying to build global brands. Millwall is instead striving to foster links with the new communities which have now taken root in what used to be London’s Docklands. A tough-tackling black Muslim is player of the year, voted for by the fans. An evangelical Christian from Nigeria, Danny Shittu, is the much-fêted captain (“He’s Shittu and he knows he is”, goes the chant).

Yet once or twice a season – in a good year – the old myth takes hold again. The ranks of the faithful are swelled for a big match by the drunken, drugged dregs of south London and beyond. When 30 of these people have a punch-up under the press box at Wembley, it is neither a national calamity nor does it mark the return of 1970s hooliganism. It is simply Millwall’s misfortune.

Ben Preston is editor of the 'Radio Times'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London