Millwall: It's a father and son thing
Merv has since penned a book inspired by this feature: Because My Dad Does is available to buy from Amazon now
This feature originally appeared on Sabotage Times
Father-son relationships are tricky things. Without the benefit of that maternal instinct, extra effort is often required.
These days it's called 'bonding'. 'Modern men' can read all the magazine articles and watch all the daytime telly they like to make sure the relationship with their son and heir blossoms. But what do you do when you're one of the old school, working 12 hours a day back in the seventies and finding the demands of a young child a hell of a lot more than you bargained for?
I was a little sod in my early years. Dad was from a generation that simply did as their parents told them and he couldn't understand why I was such a handful. As I progressed into my teenage years, our relationship suffered. We disagreed and argued over virtually any subject. It was always a great source of upset to my mum. We simply didn't see eye to eye. Common ground was virtually non-existent.
Conversation was thin on the ground and another argument never far away. This was more than simple father-son growing pains: there were times when it seemed we totally resented one another's very presence.
There was, however, one thing we shared.
One Autumn day in 1979, Dad was getting ready to leave our flat in Balham to make the short trip to watch Millwall. In an attempt to give my mum some relief from trying to amuse me in his absence, he decided (against his better judgement he felt) to take me along. He was certain the idea would prove to be a disaster. I'd get bored, play him up and he'd have to bring me home early. But at least he'd have tried.
Saturday September 1, 1979 at home to Carlisle United. A seat in the main stand, after being lifted over the turnstiles. The smell of cigarette smoke. The noise. The roar when we scored. All still with me to this day. A 1-0 win courtesy of a goal from 17-year-old Kevin O'Callaghan. A glossy green programme as a souvenir which never left my grasp all weekend. The day had been a success and Dad congratulated himself on initiating his only son into the family tradition of supporting The Lions.
We became regulars on the Cold Blow Lane terrace. He enjoyed regaling me with tales of previous legends, both players and managers: Hewitt, Hurley, Billy Gray, Burridge, Fenton, Julians, Billy Neil, Eamon Dunphy. The 59-game unbeaten home run, the heartache of missing out on promotion in 1972 when my birth was just weeks away.
I couldn't get enough information out of him. I was full of questions and he loved imparting the knowledge. He'd shake his head and smile with pride, marvelling at my enthusiasm to follow in his football fan footsteps. It felt good. We had something here, something special. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was more than just father and son sharing an interest in football.
Success was thin on the ground in the first years of our shared support. The Petchey and Anderson eras meant that the terraces were a lonely place at times and few games lasted long in the memory. For me, performances on the pitch were incidental. I used to love standing with the other kids at the front of the Cold Blow Lane terrace, desperate to get autographs. Even if it was only Bobby Shinton, Nicky Chatterton or Andy Massey.
At the age of eight and nine the complexities of league tables, promotion and relegation were a bit beyond me. I knew we played in the Third Division - and that there was only four to choose from, so we obviously weren't up to much because defeat was more common than victory - and that was about it.
I do remember the enthusiasm that greeted the start of the 1982/83 season, when Peter Anderson brought in a huge number of players in an attempt to get the team promoted. We took our places for the first league game of the season against Cardiff expecting to witness an all-too-rare glory season get under way. We lost 4-0 and it was to prove an introduction to exactly what following Millwall was all about. I was dumbfounded. Dad just shrugged. "That's Millwall" he laughed. He'd seen it a hundred times before.
I also remember, later that same season, his excitement at the appointment of George Graham as manager. The name meant nothing to me but Dad was mightily impressed and was certain success would now come. That season gave me my first taste of real drama following The Lions as we battled against relegation and I started to study the league tables and permutations of up-and-coming fixtures.
For the first time I took my place further up the Cold Blow Lane terrace to add my voice to the Lions' roar next to Dad. The pandemonium that followed a narrow 1-0 over Brentford was my first real taste of what Millwall was REALLY all about. Sharing that with Dad made it extra special.
