LONDON — At the end of a season dominated by Arsenal’s unbeaten Premiership success an even less likely achievement of 2003-2004 has been overshadowed and overlooked by the all-conquering Immortals of Highbury.
Millwall has reached the F.A. Cup final and on Saturday it will play Manchester United in Millennium Stadium in Cardiff before a worldwide audience of around three billion.
Not bad for a first-division club that averages 10,000 for its home games and has an ignominious history littered with hooliganism and riots and whose fans chant: “No one likes us. We don’t care.”
In fact, most of England will be cheering for Millwall in the final, if only because the footballing public dislikes United more than it dislikes its opponent.
Millwall is situated just off the Old Kent Road in southeast London, probably the most deprived area of the capital.
While London has largely been rebuilt since the War, too much of the area around Millwall is stuck in a tenement time-warp with high-rise flats and Victorian dwellings, where poverty and crime go hand-in-hand.
The origins of Millwall lies in the Isle of Dogs, about five km from the Tower of London and virtual marshland until development began during the 1970s.
These days the island houses international banks and national newspapers among other corporations, with penthouse suites in converted warehouses starting at £1 million.
In 1910, Millwall moved across the River Thames, effectively from east to southeast London — just a few km as the bird flies — to The Den in the chillingly named Cold Blow Lane, a former rhubarb patch and a field of cabbages.
Though hooliganism at football matches was relatively unknown until the 1960s, in the 1920s Millwall’s ground was closed for two weeks after the Newport goalkeeper, who had been pelted with objects, leaped into the crowd to face home fans and was felled by a right hook.
The 1930s saw the club adopt a Brighter Millwall scheme. Among the innovations were page boys in full uniform acting as commissionaires. Alcohol was sold at the ground “to help the fans cheer louder” and electricity replaced gas lighting.
Gates of 35,000 were common and Millwall was pushing for promotion to the top flight, but World War II saw The Den badly damaged by a German bomb and the club plummeted to the fourth division with gates of barely 5,000.
Fast forward to the 1960s and the relaxation of discipline in English society, with Mods and Rockers fighting over Bank Holiday weekends at Brighton, was manifested in growing hooliganism at football matches and not just Millwall. The throwing of toilet rolls was one thing, but during one Millwall game against Brentford a hand grenade was tossed on to the pitch.
Brentford goalkeeper Chic Brodie picked it up and, after inspecting the object, threw it in the back of his net — while it was real it was thankfully not live and the crowd was unaware of what happened. On the field the good times were returning and Millwall had risen to the second division.
On April 29, 1972, — the Lions’ last game of the season against Preston — for a few wonderful minutes promotion to the first division, it was believed, had been achieved. If Millwall won and Birmingham lost at Sheffield Wednesday, The Den would see first-division football for the first time.
With Millwall leading 2-0, word spread that Birmingham was losing 2-1 at Hillsborough. Communication in those days was less reliable than now and at the end supporters carried the players shoulder high, with many of the Old Kent Road faithful openly crying.
The dressing room was awash with champagne when there was an announcement that the result from Hillsborough was: Sheffield Wednesday 1, Birmingham 2.
The party became a wake.
Millwall’s fate — it had completed its 42 games — would be decided when Birmingham visited Leyton Orient, needing a point to be promoted with Norwich.
Eight thousand Millwall supporters were among the 33,000 at Brisbane Road on May 2 to cheer the home side.
Bob Latchford headed the decisive Birmingham goal and a night of drama was completed when the main stand was evacuated upon the final whistle, after an anonymous caller to a national newspaper had warned a device would go off when the match finished.
Promotion to the first division was finally achieved in 1988, but three years earlier Millwall experienced probably the lowest point in its history.
In the local parlance, Millwall has “previous” and the occasion that is always used in evidence against it is the F.A. Cup tie at Luton on March 13, 1985.
Luton refused Millwall’s request to make the game all-ticket and during the day a disproportionate number of vehicles began arriving in Bedfordshire, ominously few bearing the visitors’ colors.
At the final whistle all hell let loose and the inadequate number of police and stewards could not cope as the pitch became a footballing battlefield.
Thirty one people were arrested, many of whom turned out to be supporters of West Ham and Chelsea.
The suspicion that it was as much an organized riot by outside sources as Millwall followers on the rampage was strengthened by the estimated 10,000 traveling supporters behind one goal — double the southeast London club’s average home gate at the time.
The £7,500 fine imposed by the Football Association was quashed on appeal when the commission was satisfied events were beyond Millwall’s control, but the scar will never heal.
Seven years earlier Sir Bobby Robson, then manager of Ipswich, had said of Millwall fans after awful scenes at The Den: “They should have turned the flame throwers on them.”
Almost 20 years and too many other indefensible skirmishes later, the club’s membership scheme and a change of attitude by fans has helped toward a significant improvement on the hooligan front — arrests were down from 400 to 18 last season, while there have been only two arrests, home or away, involving Millwall fans this season.
For the sake of the sport one hopes Saturday will pass off peacefully, though Cardiff’s notorious hooligan element may see this as a chance to make its presence felt.
The man who has led Millwall to the final is player-manager Dennis Wise of whom United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once said, with a hint of pots and kettles “could start a fight in an empty room.”
Wise, the former Wimbledon, Chelsea and Leicester midfielder, is an injury doubt, but one way or the other he wants to be part of the biggest shock in the competition’s history, even eclipsing Wimbledon’s 1988 victory over Liverpool, which he was part of, if Millwall achieves its mission impossible.
For United it is a record 16th F.A. Cup final appearance, for Millwall it is a first and one which has already secured a UEFA Cup place, courtesy of its opponents’ qualification for the Champions League.
The suspicion is that United will either win comfortably or Millwall will sneak it.