More Than A Game: Millwall v West Ham

"Don’t do it, chums! DON’T throw soil, 
cinders, clinkers, stones, bricks, bottles, cups, fireworks or other kinds of explosives, apples, oranges, etc. on the playing pitch during or after the match. DON’T barrack, utter filthy abuse, or molest in any way the players of the visiting team.” Millwall warning notice, 1949-50.

“Oh, Wisey! Woah ah ah oh! He’s only five-foot-four! He’ll break your fackin’ jaw!”

Flooding out of the New Den into the glorious afternoon sunshine, you’ve never seen quite so many cheerful, rosy-cheeked and twinkly-eyed South-East Londoners. Millwall have just beaten West Ham and dozens of delirious denizens are on their mobile dogs, imparting this information to a woman called Anne.

“Four-one! AN' it could have been seven! AN' we missed two penalties! AN' their keeper got fackin’ sent off!”

I’m trying to fit in. By not looking like a soft, 
middle-class, Northern homosexual who likes opera, real ale and kittens. I’ve done me homework. I’ve got a copy of the Millwall fanzine The Lion Roars in me sky rocket. Inside is a savage attack on an Evening Standard article entitled 50 Things Every Londoner Should Do This Year. Number 17 is: “Go for pie and mash.” To which a disgusted TLR replies: “Do not do this as a novelty, do this as part of everyday life.”

So there I am. Trying to look like the sort of tasty geezer who has pie and mash on a routine basis. And who hates West Ham, not because they’re Cockneys but – get this – because they’re not Cockney enough. Which they achieve by, er, being too Cockney.

Of course, nobody in football needs a reason to hate the scum from up the road. But Millwall make a decent fist of it. The fanzine hates West Ham “because they won the World Cup and are the ‘Academy of Football’ and are loveable, cheeky barrow boys and that lovely Alf Garnett, wasn’t he funny? Grrrrr!”

From the Millwall perspective, says Garry Robson, author of No One Likes Us We Don’t Care – The Myth And Reality Of Millwall Fandom, the rivalry with West Ham “is played out entirely in terms of toughness, virility and cultural authenticity within Londonness”.

John, a Millwall fan quoted by Robson, states this in plainer language: “They’re all fakers – the ‘East End’, all that ‘loveable Cockney’ bollocks. And this thing with the Krays, and it’s gone on and on and on. They all love the Queen Mum and it was bombed 
during the war. With us it’s, like, ‘They’re all thieves and gangsters over there’, but with them it’s, ‘Oh they might be thieves, but they’ve all got hearts of gold and they have nice street parties and they’re not really bad lads.’ Like they keep saying about the Krays – you could always leave your door open. It’s all b*ll*cks.”

West Ham, on the other hand, would “rarver fack a bucket / Wiv a big hole innit / Than be a Millwall fan / For just one minute”. And they tend to look down on “Scumwall” as “pikeys”.

“They really are scum,” explains Hammers fan Pete. “I mean, I was on the train once and there was this Millwall fan. He was asleep, he was about 60, really revolting-looking. And he had ‘I Love Sex’ tattooed on his hand. That says it all, really.”

So you get the picture. This is Ronnie Kray vs Charlie Richardson. Dirty Den vs Del Boy. Jim Davidson vs Hale & Pace. It’s an argument with no real rhyme, reason or rationale. Two predominantly white tribes – both increasingly drawn from far-flung suburbs in Essex or Kent – at loggerheads over which best represents an ever-more multicultural East London. Total bollocks, really. When you think about it. So it’s a good job nobody really does.

“Where were you at Upton Park?” sing the 2,000-odd visiting West Ham fans, all apparently pointing at me. I blush. Because this is actually my second attempt to see a game between these two sides this season. A furious West Ham press officer refused me access to the first.

“Why do you want to see the game?”

I’m doing an article on the rivalry…

“There is no rivalry! There is NO rivalry between West Ham and Millwall! It’s just a game! OK!? It’s JUST a game!”

Yes, but…

“IT’S JUST A GAME!” (End of conversation.)

