Milwall: It's A Father And Son Thing, Again

33 years to the day after my old man took me to the Den and started a love affair that refuses to burn out, I followed suit and passed the torch to my son...
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33 years to the day after my old man took me to the Den and started a love affair that refuses to burn out, I followed suit and passed the torch to my son...

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Millwall: 33 Years On And It's Another Father And Son Thing

There are certain milestones in one’s life that remain indelible: First record you bought, first kiss, first football match. I can clearly recall all three, the latter being the most cherished.

It was a warm late Summer Saturday afternoon. September 1st 1979 to be precise. I squeezed my dad’s hand tightly as we wended our way through the unfamiliar streets of Peckham and New Cross on our way to The Den, Millwall for the first time. I was seven. It was an afternoon that would change my life forever.

The buzz that increased as our quickening pace took us closer street by street made my heart thump loud in my chest. As we turned the final corner into Cold Blow Lane the feeling of excitement and expectancy was almost too much to contain. A short queue at the little blue wooden entrance to the grandstand soon subsided and the crumpled smile and a wink of an old man in a cap with a rollup stuck to his bottom lip signalled to my dad to lift me over the rusty old turnstile to avoid him having to pay for me.

The afternoon was bathed in sunshine, smiles and shirt sleeves as Millwall beat Carlisle 1-0 with a goal from exciting winger Kevin O’Callaghan who would soon find fame at Bobby Robson’s Ipswich and on the big screen in ‘Escape to Victory’. I read in the programme of the imminent return of one of Millwall’s favourite sons: Barry Kitchener, who had spent the summer playing in America for Tampa Bay Rowdies.

I squeezed my dad’s hand tightly as we wended our way through the unfamiliar streets of Peckham and New Cross on our way to The Den

That afternoon shaped my relationship with my dad. Most of the time it was distant, strained or non-existent. But when we clicked through the turnstiles at The Den, he changed from the quiet, serious, often grumpy and detached man of the Monday to Friday working routine into a vibrant, enthusiastic larger than life character surrounded by thousands of friends without a care in the world. I too learned to leave the cares of everyday life outside the perimeter walls of the football stadium, which only served to enhance my love for the game.

Football fans live their lives in seasons rather than years and these seasons lay out before me and dad like a great big adventure. Promotions, cup runs, Wembley, an FA Cup final at Cardiff. But however you mark time, in the blinking of an eye you suddenly find yourself looking back on decades rather than years or months. All too quickly time has caught up with you.

In March 2006 it was my turn to take dad to Millwall. He was frail and had been given nine months to live after being diagnosed with cancer. As we stepped quietly through the cold damp Bermondsey mist and took our places in our seats we knew this would be our last match together, but dare not discuss it. The result was a numbing 1-0 defeat to relegation rivals Leicester. The day provided a depressing form of the symmetry that football fans usually love so much.

Patterns of results over time which predict imminent success for your team, which to the non-footballing person is nothing more than optimistic folly, but to the fan a cast iron science. My wonderful journey with dad began with a 1-0 win on a beautiful day. Now it felt as though I’d taken that perfect day and turned it inside out. Everything that had been so good about September 1st1979 was juxtaposed on March 18th 2006. Newton’s Law playing out right before my eyes.

I too learned to leave the cares of everyday life outside the perimeter walls of the football stadium

I didn’t stop supporting or watching Millwall when Dad died. That might have been the sort of self indulgent gesture that the modern day football fan would have chosen. You know, the one that realises the Sky Sports cameras are on him following his team’s defeat and manages to turn on the tears right on cue. It wasn’t easy, but Millwall was my team. Dad wouldn’t have appreciated such a pathetic display of weakness.  I managed to get to a few away games from my new home in Manchester but couldn’t quite bring myself to go back to The Den. I wasn’t quite ready. Until now.

If you live in Manchester and have sons, your chances of persuading them to support any team other than United are City are virtually non-existent. To their eternal credit, my two boys have always held a soft spot for The Lions. They were with me and Dad at Old Trafford for our FA Cup semi final triumph, the final itself later that season and we were also able to enjoy many home and away league games. Watching his beloved Millwall with son and grandsons warmed Dad’s heart – even if the latest generation were really United fans. As they grew, they recognised, even if only in a small way, the importance of the support of a football team being passed from father to son.

