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More Than A Game: Millwall v West Ham

"DonâÂÂt do it, chums! DONâÂÂT throw soil, â¨cinders, clinkers, stones, bricks, bottles, cups, fireworks or other kinds of explosives, apples, oranges, etc. on the playing pitch during or after the match. DONâÂÂT barrack, utter filthy abuse, or molest in any way the players of the visiting team.â Millwall warning notice, 1949-50.

âÂÂOh, Wisey! Woah ah ah oh! HeâÂÂs only five-foot-four! HeâÂÂll break your fackinâ jaw!âÂÂ

Flooding out of the New Den into the glorious afternoon sunshine, youâÂÂve 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.

âÂÂFour-one! AN' it could have been seven! AN' we missed two penalties! AN' their keeper got fackinâ sent off!âÂÂ

IâÂÂm trying to fit in. By not looking like a soft, â¨middle-class, Northern homosexual who likes opera, real ale and kittens. IâÂÂve done me homework. IâÂÂve 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: âÂÂGo for pie and mash.â To which a disgusted TLR replies: âÂÂDo not do this as a novelty, do this as part of everyday life.âÂÂ

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 theyâÂÂre Cockneys but â get this â because theyâÂÂre 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 âÂÂbecause they won the World Cup and are the âÂÂAcademy of Footballâ and are loveable, cheeky barrow boys and that lovely Alf Garnett, wasnâÂÂt he funny? Grrrrr!âÂÂ

From the Millwall perspective, says Garry Robson, author of No One Likes Us We DonâÂÂt Care â The Myth And Reality Of Millwall Fandom, the rivalry with West Ham âÂÂis played out entirely in terms of toughness, virility and cultural authenticity within LondonnessâÂÂ.

John, a Millwall fan quoted by Robson, states this in plainer language: âÂÂTheyâÂÂre all fakers â the âÂÂEast EndâÂÂ, all that âÂÂloveable Cockneyâ bollocks. And this thing with the Krays, and itâÂÂs gone on and on and on. They all love the Queen Mum and it was bombed â¨during the war. With us itâÂÂs, like, âÂÂTheyâÂÂre all thieves and gangsters over thereâÂÂ, but with them itâÂÂs, âÂÂOh they might be thieves, but theyâÂÂve all got hearts of gold and they have nice street parties and theyâÂÂre not really bad lads.â Like they keep saying about the Krays â you could always leave your door open. ItâÂÂs all b*ll*cks.âÂÂ

West Ham, on the other hand, would âÂÂrarver fack a bucket / Wiv a big hole innit / Than be a Millwall fan / For just one minuteâÂÂ. And they tend to look down on âÂÂScumwallâ as âÂÂpikeysâÂÂ.

âÂÂThey really are scum,â explains Hammers fan Pete. âÂÂI 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 âÂÂI Love Sexâ tattooed on his hand. That says it all, really.âÂÂ

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

âÂÂWhere were you at Upton Park?â 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.

âÂÂWhy do you want to see the game?âÂÂ

IâÂÂm doing an article on the rivalryâ¦

âÂÂThere is no rivalry! There is NO rivalry between West Ham and Millwall! ItâÂÂs just a game! OK!? ItâÂÂs JUST a game!âÂÂ

Yes, butâ¦

âÂÂITâÂÂSâÂÂJUSTâÂÂAâÂÂGAME!â (End of conversation.)

OK, OK â itâÂÂs just a game. So why am I feeling just a little bit nervous? Well IâÂÂve done me research, see. And most fans, academics and media pundits agree â visiting Millwall is like walking naked into a pit full of grizzly bears. With a sign saying âÂÂGrizzly bears are puffsâ around your neck. ArsenalâÂÂs Gooner fanzine â¨babbles about the âÂÂDickensian surroundings with water dripping from the dank viaductâÂÂ, and claims that leaving the ground is âÂÂlike being on manoeuvres in some enemy-infested outpost in VietnamâÂÂ.

