Millwall FC: Football in an Island Future
Millwall have a long-standing and increasingly out-dated reputation as a trouble club. But in 2015, their major concern is the effect of 'redevelopment' in their corner of south-east London.
All photos by the author
When you tell Lions fans that you're a journalist hoping to write about Millwall, the first thing you're (politely) asked is not to promote the usual negative stereotypes about the club. More than anything, the support seem bored of reading stock, superficial reports on what it is to live one's footballing life at The Den – reports often obsessed with Millwall's past, and largely neglectful of the club's identity in the present and future.
Typically, a brief article on Millwall will make extensive mention of the Kenilworth Road riot, politicised racism, or the infamous 1977 Panorama documentary that put their corner of south-east London on the map at a dark time for English football. It will pointedly fail to mention Millwall's community work. The 'hooliganism' angle on the club has been very well documented elsewhere, and is worth reading about in its own right. However, excepting its significance to the current trajectory of the Lions' community as a whole, it's not of particular interest to me – mainly because it's now far from the most interesting thing about Millwall.
What is interesting about Millwall is the situation in which it presently finds itself. Though that situation is in a way unique (and inflated), it's one which should interest any supporter of a Football League club in London. In fact, the outlook at Millwall is something which every board member, investor and owner of a local club in the capital should pay close attention to.
Like it or not, Millwall's prospects might well serve to highlight the precarious nature of the London football scene as a whole.
Millwall is already something of an island. As one lifelong fan who I recently spoke to informed me, the support is naturally prone to 'an island mentality' – it's in their blood. Historically, the side hail from the East End's Isle of Dogs; there is a literal sense in which the club's culture is insular. Perhaps fittingly, current home ground The Den (formerly The New Den, their home since 1993) is itself physically isolated in a quiet part of stark and sequestered Bermondsey; cut off by railway tracks, jagged fences, brick bridges and industrial storage space, it's a massive atoll in a somewhat neglected area of town.
The sense of isolation at Millwall is very much increased by the negative stereotyping already mentioned. A huge part of the island mentality among fans is about protecting Millwall's identity and reputation, something a lot of them seem to feel is under constant attack. When they belt out their classic refrain of 'No one likes us, we don't care', they may as well be addressing the media directly; they are tired of the endless (and outdated) Panorama-esque tropes still surrounding their fanbase. In my experience, Millwall fans are actually very warm and welcoming to newcomers. However, the standard, off-putting clichés written about the club have another crucial effect on the support: there aren't a great deal of newcomers to speak of.
I chatted about this issue at length with Millwall's fan on the board, Pete Garston, who I met up with in nearby Beckenham. He told me about the Lions' modern identity, the positive trend of ever-decreasing club banning orders and the extensive charity work that he's seen individual fans do; all to a backdrop of the press constantly wanting to find evidence of 1970s-style thuggery and racism at high-profile games. Without trying to cover for a difficult fringe who still turn up at The Den – as the man who negotiates over club bans, Pete deals with them more often than most – he made the valid point that Millwall are in Show Racism the Red Card's Hall of Fame and yet still have particular trouble attracting ethnic minority fans. "Because of how we're seen, because of perceptions from the press, people don't know all that. But you bring new people down to The Den, and everyone has a good time."
This is, first and foremost, why Millwall's circumstance is so fascinating. The club is isolated for a variety of reasons; it has unique trouble attracting the fresh support that is the financial lifeblood of football. Its island identity is amplified and magnified by its reputation, making it far easier to identify the difficulty. However, all Football League clubs in London are islands to some extent. Millwall is the ultimate example of what is an endemic problem: how does a local, lower-league club stop itself from becoming isolated and insular in the London of today?
In the broadest sense, every side needs to keep attracting new fans to maintain its revenues; gate money, merchandise, sponsorship and advertising are all dependent on a healthy and growing support, while there is a strong need to offset local fans moving out. However, particularly in London, the Premier League stands firmly in a Football League side's way. With international, hyper-wealthy giants like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham on the doorstep – not to mention huge brands like Manchester United and Liverpool, both well-supported in the capital – the vast majority of local football fans are hoovered up long before they even consider what the lower leagues have to offer. Combine that with a serious image problem like Millwall's, and the predicament is instantly obvious. Nonetheless, it's an issue simmering below the surface everywhere from Fulham and QPR to Charlton and Leyton Orient – none of these teams are even close to filling their stadia every week.
Being isolated from fans by constantly broadcasted Premier League football is clearly a threat to a Football League side's survival. However, it's one of two great threats to local clubs. If Millwall is a magnified example of the isolation issue, it's also an intriguing case study for the latter: what happens when the area around a football club threatens to change dramatically?
Bermondsey may be a neglected part of London at present, but that might not be the case for too much longer. Like almost every other place within striking distance of the capital's commuter centre, it's a prime location for 'redevelopment'. Some of that might consist of improving the local area for local people. Much of it will doubtlessly mean brand new housing developments with limited affordable property, mainly aimed at young professionals working in Canary Wharf and beyond.
Millwall will experience much of this redevelopment first hand. The land directly adjoining The Den looks set to be settled with just that sort of property, while talk of extended tube lines nearby and increased transport links might soon see The Den standing right at the heart of a pricey urban project. The club's hierarchy has already expressed serious worries. Their fans might well do the same.
The prospect of a large number of new people moving to Bermondsey may seem good for the club at first glance, but one doesn't have to look too hard to see it'll come with its own drawbacks. These will be people with no connection to Millwall or its neighbourhood, while knock-on effects on rents and property prices are hard to predict – who knows how they'll hit current fans who live in the vicinity. Likewise, the club's image problem rears its head once more.
To get a better idea of a Millwall supporter's perspective on the 'redevelopment' (read: 'gentrification') of the land around The Den, I met with Nick Hart, editor of the independent Cold Blow Lane magazine. Nick told me that although Bermondsey has historically been "a forgotten part of London – the land beyond", there's about to be a major shift.
"Once money starts to flood in, once there's a link to London transport, you're going to have flats and modern houses built facing the view of Millwall's football ground".
It's hard to imagine young professionals being too enthused by the idea, especially on days that Leeds United or West Ham come to visit.
"We're like a little island of working-class, traditional football, though I don't know how long we can carry on like that".
The nagging worries about how Bermondsey's newest denizens are going to fit in are pretty obvious.
"I mean, the image we've got to contend with is Tarquin and Melissa sitting on their balcony overlooking The Den, having a coffee and reading The Guardian while Millwall play Leeds. I'm not sure that's going to be the most sellable aspect of the development".
Satire aside, it's a fair point.
So it seems that Millwall finds itself at a genuine existential crossroads: will it be able to survive in new-look London, or will it be cut off from even its natural support? Again, the problem Millwall has with outside perceptions and negative stereotyping compounds and inflates the matter, yet it's still a question every Football League club in London will have to ask itself at some point. When the social makeup of an area changes drastically, when a football club's car park becomes prime real estate, how can a side hold out against financial pressures, maintain traditional support, grow and thrive? All of that still has to be done under the vast shadow of the Premier League's wealth. There are no easy answers.
All in all, Millwall's unique situation best illustrates the dilemma that all lower-league clubs in the city will have to face. The Lions' public image is something that they alone will have to deal with, but their difficulty in attracting fresh support is a common problem. The 'redevelopment' of Bermondsey is something they'll confront alone, but the property market doesn't limit itself to south-east London. As such, Millwall's difficult present and uncertain future are portents for a lot of other local, capital clubs. Watch carefully how Millwall cope – it's far more important than you might realise.