Fifty years of Sunderland openers: (2) visions of hell at Millwall

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The New Den is hardly the Old Den. Back in 2000, a semi-reformed Millwall Yob-and-Proud-of-It – he’d become a published author telling of his exploits – told me people were hypocritical about football hooligans because they created all the atmosphere in grounds. Pete Sixsmith, looking back in the second of this series on opening fixtures of his past, could be forgiven for thinking otherwise after experiencing a special Old Den welcome reserved for supporters of visiting teams with the audacity to score a few times. Some of the assailants that day, 40 years ago, will now be in their 80s and, presumably, causing havoc with their walking sticks in south London old people’s homes …


MILLWALL – in the lions’ Den 17/08/74

Ten years on from the Leicester game and we found ourselves back in the second level. There had been four undistinguished seasons in the top flight before we were relegated in 1969.

The Second Division had dragged us down like quicksand until Bob Stokoe replaced Alan Brown, who had returned in 1968, and took us to Cup Final glory in 1973.

But, the following season had been a disappointment and we had finished well adrift of Middlesbrough and not close enough to either Luton or Carlisle (both in Division 4 next season) who had filled the other two automatic promotion places.

So, there were changes. Stokoe brought in Stan Ternent, Bob Moncur, Bryan Robson and Tom Finney (from Luton, not Preston North End) to bolster a genuine promotion push. Tony Towers had arrived in the previous season as part of the deal that took Tueart and Horswill to Manchester City while Dennis Longhorn had been brought in in the March of ’74 from Mansfield Town. He had a great shot but a dearth of passing ability.

The rest were part of the ’73 team and there was great optimism amongst the Roker faithful as we tied our scarves around our wrists and wore our wide trousers and stack heeled shoes while singing along to Beach Baby and Band On The Run.

I had missed the pre-season where we beat Newcastle in the Texaco Cup, due to being away in what was then Yugoslavia. With a friend from work, Bob Miller, minus The Millermen, (Blackpool fan but a regular attendee at Roker), we had entrained to Belgrade, Sarajevo and Dubrovnik, where we ended up camping for coppers a night. The sun shone, the slivovitz flowed and Yugoslavia appeared to be the most enduring and enlightened of the Communist states, where Marxism and Titosim walked hand in hand.

Got that one wrong, didn’t I!

We returned to London the day before the clash at the Den, staying with Dick and Julie Smith in Sutton and taking a much less interesting train to New Cross where Sixsmith minimus met us, having travelled down on the overnight United bus from Peter Dowson’s shop in Shildon.

In those days, Millwall away was a fixture to avoid. The fans at the Den would have given Neanderthal Man a good run for his money and they had a justifiably fearsome reputation. Some were dockers and stevedores, others were duckers and divers, but it seemed that all of them were out there looking for trouble – and Sunderland fans.

Being habitual cowards we opted for the Den’s main stand. They refused to take Yugoslav Dinars, so we coughed up a quid each to take what was laughingly called a seat.

Now, anyone who waxes nostalgic about the “good old days” should have visited the Den. The seats were made of wood and were distinctly uncomfortable. The toilets were worse than anything Bob and I had faced in the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia and the atmosphere was, to say the least, hostile.

It didn’t help that we crushed them 4-1. Bobby Kerr and Tony Towers put us two ahead before Frank Saul (ex-Tottenham) pulled one back just before the break. However, the fighting had started before this as Millwall fans in the stand attacked Sunderland supporters on a regular basis.

Fists were flung, heads were lowered and boots were wrapped round people’s heads as grown men of 40+ attacked anyone who had cheered a Sunderland goal. There was no segregation and a police presence akin to that of PC Plum in Balamory ensured that the joy of watching your team take a convincing lead was somewhat dissipated.

Eventually the Met did arrive in numbers and formed a barrier between the Sunderland fans and their Millwall counterparts. Further goals from Vic Halom and Billy Hughes put the game beyond the Lions reach and the instigators of the violence drifted away long before the end of the game.