OK, OK – it’s just a game. So why am I feeling just a little bit nervous? Well I’ve done me research, see. And most fans, academics and media pundits agree – visiting Millwall is like walking naked into a pit full of grizzly bears. With a sign saying ‘Grizzly bears are puffs’ around your neck. Arsenal’s Gooner fanzine 
babbles about the “Dickensian surroundings with water dripping from the dank viaduct”, and claims that leaving the ground is “like being on manoeuvres in some enemy-infested outpost in Vietnam”.

John King, in his seminal hoolie novel The Football Factory, gibbers that Millwall has a history of 
“a hundred years of kicking the f*ck out of anybody who strays too far down the Old Kent Road”.

A hundred years? Try 400. In the 17th century, 
panicking Puritans condemned this area as a bolthole for every species of “dissolute, loose and insolent” 
ruffian, “evill dispozed person” and “sturdy beggar” on the planet. South London, wrote bible-basher Donald Lupton in 1632, is “better termed a foul den then a faire garden” (the name kind of stuck). In 1837, Charles Dickens set Fagin’s den on Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey: “The very repulsive lineament of 
poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage.” And in 1996 the US State Department 
‘red-flagged’ the area as a no-go zone for tourists, claiming it was as dangerous as Guatemala (which, at the time, was overrun by right-wing death squads).

This, as former Millwall player Eamon Dunphy so eloquently put it, is quite simply “the wrong part of London”. And – if the press are to be believed – Millwall FC are the living embodiment of sporting evil. “The New Den, like the old Den, remains 
unparalleled, a uniquely poisonous, malevolent, ugly, depressing venue,” frothed Keith Pike of The Times. “To watch Millwall is to journey into a valley of hatred,” blathered Ken Gorman of the Daily Star as he stared fearfully at “a sea of scowling vengeful faces bounded by beer-fuelled loathing for any outsider”.

“To talk of hatred,” ranted Ken, his nostrils dilated in animal terror, “is not to exaggerate the most evil stench of wretchedness I have ever encountered.”

So that’s why I’m doing my breathing exercises and trying really hard not to s*it myself as I walk from the tube station, past the yuppie-flat building sites, down by the railway lines and under the dank, graffiti-covered Victorian brick arches. Past evil-looking crows that go “Caw!” And the gluehead-wobbly scrawled sign that reads “west ham will not make the den!”

You want menace? I’ll give you fucking menace. This morning, before setting off, I tuned into Talk Sport Radio. Tony Cascarino and Andy Townsend were discussing the derby and engaging in a strange hyperbolic willy-waggling that made the game sound like a showdown between Freddy Kruger and the KKK. “I wouldn’t take my daughter to it!” said Cascarino. “Ooh no! I wouldn’t take my wife to it!” one-upped Townsend. And the two of them then segued seamlessly into a discussion about Republic of Ireland games in Belfast during the height of the Troubles n– and al-Qaeda, armoured cars and guards with guns. And I’m stood there, electric toothbrush in my gob, absolutely terrified. Thanks, lads.

The press build-up to this game has bordered on the hysterical. The Observer refer to Millwall as “the Mike Tyson of football”. Writing in The Guardian, Zoe Williams reveals she is told not to go by her 
brother because “the one thing they hate more than each other are journalists”. A gentleman called Forest Gate Phil happily tells a lads’ mag “I fully expect there to be murder”. And former West Ham hooligan Cass Pennant is quoted as saying that “the atmosphere of hatred is unreal”.

Pennant is the author of the definitive history of West Ham hooliganism, Congratulations – You Have Just Met The ICF. The chapter on these derbies does not make for pleasant reading. It involves boots, fists, knives, machetes and – in one horrible instance – giant British Rail track-spanners. This history is well known by the Burberry-capped adolescent twat-psychopaths who keep the flame of hooliganism alive on the 
internet. And some of them are positively drooling over West Ham’s visit to the New Den.

