In order to visit them all, you’ve gotta visit Millwall. That’s possibly a motto of the 92 Club and it almost rhymes too.
We all know that a visit to The Den essentially comes with a public health warning - people make out that if you find yourself on the wrong side of the tracks in Bermondsey you’re going to get pummeled, robbed, beaten up, stabbed, battered or a surprise combination of the above.
If you don’t look like a local, hoardes of Stone Island-wearing, Stanley knife-wielding hooligans will use their vicious, gnarling dogs to hunt you down like a sadistic, inner-city fox hunt and then wrench off your balls, strip out your intestines and force the whole lot down your gullet. Or they’ll stick a Visa card in your mouth and knock out your molars with a toffee hammer, as nearly happened to Frodo Baggins in Green Street.
The Football Ground Guide, my usual source of information for trips, makes it clear very high up that an afternoon at Millwall is not for the faint-hearted. It says: ‘It is hardly a relaxing day out and I found The Den to be quite intimidating’ before going on to say that anyone stupid enough to drink in a local boozer or even walk down a street out of step isn’t likely to make it home again - except in an ambulance or a hearse.
It sounded like a most enjoyable FA Cup third round afternoon and so I bought a ticket online and made my way down there.
With my seat being in the home end and this being a relatively low-key occasion (and Preston probably being one of the few clubs with whom Millwall don’t have previous beef), none of the “fear factor” advice was necessary.
Sure, Bermondsey isn’t going to appear in any Visit London tourist brochures anytime soon and there are many indications that on a more war-like occasion this is a very nasty place to be - the ridiculous police presence at London Bridge station and on the four-minute train journey, the Coward’s Run passage from the station to the away end, the many side streets down which you would not want to be cornered - but at no point did I feel “intimidated.”
The coppers even allowed the two sets of fans to mingle on the train, under their watchful supervision, and northern and cockney accents were soon in banterous and good-humoured conversation. One Preston fan didn’t help himself by asking, in a loud voice, “Erm, is Millwall a safe place for away fans?” I like the way he travelled hundreds of miles down here and THEN posed the question. There was nervous laughter from his mates and then a half-ironic chant of “We’re gonna get killed” as they scuttled off down the high-fenced safety run to the ground.
When I had booked my ticket 24 hours earlier, the section I selected in the Barry Kitchener Stand (only two sides were available to home fans for what wasn’t an appetising draw at all) was pretty much empty. In practice, thanks to a late flurry of regulars taking up their season tickets, it was almost full, with seat selection pretty much a free-for-all. I sat down and hoped that my seat’s regular occupier, no doubt some rock-hard geezer with tattoos and bad teeth, didn’t show up. I was fine.
The match was absolutely dreadful, a pleasure only for those who believe the FA Cup is dying on its arse and should be put to sleep. Oh, and Liam Feeney, who scored what turned out to be the winning goal on 31 minutes.
Dany N’Guessan, who played half a season on loan at Boston United back in the day, was leading the line for Millwall and his lazy performance reminded me of that Alex Ferguson quote about about Pippo Inzaghi - “He was born offside.”
The locals grew ever more tired of him and, by the time we had laboured to the 70 minute mark, there were plenty imploring Kenny Jackett to haul him off.
Millwall, seventh in the Championship, bossed the first-half and should have put the Lancastrians, 15th in League One, to bed. Steve Simonsen made two or three excellent saves, while Darius Henderson also rattled the underside of the crossbar.
The barrage enlivened the home crowd, who greeted every set-piece with that droning noise that sounds like a plague of vuvuzelas. Presumably a lot of them would happily insert a vuvuzela into unmentionable areas of their rivals given the chance.
The goal came when Adam Smith broke down the right and swung in a good cross which Feeney, with the aid of a deflection, swept home.
The second-half was poor for Millwall, giving encouragement to the 468 travelling fans perched up high in the upper tier of the away end and incessant in their chants of “P.N.E.”
The underdogs grew in confidence and, as we entered the last ten minutes, started an assault in search of a replay. Stuart Beavon missed their best opening, firing inexplicably wide from 12 yards, while Graham Cummins drew an outstanding save from home goalkeeper David Forde in stoppage time.
Not wanting to hang around and explore the Bermondsey area further, I quick-stepped it back to the station. And there, penned in like ghosts in the dark in the Coward’s Walk, were the away fans waiting their chance to be “kettled” by the police back into central London. “Here come the plastic fans,” chipped in one northern voice.
There are many ways to describe Millwall fans, but they’re certainly not plastic.
Next Match: Mansfield Town v Liverpool in another FA Cup third round tie