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Millwall and politics. Independent article about Tuesday's game.
Big society? Not in SE16
David Cameron wants all of us to engage in the 'new politics'. But as Millwall advance on the elite of English football, the white working class who roar them on feel their voices are being ignored.
By Amol Rajan at the New Den
Saturday, 22 May 2010
One man grabbed the other by the ears, and looked as though he wanted to remove them from his head. Both were drunk and puce in the face at 5.30pm on a Tuesday, both wore Millwall shirts, and both were already spoiling, it seemed, for a fight.
But in fact John (with the ears, 24, unemployed) was merely lending Barry (with the hands, 27, electrical engineer) the most convenient part of his anatomy to help him get on to the packed train on Platform 15 at London Bridge. This is what fraternity looks like just south of the River Thames.
You'd expect the train to be busy at peak hour, but on this, the night of Millwall's last and biggest home game of the season, the squeeze was exceptional. We were heading to the New Den to see the club play – and defeat – Huddersfield Town. The reward would be a trip to Wembley to play Swindon next Saturday, for a coveted promotion to the Championship (English football's second tier), from where they would be within theoretical touching distance of a place in the Premier League.
The mood among the fans was resolute. Having missed out on promotion on their five previous attempts, they were clinging to the belief that fortune would find them this time.
But if they were nervous, their fellow train passengers were more so. No club at any level of football has a worse reputation for crowd trouble, and it is widely assumed that, since reputations tend not to be without provenance, Millwall fans must deserve theirs.
It was, after all, this club that fathered the infamous Bushwacker hooligans of the 1970s and 1980s; this club whose home game against Ipswich in 1978, away game at Luton in the 1985 FA Cup, and play-off semi-final at home to Birmingham in 2002, led to riots; this club that was the subject of a notorious, insensitive Panorama edition in the late Seventies that portrayed fans as undiluted scum; this club whose fans had been involved in fighting just a few days earlier in the away leg of their play-off against Huddersfield (leading to 13 arrests); this club, too, which has long been seen as a bellwether for the opinions of the disgruntled working class. And it was this club whose fans terrified the 17.36 via Peckham Rye.
The train carriage was a picture of incongruity as City workers heading home to the suburbs were thrust together with beery fans. The air was thick with what Barack Obama used to call the fierce urgency of now. Wearing a suit was interpreted as a provocation. The carriage rocked with renditions of "Wem-ber-ley! Wem-ber-ley! Wem-ber-ley!"
The journey, a five-minute, southbound symphony, concluded with several hundred fans flooding onto the platform at South Bermondsey, before making a short walk through the blossoming trees (they have a range of uses in the minutes leading up to a big game) to the New Den, home of Millwall FC since 1993.
At the end of the road, David Cameron beamed down from a poster. "Change to win," the now-Prime Minister declared, smiling, alongside that squiggly Conservative Party tree logo, which casts the Tories as the trunk of society and invites citizens to rest under its boughs.
Yet these industrial badlands, 3.3 miles south-east of Westminster, where 125 years ago a workers' co-operative came together to form a football club in precisely the sort of scheme championed by proponents of the fabled "big society", feel a world away from the shiny new coalition in Parliament.
This too is a place governed by tradition and ritual, where members bask in the enduring consolations of tribalism; but talk here in the shadow of the New Den inclined away from the prospect of Nick Clegg's Great Repeal Act.
In conversations before, during, and after the game it became obvious that these fans, so long burdened by stereotype, are a disparate bunch who don't vote for a single party and are far from the politically disinterested bunch of patronising lore. What predominates is not apathy about the political class, but antipathy towards it.
"I've never met my MP but he's on the bloody fiddle," said Ralph Merton, 27, an electrician. And who is his MP? "I don't know. I say, I've never met him."
Duncan Hodgkins, who works in a mobile phone store, reckons the recession to be Labour's fault. "Blair spent millions on Iraq and what did we get for it? Now we're out of pocket. There's nothing left in the kitty." His friend Peter Framer, 34, who works in construction, was similarly gloomy: "The next few years are going to be horrible. This country stopped making things and then Maggie privatised what[ever] was left."
He was sceptical about figures showing a fragile economic recovery: "All we get is numbers from them [politicians]". And he was not altogether optimistic about George Osborne's Office for Budget Responsibility, thinking in particular that its functions will be indistinguishable from those already undertaken by the Institute for Fiscal Studies: "Sounds like a stitch-up to me."
The pre-party, like the after-party later, was on the other side of the ground, along the Old Kent Road, in The Five Bells. There, fans wanted to talk about tactics for the game – could the in-form Steve Morison score again? Would manager Kenny Jackett play three across the back? – rather than the spike in inflation announced by the Bank of England earlier in the day. That said, Ryan Spalding, an 18-year-old who left college last year and has yet to find work, said: "The price of food is getting ridiculous – you can't buy a dinner for less than a fiver... There's no way me or my mates can afford to drive, because look at fuel... They say they got us through the recession, but the jobs ain't come back, so how can they say that?"
