It’s been a tough week for Millwall but I’ll understand if you aren’t losing any sleep over it. Most of the time, being a Lions fan takes more effort than supporting any other team. Usually because, when someone asks you “who do you support?” the reply “Millwall” almost always comes with a cachet of racist, knuckle dragging thuggery and I often feel compelled to add the caveat: “…it’s not like you read in the papers though”.
To give you an insight into what it’s like being a Millwall fan, if you’ve ever watched ‘Come Fly With Me’ you’ll be familiar with Walliams and Lucas’ pilot couple Simon and Jackie Trent. Simon had an affair with a stewardess and, while they are still together, she constantly throws it in his face at the slightest opportunity. If you’re not familiar with the show, any bloke who’s ever been in the doghouse with his missus will relate. No, we’re not perfect, yes, we’ve made mistakes, but we’re not all bad all of the time, but boy are we reminded of where and when we went wrong.
This week, on top of the build-up to the Luton FA Cup match and all the 1985 baggage that the fixture still carries, we’ve had the Sky Sports special report showing unacceptable examples of racism amongst a minority at The Den. It wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to long-suffering Millwall fans for the week to end with an ignominious cup exit and more grist to the mill for the media muck-mongers.
So it’s nice to be able to look forward to an FA Cup quarter final with a convincing and pleasantly uneventful victory at Luton. If nothing else, it extends our season’s excitement after our play off challenge appears to have travelled back up the M1 with striker Chris Wood.
The victory at Luton provided more of that symmetry that we sometimes see in the game, maybe more six degrees of separation than anything scientific, but I’d like to think that Millwall achieved some kind of closure with this win. In Kenny Jackett they have a fantastic manager, arguably the best they’ve ever had, backed by an American owner in John Beryslon who allows the manager to manage, while all he manages is the finances and expectations. There might have been a tinge of personal satisfaction for Jackett who played in the Watford team that Luton defeated after two replays back in 1985 to set up that infamous quarter final tie, but my bet is he’s is so professional and focussed on Millwall right now that the event hasn’t even crossed his mind.
There will certainly be a lot of neutral admirers of the way that both Luton put up a good fight and Millwall did a professional and clinical job. The club is in good shape, progress is slow, but steady. They were languishing near the bottom of League One when Jackett arrived in 2007 and every new season seems to bring a little more success. People will never let us forget 1985, but at least 2013 hasn’t provided any more ammunition and enabled us to show that we have come a long way since then.
With success and the increased spotlight, the potential for problems will always be just around the corner. But Millwall have proved the doubters wrong before. Mayhem was predicted when The Lions were involved in two of the game’s biggest competitions. Two years of top flight football passed off without incident between 1988 and 1990 (even though some hacks foresaw plans to steal the famous Highbury clock as part of their gate-crashing of the top table) and a 2004 FA Cup final in Cardiff passed off with nothing more than the mandatory observation that “Your support is f***ing s**t” aimed at the hordes of Manchester United fans who decided to leave the Millennium Stadium rather than stay to watch their team lift the cup.
The fact that the likes of Leeds, Chelsea and Manchester City are in the draw with Millwall means that, at the back of the mind, the thoughts will be of crowd control rather than FA Cup glory for many. Do we care? Our terrace anthem suggests we don’t and to a point it’s true. I don’t really care what the general public perception is of us because no matter what we do we’ll never change it. I don’t care what the likes of Sky Sports think of us. They’ll be just as quick to pat us on the back and paint a fairytale trip to the final (as they did in 2004) as they will to highlight any hint of trouble as our profile rises albeit temporarily. Unfortunately, as clever as my Sky Plus box is, I don’t have a button on the remote to switch off their fickleness.
What I, and I suspect many other Millwall fans care about it is that Kenny Jackett and John Berylson like us enough to stick around and keep up the good work; that our black players refuse to let the racist minority drive them out of the club and that any prospective signings are not put off. I’ve taken dozens of fans of other clubs with me to watch Millwall. City, United, Chelsea, Palace, Stockport fans. All, without exception, have recognised the unique attraction of the club and have admitted a grudging respect and admiration for it once they were allowed beyond the outer circle. The same could be said for players, managers, chairmen and many members of the press who may have had preconceived ideas of the club but, once let in behind the scenes, discovered a wholly unexpected warm and welcoming, close knit football family that is still very much part of its community.
Thanks to its past, Millwall, like the recovering addict or alcoholic, will be in perpetual danger of relapse and is condemned to taking one day at a time. Today is a good day.