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

A hundred years? Try 400. In the 17th century, â¨panicking Puritans condemned this area as a bolthole for every species of âÂÂdissolute, loose and insolentâ â¨ruffian, âÂÂevill dispozed personâ and âÂÂsturdy beggarâ on the planet. South London, wrote bible-basher Donald Lupton in 1632, is âÂÂbetter termed a foul den then a faire gardenâ (the name kind of stuck). In 1837, Charles Dickens set FaginâÂÂs den on JacobâÂÂs Island in Bermondsey: âÂÂThe very repulsive lineament of â¨poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage.â And in 1996 the US State Department â¨âÂÂred-flaggedâ 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 âÂÂthe wrong part of LondonâÂÂ. And â if the press are to be believed â Millwall FC are the living embodiment of sporting evil. âÂÂThe New Den, like the old Den, remains â¨unparalleled, a uniquely poisonous, malevolent, ugly, depressing venue,â frothed Keith Pike of The Times. âÂÂTo watch Millwall is to journey into a valley of hatred,â blathered Ken Gorman of the Daily Star as he stared fearfully at âÂÂa sea of scowling vengeful faces bounded by beer-fuelled loathing for any outsiderâÂÂ.

âÂÂTo talk of hatred,â ranted Ken, his nostrils dilated in animal terror, âÂÂis not to exaggerate the most evil stench of wretchedness I have ever encountered.âÂÂ

So thatâÂÂs why IâÂÂm 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 âÂÂCaw!â And the gluehead-wobbly scrawled sign that reads âÂÂwest ham will not make the den!âÂÂ

You want menace? IâÂÂll 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. âÂÂI wouldnâÂÂt take my daughter to it!â said Cascarino. âÂÂOoh no! I wouldnâÂÂt take my wife to it!â 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 nâ and al-Qaeda, armoured cars and guards with guns. And IâÂÂm 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 âÂÂthe Mike Tyson of footballâÂÂ. Writing in The Guardian, Zoe Williams reveals she is told not to go by her â¨brother because âÂÂthe one thing they hate more than each other are journalistsâÂÂ. A gentleman called Forest Gate Phil happily tells a ladsâ mag âÂÂI fully expect there to be murderâÂÂ. And former West Ham hooligan Cass Pennant is quoted as saying that âÂÂthe atmosphere of hatred is unrealâÂÂ.

Pennant is the author of the definitive history of West Ham hooliganism, Congratulations â You Have Just Met The ICF. The chapter on these derbies does not make for pleasant reading. It involves boots, fists, knives, machetes and â in one horrible instance â 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 â¨internet. And some of them are positively drooling over West HamâÂÂs visit to the New Den.

So itâÂÂs 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. ItâÂÂs called Hooligan[ed: it ended up being called Green Street]. With Elijah Woods as an American student who is âÂÂseduced by the world of football hooliganismâ at a Millwall/West Ham derby. Seriously. ItâÂÂs 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 itâÂÂs most definitely the Consider Yourself One Of Us scene out of Oliver! (rather than that bit where Bill Sikes smashes NancyâÂÂs 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 itâÂÂs 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 âÂÂall mairfâ (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 HamâÂÂs keeper is sent off. Millwall are awarded another penalty (which they also miss). And thatâÂÂs when some of the West Ham fans decide to âÂÂattackâ the Millwall fans. Sort of.

What happens is that a couple of hundred away fans are, er, âÂÂheld backâ by a very, very thin blue line. Consisting of five coppers. âÂÂEnragedâ and âÂÂfrustratedâÂÂ, 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. ItâÂÂs all utterly ritualistic and without any real menace, but itâÂÂll allow a few arseholes some bragging rights on the hoolie websites tomorrow. âÂÂWeâÂÂdâÂÂve took Millwall if it hadnâÂÂt been for those five coppers asking us politely to sit back down,â etc. And thatâÂÂs the main thing.