Away games were followed from home via LBC on his little radio and the win at Chesterfield that kept us up weeks later was greeted with us both dancing around the room in delight, with my mum looking on, wondering what was going on.
Promotion two years later was unforgettable. We had now moved to the halfway line, as a result of my pestering that it afforded a better view of both goals. Dad happily relinquished his lifelong habit of standing behind the goal on the Cold Blow Lane terrace to keep me happy.
My 13th birthday money was spent on a season ticket for the 1985/86 season – all £32 of it. I was now hungry to attend away games too but Dad was less keen to give up entire Saturdays travelling after enduring the weekly commute. To his credit he felt it unfair to make my mum a total Millwall widow and insisted that, unless it was for an extra special game, he was strictly home games only.
After much nagging, he agreed to let me go to Fulham away on my own on Easter Saturday in 1986. The first thing on my mind as I reached Victoria station after the 2-1 win was to find a phone box and tell him all about it. What I neglected to tell him was that, in a fit of fury at what seemed like Fulham's last-minute equaliser, I stormed out of the ground – only to miss the Lions' winner deep in injury time. It was a mistake I never made again.
I set myself a challenge to get him to away matches and managed to con him into coming to Sheffield United with me in 1987. I'd only been allowed to go that far because 'a friend' was coming too. This friend 'let me down at the last moment' and Dad felt obliged to accompany me.
He was full of a cold and spent the freezing three-hour train journey up to Sheffield glaring at me and shaking his head in disgust. There was no heating, no refreshments. This was travelling away Millwall-style. We won the game with a last minute O'Callaghan goal and he talked about that trip for years afterwards, admitting how thrilled he was to have been roped into it after all. It felt good. Dad had taken me, now I was returning the favour.
Try as I might, I couldn't persuade him to share the long coach journey to Hull to see us clinch promotion to the top flight for the first time at the end of that season. I begged him to share our team's greatest moment with me but "he couldn't leave Mum on a Bank Holiday Monday" – or risk a late night with work the next day.
Again, the first thing on my mind was to share the experience with him from the nearest phone box when we stopped at services on the way back. I arrived home in the early hours and crept in trying not to make a noise, only to be greeted by Dad, in his pyjamas. He'd waited up, unable to sleep ("like a bloody big kid" so my mum recalled) and we danced around the house in celebration.
I used to ask him about Millwall getting to the top division. Their near miss of 1972 would be brought up again and how he felt they were doomed never to experience the First Division. I was less pessimistic and looked forward to the days when we'd be watching our team against the Arsenals and Liverpools.
When did he think we'd do it? I'd ask him after each promising victory. For me it was only a matter of time before it was 'our turn'.
"I won't see it in my lifetime" he'd solemnly proclaim.
This used to sadden me. It was the first time I'd considered life without my dad. For all our differences, we'd stumbled upon some priceless common ground and through Millwall we weren't simply father and son. We were best mates.
To stand with him at The Den at the age of 16 and see us in the top flight meant I was able to constantly remind him of that gloomy prediction and how wrong he'd been. By now we were standing at the back of the halfway line terrace, a large contingent of friends had been made and matchdays were not simply for football but for the all-round banter that the terraces provided. There were times when some of the characters at The Den had us in such uncontrollable laughter that the details of the game fell by the wayside and stories would be recalled for years to come as we shared Sunday lunchtime pints together.
Away from the football our relationship often remained strained. It was real Jekyll and Hyde stuff. We couldn’t find common ground on much outside football - and there were even times when debates on topics such as whether Gary Waddock would ever be good enough escalated into heated arguments about issues totally removed from football. Almost every non-football topic would see us at loggerheads. There were times I felt he'd have a go at me for the sake of it, and looking back I'm sure he felt I went out of my way to wind him up. Neither was true.
Millwall was the glue that held us together. I have no doubt that without it there would be no room for reconciliation. Our differences were always forgotten come kick off time - or when the latest Millwall news needed dissecting.
