The first time I went to watch West Ham play Millwall was in the late eighties. My best mate had such a bad hangover from the night before that, after about ten minutes squeezed onto the north bank at Upton Park, surrounded by deafening chants, he ran out onto the concourse, clutching his throbbing head. The police and St John’s Ambulance men almost had him in the back of the ambulance before he could convince them that he hadn’t been the victim of a nail-studded golf ball attack, he just needed a paracetemol.
Another time, at the old Den, a mate got caught up in a scrum so crowded that his leather slip on loafers (yes, it was still the eighties) were removed from his feet and never seen again. He had to get all the way home in his socks.
And then there was my last visit to the New Den, where another pal (genteel, liberal, directs adverts for a living) threw a plastic bottle top in the vague direction of the pitch. A week later, the police raided his house at dawn, pulled him out of bed and drove him down to Bermondsey police station. He was nicked for hooliganism, given a suspended sentence, community service and a ban from any football match for five years. He’s moved to Australia now.
People get twitchy around this fixture. The words themselves ‘Millwall versus West Ham’ have a threatening ring to them. But I remember going to the New Den about six or seven years ago and thinking that there was probably no safer fixture in world football. As far away from the stadium as Waterloo station, there were teams of police rounding up West Ham fans, herding us on to trains, shoving video cameras in our faces and telling us to wipe the smirks off our faces. By the time we actually got to Bermondsey – Bandit Country as we call it – it felt like there was about four police to every one of us, carefully cajoling us into the stadium. Nowhere on planet earth was a fight less likely to break out that at this midday-kick off, alchol-free sporting event.
I saw women throwing punches at police horses that night, that’s how out of hand things got.
Of course, that all changed in August 2009 when Millwall turned up at Upton Park on a balmy midweek evening for a League Cup encounter. The police hadn’t thought to take their usual precautions that night, just leaving a couple of friendly bobbies outside the tube station whom they thought would be able to keep things adequately peaceful. All hell broke loose – not just outside the ground where running battles raged through the night – but also inside, where the match was interrupted by numerous pitch invasions by West Ham fans who seemed keen to access the away end to offer warm handshakes and congratulations for a match well played to their Millwall counterparts.
As I stood in the Bobby Moore stand, watching the scenes of wild-eyed anarchy unfurl around me, I noticed it wasn’t just the usual excitable kids or flat-nosed herberts getting involved in the affray. Pleasant family men who had sat next to me for years loosened their ties, dropped their cups of Bovril and charged the pitch like men possessed. I saw women throwing punches at police horses that night, that’s how out of hand things got.
West Ham versus Millwall does strange things to people. It makes everyone present, large or small, young or old, male or female, clever or stupid, suddenly become self-appointed hooligans. Apart from me. I sat politely reading my programme until all the fuss was over.
It’s a perculiar derby in that it’s based almost entirely around the violence. Like many West Ham fans, I have little knowledge of Millwall’s team, recent form or footballing history. There is not much sport-related needle at all. I’d be surprised if the foreign players on either side were aware of today’s game being more special than any other.
There’s also something slightly strange about the level of animosity between the fans. After all, divided only by the width of the Thames, historically comprised of dock workers from the same areas and backgrounds, the similarities are myriad. Perhaps that’s where the hostility comes from. Like when my ginger Tom sees another cat parading down our street and immediately loses the plot. Or when Captain Kirk has to fight his own clone in that episode of Star Trek.
The comedian Phil Whelans, who hosts the brilliant West Ham podcast Stop! Hammertime, recently observed that West Ham and Millwall were like two bickering cops from an eighties buddy movie: opposites, and yet somehow alike. As such, said Phil, the best thing both sets of fans could do would be to stop fighting and go out and solve a crime together instead. It’s the sort of blue-sky thinking that the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner Hugo de la Boneville-Lacoste (or whatever he’s called) would do well to take on board.
Certainly, if I happen to get talking to any Millwall fans this afternoon, I intend to suggest the idea.
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