So it’s no wonder that, according to the tabloids, this game is going to be like the opening scenes of Dawn Of The Dead, with grown men tearing each other apart with their bare teeth. They should make a film about it. In fact they are doing. It’s called Hooligan [ed: it ended up being called Green Street]. With Elijah Woods as an American student who is “seduced by the world of football hooliganism” at a Millwall/West Ham derby. Seriously. It’s going to make The Texas Chain Saw Massacre look like Finding Nemo. What am I doing here?

But the sun is shining on the railway sidings and the spring flowers are poking their dainty heads through the cracks in the quaint Victorian arches. And if this bit of London is Dickensian then it’s most definitely the Consider Yourself One Of Us scene out of Oliver! (rather than that bit where Bill Sikes smashes Nancy’s skull in with his stick). Twenty minutes before kick-off and the West Ham fans start singing Bubbles. And the Millwall fans respond with their trademark howl. But it’s all a bit intimidation-by-numbers. (He said, smugly, knowing there are over 1,000 police at this game.)

Meanwhile, the stands nearest the visiting fans are full of mime artists. One combs a huge imaginary quiff, pretends to be a tea-pot and then uses his arms to suggest West Ham are “all mairf” (by imitating the jaw movements of a large fish).

The game itself is farcical. Millwall miss a penalty. West Ham score an own goal. With an hour gone the score is 3-1. West Ham’s keeper is sent off. Millwall are awarded another penalty (which they also miss). And that’s when some of the West Ham fans decide to ‘attack’ the Millwall fans. Sort of.

What happens is that a couple of hundred away fans are, er, ‘held back’ by a very, very thin blue line. Consisting of five coppers. ‘Enraged’ and ‘frustrated’, the West Ham fans jump up and down for a bit and demolish a Kick Racism Out Of Football banner. More coppers turn up. And about 10 minutes later some policemen in riot gear amble over. It’s all utterly ritualistic and without any real menace, but it’ll allow a few arseholes some bragging rights on the hoolie websites tomorrow. “We’d’ve took Millwall if it hadn’t been for those five coppers asking us politely to sit back down,” etc. And that’s the main thing.

So where did it all start, this jellied-eel-fuelled blood feud? This interminable geezer vs geezer 
bitterness? West Ham Pete thinks he knows.

“There was a big strike at the ironworks about 1912 and the Millwall lot were the ones who crossed the picket line. So basically they’re the scab team.”

But this, alas, turns out to be an urban legend – at best total b*ll*cks, at worst a garbled re-telling of the Portsmouth/Southampton story.

“Look, if this rivalry went that far back,” says Phil, a West Ham fan, “then, when the Den was bombed during the Second World War, why did West Ham offer to ground-share? There’s always rivalry between South-East London and the East End, yeah? That’s obvious – ’cos we never had rats in the East End until they built the Rotherhithe Tunnel.”

We’re in a pub in London’s neutral West End. West Ham fans Ian, Phil and Pete are trying to shout down Millwall fans LSD and Jane. Some of the fans present might be described as former hooligans. Nobody is using his or her real name.

An outsider witnessing this maelstrom of shouting, swearing and table-banging would probably find it hard to believe that all the people here are friends. And that (Millwall) Jane and (West Ham) Pete are girlfriend and boyfriend. The Dickensian ambience is heightened still further by the fact that a certain extremely drunk 1970s punk rock star is also at the table. He will take no part in the conversation, 
however, as he is far too busy engaging in the latter stages of foreplay with an extremely drunk young lady.

Is it not true that this rivalry is really overblown and a lot of Millwall fans and West Ham fans are actually friends? Ian No!LSD No! Pete Oh come on! You know it’s f*cking true! Ian Thing is, West Ham don’t consider Millwall to be any sort of challenge. Tottenham are our main rivals. LSD Yeah, right. And then Arsenal and Real Madrid. But not necessarily in that order.Ian Ha ha ha! Thing is, South London are obsessed with East London. ’Cos they’re rubbish!Phil It’s because no one sells pegs round our way and they see us as a potential market.