“I want to go to The Den”. Those words could have been uttered by me 33 years earlier. But this was my youngest son Tom at the end of last season. I had taken him several times before, but it just passed him by as another day out for a four, five six, seven or eight year old. He’d been to Wembley with me to see us win the play offs a couple of years ago and now, at 17, he decided he wanted to go to Millwall.

So I planned the trip and, by pure coincidence, football’s symmetry went to work again, the first available date for the new season that we could make the pilgrimage down to The Den happened to be Saturday September 1st.

Everything that had been so good about September 1st1979 was juxtaposed on March 18th 2006. Newton’s Law playing out right before my eyes

‘Going to the match’ in 1979 involved nothing more than a spontaneous decision, which only needed to be made in enough time to walk to or catch the train/bus to the ground. No other preparation was necessary. You turned up, offered up a crumpled one pound note to the man on the gate and took your place on the terrace.

The fact that we were travelling from Manchester didn’t particularly add to the amount of preparation involved. Memberships were required if we wanted to ensure the best price and position of tickets and a sizeable kitty to ensure we were fed and watered for the duration was required too.

Our tickets were bought online; the £42 was ‘loaded’ onto our membership cards. No need to wait for the postman, collect them at the box office window before the game or make an additional trip to the stadium. But then also no opportunity to have the ticket counterfoil to serve as a keepsake of the occasion in years to come either.

As we entered the turnstile, ready for our cards to be scanned, the irony of the image on the cards was not lost on me. It was the unmistakeable figure of Barry ‘Kitch’ Kitchener. The stalwart central defender that Millwall fans were preparing to welcome home back on September 1st 1979 was now being commemorated on the plastic membership card and immortalised with his name given to the main stand following his death earlier this year. Yet another reminder of how much time had passed since that first trip with Dad.

But then also no opportunity to have the ticket counterfoil to serve as a keepsake of the occasion in years to come either

Our entry to the ground was delayed. This time not by a father hoisting his young son over the turnstile to get him in for free at the blessing of the kind old man behind the gate. This time a bloke at least in his early twenties insisted he was 13 after the scan of his membership card at the ‘turnstile computer’ revealed his year of birth to be 1999. Heated arguments ensued. He changed his story, explaining that in actual fact his card had been switched with his 13 year old son who had gone in ahead of him. After involving security guards the fan was allowed entry.

We passed up the opportunity of a match programme. I couldn’t see the point in paying £3 when I couldn’t even stick our tickets in it. Back in 1979 my own money-conscious Dad happily parted with 30p for the programme which I still have today.

In familiar September sunshine, we enjoyed a 3-1 Millwall win over Middlesbrough together. For all the plasticity of this modern stadium (which the club had moved to from the old Den almost 20 years ago) with its breeze blocks, executive boxes and shiny seats, the real Millwall was very much in evidence and making a lasting impression on Tom.

The earthy humour and the raucous roar of the Lions fans sounding like three or four times their number. As I watched my son captivated by the sights, sounds and smells on and off the pitch it took me back to that same day in 1979. In fact, for one split second, the image of Millwall winger James Henry marauding down the flank could so easily have been the unmistakeable lightning quick but distinctively short-paced sprint of Kevin O’Callaghan.

The real Millwall was very much in evidence and making a lasting impression on Tom

I knew for certain that, if there was any way possible of making this journey to every home game, Tom would drop Manchester United in a heartbeat and we could have continued the wonderful journey that me and my own dad enjoyed for 25 years. But we had to head back to Manchester, with only the possibility of a handful of similar trips possible this season. Soon Tom would once again be immersed in the sterile soullessness of following your team on Sky Sports and Match of The Day.

In 33 years so much had understandably changed. Not just in my life, but in the world around me. Even the trusty London skyline was being reshaped almost beyond recognition from the one that I had grown up with. But as the final whistle blew and we slowly left The Den behind us with that satisfied glow that only ‘being there’ for a home win can bring, I recognised a familiar sparkle in the eye of my son, and rejoiced in the fact that mercifully, some things will never ever change.

Oh, and for the record, the other two milestones were: Squeeze, ‘Take Me I’m Yours’ and Natalie Ward.

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