This was a common refrain: what matters is jobs, and politicians aren't doing anything about that (because they're "in it for themselves"). Rod Liddle, a Millwall fan of 42 years' standing and a former editor of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, says: "The New Den doesn't deal in niceties or political correctness. It's a place where the fans' animus is directed not against any other race [as is sometimes suggested], but against the connivance of the elites who don't listen to them. It's about the expression of solidarity with an area... sticking together with your family and kith and kin."
The fans, he said, "want to resist the bourgeoisification of football". Their favourite chant, heard 17 times over four hours on this night, rather makes his case: "No one likes us, no one likes us, we don't care / We are Millwall, Super Millwall."
Ben Preston, the editor of Radio Times magazine, is another season ticket holder. He has been going to the Den since 1971. "The thing about Millwall is it's anger management therapy for the forgotten masses south of the river," he says. "But it costs £20 a fortnight rather than £200 an hour.
"No one supports Millwall with the expectation of drinking from the sweet cup of success. It's a life lesson, that teaches you to savour rare moments of escape from mediocrity."
Mediocrity rather summed up the quality of football on Tuesday night. Morison tapped in an opening goal from close range and three sides of the stadium exploded in sound, grimaces and frenzied hugging for 90 seconds. Thousands took to their feet, jabbing their fingers at the Huddersfield fans: "Sit down, shut up! Sit down, shut up!" After a second, conclusive goal to win the game for Millwall, an official tannoy announcement repeated 11 times: "Please, for the sake of our team, the players, and our future, stay off the pitch after the final whistle."
And when the whistle went – whoosh! – 2,000 fans rushed on. There were no fights; the priority was to greet Morison, or get photographs taken on the centre circle. Millwall's ability to control the more excitable elements among its fanbase might yet prove as significant a barrier to reaching the big-time as any footballing limitations.
Post-match chat was dominated by talk of the forthcoming trip to Wembley, and by the sharing of photographs captured on digital cameras and phones. Fans streamed under the railway bridges and headed back down Ilderton Road, flanked by police officers and the shells of the Nigerian spiritualist churches that have moved into this industrial zone. Flags were waved out of hooting cars, and hoarse fans rediscovered their voices: "Millwall! Super Millwall!"
The search for a night-cap revealed the scars of local history. One pub, The Barnaby, was boarded up and almost derelict, a victim of its proximity to the stadium. Around the corner, a sign outside The Breffni Arms proclaimed that, unfortunately, under instruction from the Metropolitan Police, the pub had closed at 5pm.
It was not until we got back to The Five Bells, half a mile away, that a drink was on offer. Here, fans with plastic glasses congregated outside, greeting each hooting car with roars.
There was little interest in discussing politics. One character responded to a question about who he had voted for by relieving this interrogator of half a pint of Guinness. Ian McNeill, 45, who runs a decorating firm with his brother, was more forthcoming. "You look at them [Cameron and Clegg] and you think, 'What do they know about us?', and of course you're not going to vote for them."
There was a general scepticism about the "big society" – it "sounds a bit like the Big Sobriety", one fan put it. "Sounds like fluff to me. Wank tank bollocks," said Shaun Carmichael, a 19-year-old student.
"That sort of phrase just reveals the difference between us and them," said Chris Hughes, a plasterer.
Just an incidental fact about those few dozen conversations, including all those quoted here – except for Liddle, Hughes, and Preston – is that they were all with fans not only wearing the Millwall team shirt, but also sporting skinhead haircuts.
There were no arrests at the game, no public order offences, no obvious fights. Nor did the issue of skin colour seem relevant at any point during the evening. It's hard not to conclude that the stereotypes about these fans reveal as much about our political elite's fear of the working class as about the working class's (very real) antipathy toward the political elite.
Swindon's fans have little to worry about, except for on the pitch.
The Millwall Story
*Few British football clubs can claim to embody the sport's working class roots as much as Millwall FC. Formed in 1885 by labourers at JT Morton's canned food factory in the industrial heartland of east London, the club was originally nicknamed "The Dockers" – a nod to the profession of the vast majority of its fans.
*Until the 1960s, Millwall was the only English club permitted to kick-off home games at 3.15pm rather than 3pm, to allow fans to get to the match on time after their morning shift at the docks.
*To many football fans, the club will always be synonymous with hooliganism and its legendary hatred of rival club west h*m. In 1972, a testimonial for defender Harry Cripps was marred by intense fighting between members of the club's die-hard "firm" the Bushwackers and west h*m fans. Last August one man was stabbed and two people arrested outside west h*m's ground when the two teams clashed in the Carling Cup.
Some call it the Monk Chant, some the Wall of Sound. The simple truth however is that it is a noise without name. It is, as the Telegraph's correspondent says, the most basic, eerie and intimidating noise heard anywhere in football. What other club's fans could ever muster such a thing but those of Millwall?
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