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

âÂÂThere was a big strike at the ironworks about 1912 and the Millwall lot were the ones who crossed the picket line. So basically theyâÂÂre the scab team.âÂÂ

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

âÂÂLook, if this rivalry went that far back,â says Phil, a West Ham fan, âÂÂthen, when the Den was bombed during the Second World War, why did West Ham offer to ground-share? ThereâÂÂs always rivalry between South-East London and the East End, yeah? ThatâÂÂs obvious â âÂÂcos we never had rats in the East End until they built the Rotherhithe Tunnel.âÂÂ

WeâÂÂre in a pub in LondonâÂÂs 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, â¨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!
Pete Oh come on! You know itâÂÂs f*cking true!
Ian Thing is, West Ham donâÂÂt consider Millwall to be any sort of challenge. Tottenham are our main rivals.
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. âÂÂCos theyâÂÂre rubbish!
Phil ItâÂÂs 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, itâÂÂs just the fact we wear shoes!
LSD Yeah, normally white ones to match your socks.
Ian Oh hark at Captain Reebok! ItâÂÂs all down to the Jubilee Line extension. South LondonâÂÂs always been gutted because they canâÂÂt get anywhere and now theyâÂÂre 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 ThatâÂÂs quite true. In the âÂÂ40s and âÂÂ50s. The antagonism started in âÂÂ73 when a fan went under a train at New Cross.

But which is the real London? The East End or â¨South-East London?
LSD They both are. Yes, definitely. Without a doubt.
Ian But you lot ainâÂÂt Cockneys.
Phil Well, neither are you!
Ian And neither are you, you Barking c***!
Pete Ian! Steady!
Ian Whatever happens, weâÂÂll 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 âÂÂLondonnessâ somewhat redundant?
Ian No!
Pete Whoa, hang on!
Phil East LondonâÂÂs 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 youâÂÂd be able to tell them apart?
Phil If they was trying to sell you heather and pegsâ¦
LSD There is a way â you wonâÂÂt like it. Black geezers.
Phil You see, you got no style, you got no soulâ¦
LSD Millwall supporters see it as a bit like the attitude there used to be in the East End. ItâÂÂs still very strong in Bermondsey. They see it â wrongly or rightly â as the last white, working-class bastion of inner London.
Ian ItâÂÂs a fackinâ island!
LSD IâÂÂm not saying itâÂÂs right; IâÂÂm just saying thatâÂÂs the way it is. South Bermondsey, round where the football ground is, itâÂÂs not a good place to walk around if youâÂÂre black. There are black supporters of Millwall, but theyâÂÂre very few. The black community donâÂÂt want to associate themselves with Millwall and the white community who go to Millwall donâÂÂt want to associate themselves with black people.
Ian CanâÂÂt we just all get together and kick the f*ck out of the journalist?
Jane With Millwall itâÂÂs passed on. If your dad supported them, you do. It is quite exclusive â itâÂÂs kept in the family almost. West Ham is anyone â itâÂÂs like Man United.

Jane, does your dad know youâÂÂre seeing a West Ham fan?
Jane ItâÂÂs not going down well, letâÂÂs put it that way. But what you say about a lot of our supporters being in Kent, that â¨is true. I mean, all the kids in Bromley support Millwall because of the âÂÂbad boyâ reputation.
LSD You canâÂÂt blame them. You canâÂÂt hold your head up high and say you support Palace or Charlton, can ya?

What happens if Millwall go up and West Ham donâÂÂt? How will you deal with losing that chip on your shoulder?
LSD I ainâÂÂt got a chip on me shoulder!
Jane ItâÂÂs pride.
LSD IâÂÂm proud of supporting a little club in South-East London thatâÂÂs got no money. Whose backâÂÂs against the wall â and the rest of the football league hates you! We sing about it every week! WeâÂÂre proud of it!
Phil Yeah, but without being too damning, whatâÂÂs your average gate this season? Ten thousand?
Jane That doesnâÂÂt come into it.
Phil But it does. West Ham have been relegated and they get 32,000. I mean, come on!
Jane ThatâÂÂs not what itâÂÂs 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 TheyâÂÂve always hated us more than weâÂÂve hated them.

Is that true?
Ian Fack off! We donâÂÂt 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 â bang â and thatâÂÂs it. And the Millwall people I know, theyâÂÂre as genuine as I am. So let them enjoy their day. They had us over. YouâÂÂve 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 arenâÂÂt worth fighting about...

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