OK, so I did a dumb thing. On Monday 21 August, chancing across the recently free Film Four, I decided to watch The Football Factory. I’d read the book, enjoyed it (and loathed it), figured I’d give the film a go. Quite enjoyed that as well, in a strange way, all harmless enough if you’re not the sort to glory in what to most well adjusted people appears to be gross insanity. And on Tuesday 22 August I went to The New Den, the stadium and beautifully landscaped surrounding community which formed the backdrop for the climax of the film.
This wasn’t Millwall v Chelsea in the FA Cup though, this was the Gills visiting in the first round of the League Cup on the back of a four game losing streak. At The Playpen, it doesn’t come much more low key than this. Pre-match the sullen railway arches, which had framed the final dramatic running battles on tv the night before, spanned deserted streets, awash with litter and dirty puddles and little else. London Bridge teamed with iPod clad commuters but no hint of an ambush or a war cry.
Yet even with the ground 25% full the atmosphere had an edge. To our left the most populated block was naturally the one closest to the away end. The usual suspects were all there, posturing, snarling, gesticulating, the spectacle only slightly lessened by the phenomenal number wearing pastel pink, seemingly the attire of choice of the metrosexual hooligan. Millwall claim they don’t care about us, and I’m sure they’re right, but we still provide good sport for them as I don’t suppose many clubs bring much support to Bermondsey these days, and they get to sing their songs about wheels going round on houses.
It’s widely believed that all seater stadia have killed the soul of the game, and last season in particular you could symphatise with that view, as we visited numerous sparse plastic enclosed arenas half filled with locals unable to raise much of a chant beyond “Can we play you every week?” as the Gills fell 2-0 down shortly before half time. But it’s not a view readily illustrated by our clashes with Millwall, even since they moved to their new home. Most of the idiocy is just lame bravado, inside the ground at least, but I remember the promotion clash at Easter 2000 – as the ball lay in our net for the second time in the opening ten minutes and the tannoy announcer fumbled for the “Let ‘Em Come…” anthem twice in 90 seconds, I could feel home fans writhing in ecstacy on the other three sides of the ground even with my eyes closed and my head in my hands. No lack of passion that day. There’s a reason why our goals there are so fondly remembered – invariably by the time we score we’re so carried away with the sense of occasion that bodies get hurled in all directions, fuelled by pure adrenelin. Iffy’s clincher in 1997 anyone? Marlon’s last gasp winner in 2001? Kevin James repeating the feat at Christmas 2003? I saw Everton play there in the cup last season and when they fell behind the blocks flanking the away end resembled old terraces, such was the cavorting mass of celebrating and mocking humanity.
With plenty of Gills supporters in a decent turn out behaving in much the same way as our hosts, the scene was set. We all knew no harm could be done and everyone set about working themselves into an indignant frenzy as knuckle-draggers gurned at us from all sides and mocked our pikey heritage. The Gills received a worthy backing considering the lack of confidence. No wonder then, that the first time visitors – a family of four wearing Trinidad and Tobago shirts, there to watch a World Cup hero in the flesh – gawped around them, eyes on stalks, a disturbing mix of bafflement and terror.
Ah, Brent Sancho. Misery is falling flat on your arse on the half way line, gazing up at the unforgiving South London skyline with “Let Em Come! Let Em Come! Let Em Come!” echoing in your ears. Germany 2006 wasn’t like this, even after lanky freaks had yanked your dreadlocks. I don’t get Brent Sancho. He was immaculate for 40 minutes (and throughout the second half), he was unlucky to slip yet he cost a goal. It is destined to be ever this way. I haven’t seen anything from him to really convince me that he’s a good player. He takes and gets away with risks, he’s strong in the tackle, he’s comfortable on the ball and he’ll score goals. And his reading of the game is deeply flawed, he’ll fall over, get caught upfield when we’re trying to defend a corner, give away penalties, hack people up in the air. And cost us time and again. I can’t help liking him.
If you weren’t there I’m sure you’ve read the reports – we should have won, we gifted them two stupid goals, we crashed out, tails between our legs despite what I thought was a great performance. And out into the chilly streets we emerged, blinking through the gloom. Now any immature bravado will get you a slap in the face, and the actions of some of our supporters weren’t particularly streetwise (not least those trying to take their seats home with them). Slanging matches at the station, scuffles at London Bridge, train doors being barracaded by police trying to keep rival supporters apart, the charming “We are evil!” chant among others echoing across platforms. Not perhaps the full-on violence depicted in the film studios, but an away game at Millwall remains fraught with anxiety for anyone either not keeping their wits about them (or not having much wit to start with). Luckily it’s only a fortnight till we play them again….
The Morty Vicker