At the age of 19 I left London and Millwall behind. I was starting a family and a new life in Manchester. It was a wrench but for once I had to put something before Millwall. The day I left home was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. It was unexpected and unnerving. Dad was your typical stiff upper lip, keep it all in sort of bloke. It suddenly dawned on me that all those years I'd spent in teenage angst thinking he couldn't give a monkeys had been terribly wasted - apart of course from when we'd shared Millwall experiences.
We never had a crossword from that day in April 1992, never a disagreement or even amicable differing of opinions. I used to find it strange, but obviously the distance made our relationship more valuable and trivial matters that had previously come between us were never raised. It was Millwall, Millwall, Millwall and that was just the way I liked it.
So our Millwall bond was stretched the two hundred miles or so between south London and Manchester. He continued to go to every game and we'd share the details by phone. Every Tuesday without fail a package would land on the door mat from Dad. In it would be the latest programme and news articles carefully cut out of the South London Press, just to keep me in touch.
Mum would often say what a lonely figure he cut leaving the house for the game on his own and how he often commented that it wasn't the same anymore. The thought of this brought a lump to my throat. I went to as many games as I could with him, including the last ever game at the old Den. The photo taken that day of our little group is now a treasured keepsake.
Another impossible milestone was achieved at the end of the century when we stood together at Wembley. Dad had always insisted that he would only go to the national stadium to see his beloved Lions and if they never reached the Twin Towers in his lifetime then he was happy to make that sacrifice. If he couldn't have Millwall at Wembley, Wembley could bugger off. Inexplicably I managed to somehow lose the camera film from that day (damn pre-digital era) and I’m gutted that I have no photographic record of that never-to-be-repeated experience.
As the mobile phone and internet age progressed, football news came instantly and my first response was always to phone Dad and let him know, which almost got me into trouble in the car park at Tranmere. As I excitedly celebrated our great FA Cup quarter-final replay win with him over the phone, some disgruntled home fans let me know that my enthusiasm wasn't appreciated. Sod 'em. We were off to Old Trafford – and I promised Dad that whatever it took we'd both be there.
One of my fondest memories is of us sat in my local pub enjoying a quick pint while we waited to collect a takeaway. It was the evening of Sunday, April 4 2004. We had just witnessed Millwall reaching the FA Cup final and couldn't wipe the smiles off our faces. We just sat there grinning at each other and shaking our heads.
Weeks later we made the journey from my parents' Kent home to Cardiff for the final itself. Amazingly, Dad bumped into a pal he hadn't seen since he left school as we enjoyed a pre-match drink in the Glamorgan Working Mens Club opposite the stadium. It was a magical day: who cared about the result?
As 'Abide With Me' filled the stadium I put my arm around my dad and felt the emotion welling up inside me. My mind filled with memories of FA Cup final days at home with Dad in my childhood, when we'd watch the game on TV. As the famous cup final hymn played then, I'd dream of a day when me and Dad would be singing along to it at the stadium before our own team took to the pitch. In 25 years we'd shared just about every experience that any English football fan could hope for.
We'd done it all. It was perfect.
And so began the customary years of decline. Dad remained loyal. Renewing his season ticket. Sending me the programmes and news cuttings. We talked for hours about the club's dwindling fortunes and how we knew it had to be taken with the good times. There were plenty more years to enjoy and now there was a new target of seeing Millwall at the new Wembley.
"But only Millwall mind..."
As the 2005/2006 season got under way, we joked about how we'd be watching them down the road from me at Stockport again soon the way things were deteriorating. His Saturday match reports made for very grim listening.
As the New Year began, our phone conversations became interrupted by a persistent cough that he’d been left with after a bout of Christmas 'flu. By the end of February it got so bad that he was barely able to complete a sentence without coughing uncontrollably. He wasn't a smoker and this had been going on for two months, so he went to the docs to get it sorted at the start of March. The doctor decided to send him for an x-ray to double check. He was admitted to hospital with fluid on his left lung, and as my wife and I drove through the night down to Kent to see him, I knew deep down what this could mean.