Do Millwall have a problem with the way West Ham bang on about how they won the World Cup in 1966? Ian No, it’s just the fact we wear shoes! LSD Yeah, normally white ones to match your socks. Ian Oh hark at Captain Reebok! It’s all down to the Jubilee Line extension. South London’s always been gutted because they can’t get anywhere and now they’re getting ideas. Oh, which way to the Bernabeu? Phil It used to be that people would go to West Ham one Saturday and go to Millwall the next. LSD That’s quite true. In the ’40s and ’50s. The antagonism started in ’73 when a fan went under a train at New Cross.

But which is the real London? The East End or 
South-East London?LSD They both are. Yes, definitely. Without a doubt. Ian But you lot ain’t Cockneys.Phil Well, neither are you! Ian And neither are you, you Barking c***! Pete Ian! Steady!Ian Whatever happens, we’ll bash the journalist c***.

Is it not true that both teams increasingly draw the bulk of their support from the suburbs, which makes all the argy-bargy about “Londonness” somewhat redundant?LSD No! Ian No! Pete Whoa, hang on! Phil East London’s changing all the time. The area around Upton Park is far more Asian and a lot of the West Ham support have moved out to Essex.LSD Look, the two areas of London with strongest identity are East and South London, yeah? Which basically came from the Romans up to the modern day. Phil What the f*ck are you talking about?

If you walked into a pub full of East London football fans, is there any way you’d be able to tell them apart? Phil If they was trying to sell you heather and pegs…LSD There is a way – you won’t like it. Black geezers.Phil You see, you got no style, you got no soul…LSD Millwall supporters see it as a bit like the attitude there used to be in the East End. It’s still very strong in Bermondsey. They see it – wrongly or rightly – as the last white, working-class bastion of inner London. Ian It’s a fackin’ island! LSD I’m not saying it’s right; I’m just saying that’s the way it is. South Bermondsey, round where the football ground is, it’s not a good place to walk around if you’re black. There are black supporters of Millwall, but they’re very few. The black community don’t want to associate themselves with Millwall and the white community who go to Millwall don’t want to associate themselves with black people. Ian Can’t we just all get together and kick the f*ck out of the journalist? Jane With Millwall it’s passed on. If your dad supported them, you do. It is quite exclusive – it’s kept in the family almost. West Ham is anyone – it’s like Man United.

Jane, does your dad know you’re seeing a West Ham fan? Jane It’s not going down well, let’s put it that way. But what you say about a lot of our supporters being in Kent, that 
is true. I mean, all the kids in Bromley support Millwall because of the ‘bad boy’ reputation. LSD You can’t blame them. You can’t hold your head up high and say you support Palace or Charlton, can ya?

What happens if Millwall go up and West Ham don’t? How will you deal with losing that chip on your shoulder? LSD I ain’t got a chip on me shoulder!Jane It’s pride. LSD I’m proud of supporting a little club in South-East London that’s got no money. Whose back’s against the wall – and the rest of the football league hates you! We sing about it every week! We’re proud of it! Phil Yeah, but without being too damning, what’s your average gate this season? Ten thousand? Jane That doesn’t come into it. Phil But it does. West Ham have been relegated and they get 32,000. I mean, come on!Jane That’s not what it’s about.  LSD Millwall are the only club in the world where the fans are more famous than the club. The celebrities are in the stand, not on the pitch. Phil Millwall have always had something against us. Ian They’ve always hated us more than we’ve hated them.

Is that true?LSD No.Ian Fack off! We don’t give a fack about you! LSD I hate Charlton more than I hate West Ham. Phil Look, people support teams for all sorts of reasons, but Millwall fans are just born there – bang – and that’s it. And the Millwall people I know, they’re as genuine as I am. So let them enjoy their day. They had us over. You’ve just got to say well done and good luck to them.

And all is peace and harmony. But just then the 1970s punk rocker notices that someone has nicked his pint. A right old hoo-hah ensues. The punk is screaming in rage and fury. A fight almost starts.

And the West Ham and Millwall fans smile at one another and shake their heads. Some things just aren’t worth fighting about...

Words: Steven Wells. From the June 2004 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!