Countless tests were done and Dad was left in no doubt as to what they were looking for. But he had to wait. The worry was excruciating. I did what I could to reassure him and we shared a trip to The Den. A few pre-match drinks in 'Arrys Bar and some banter with some proper Millwall characters helped to take his mind off things temporarily – but the terrible 1-0 defeat to Leicester didn't do much to raise spirits.
After two torrid months of tests and hospital visits, Dad was given the worst possible news. He had a rare form of cancer called Mesothelioma, linked to exposure to asbestos during his job as a builder in the sixties. Less than nine months later on Thursday, February 1 2007 I sat at his bedside with Mum and we watched him pass away. From the day he was first admitted to hospital for that x-ray on March 7 2006, the Dad that I knew was gone forever as the fear of what was happening to him consumed his life and sapped his spirit.
In the intervening period we'd managed to get them both moved up to a bungalow near us in Manchester, where the best cancer treatment was available. We were there at every hospital visit as he underwent painful, debilitating chemotherapy to try and turn the months into years, but it was a fight Dad wasn't up to. His enthusiasm for everything deserted him. We tried desperately to lift his spirits but it was hopeless.
Just before they moved I persuaded him to go to a game – the first of the season at home to Yeovil. He sat in his usual place – at the back of Block 35 (he'd always preferred being behind the goal) - and chatted to the friends he’d made there over the years. I spoke to him that evening about the game but he just didn't have the heart. Our conversations now were almost exclusively about his illness. I persisted with talking about the latest matches, results, signings and news but unsurprisingly it didn't stir his troubled mind.
The first Saturday evening after he'd passed was a particularly hard time. I cursed Dad's luck as the Yeovil result was confirmed and tried to joke to myself about how he could have at least hung on until Saturday to see us win a game. For the first time since that sunny day in September 1979, I had no one to share my Millwall with and it hurt.
I know that every time some news comes through on my mobile from the club about a new signing, I will go to phone and share it with dad – just as I will after every match. The empty feeling I get when I can't make that call will never be any easier to bear.
But what I do have are cherished memories that I can play over and over in my mind, as clear as if they were on video. I have to remember how lucky I am. Dad was 68. We still feel robbed. Until he took ill he was a fit and healthy man. Belying his years, always active, never smoking, drinking in moderation, watching his weight, never in hospital, never ill it seemed. I honestly cannot remember him ever taking a day off sick from work.
But to have been able to enjoy such a friendship with him through such a simple shared pleasure as following a football team is a genuine comfort. Many don't get that chance. All too often I hear of those who are taken at a much younger age and remind myself that there are many who would happily have swapped places with me.
Over the years, when asked 'who do you support?' my answer was almost always responded to with an instant 'Why?'. People hardly ever question why you are an Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool fan – even if you live nowhere near the ground or even get to see many games. They rarely wonder why your allegiance is a less fashionable Middlesbrough, Stoke, Brentford or Barnet. But they seem to have trouble understanding why anyone would want to follow Millwall. My reason was always simple, one I'm sure shared by many fans and a great source of pride regardless of the team's lack of success or off the field reputation.
I may not be able to call myself a Millwall supporter in the truest sense of the word any more. I can't get to many games – but heaven knows I would be there every week if it were possible, no matter how bad we are performing. Just as Dad did through the bleak fifties when we were battling against the dangers of reelection, he was always there.
There are so many cliches. "It's in my blood", "Cut me and I bleed blue and white", "English by birth, Millwall by the grace of God" etc. But for me, the reason I give for a lifelong love affair with the Lions is very simple whenever anyone feels the need to ask 'why?'
"Because my Dad does."
Merv has since penned a book inspired by this feature: Because My Dad Does is available to buy from Amazon now