The Met man in charge suggested that all the Sunderland fans dispensed with colours (we did) and spoke in disguised accents as they made their way back to New Cross station. Dick Smith, ever the hero, said he would speak for us and that we should say nowt on the way back. We agreed.

However, in one of the unbelievably mean streets that led away from the Den, we were grabbed by two former pupils from Broom Cottages Secondary Modern School, who were beside themselves. Could they tag along with us to the station? Of course.

Could we put them on the right train for Kings Cross? Of course.

One of the lads (sadly no longer with us) had not been a model pupil and had given Bob and me a hard time as young teachers. He was a tough lad as well; a decent footballer although somewhat agricultural with his tackles. There was genuine fear in his eyes as he looked at me and said: “Can you get us back there, Mr Sixsmith? I’m f****** sh****** myself.”

We saw them on to the correct train and kept our heads down until ours arrived, saying nothing until we were well away from Cold Blow Lane, New Cross and the immediate and not so immediate environs of SE London. That evening we ended up in the Robin Hood in Sutton supping pints of Youngs Bitter telling tales of how we had traipsed around Yugoslavia and how, on our return, we had seen violence far worse than anything witnessed on the trip.

Let nobody tell you that these were good days; they weren’t. Violence was endemic and there were places that were there to avoid like the plague – Birmingham City, West Ham, Stoke, Chelsea (saw an Anglo Scottish Cup game there the following season and a group stood next to me were seriously plotting a set of quasi-military manoeuvres to be used on a tour to Norway) and Bristol Rovers had nasty home followings as well.

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Football? It was a great start to the season and we were never out of the top four for most of it. Unfortunately, only three went up and two defeats in our last three games, including a promotion decider at Villa Park in front of 57,000 left us in the second tier for 12 more months. Ron Guthrie and Dave Watson left as did Rod Belfitt, the Danny Graham of his day: hard working, decent bloke, incapable of scoring.

It seems a long way off. Harold Wilson had been restored as Prime Minister after the Ted Heath had posed the question “Who runs the country?” and received the answer “We don’t know but it’s not you mate”.

As teachers, we came back to the Houghton Report which stuffed our pockets with gold, enough for me to buy a VW Beetle and Bob to splash out on a Hillman Avenger, and new jobs at the newly formed Ferryhill Comprehensive School.

Prince Charles would have been a happy man as he strolled around Balmoral in his kilt, as The Three Degrees were topping the charts, holding off George McCrae with Rock Me Baby and The Stylistics with You Make Me Feel Brand New, while there was a Jacques Brel song (If You Go Away) in the lower echelons of the Top Forty – unfortunately not recorded by Brel or Scott Walker but Terry Jacks.

By this time, the Bush had been replaced by a rented colour set from DER and it was used to watch such gems as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, It’s Cliff Richard and The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. Jon Pertwee was replaced as Dr Who by Tom Baker and Ceefax appeared for the first time. Ah, those hours spent waiting for the page to turn over!!

Once again, many thanks to Keith Scott and Peter Hayes for the loan of the programme. Nostalgia galore when reading it.

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4 thoughts on “Fifty years of Sunderland openers: (2) visions of hell at Millwall”

  1. I was at this game (or maybe the one the season before as I remember we lost.) I travelled on my own from and to the distant part of London where I lived and paid at the gate on the day to stand. There was a really dense crowd even though there were only a few thousand there, the ground was so small.

    The atmosphere inside was awful – hatred is the only word that comes to mind – but it was little better outside as I made my way to the station and waited for a train on a different platform to the locaIs and SAFC fans.

    Worst ground ever, even surpassing a trip to Old Trafford a few years later, when the crowd was many times bigger and the hostility was palpable.

  2. It was tough being a football fan in the ’70s. Especially a visiting fan. Most places had their hard core of nutters who were only too willing to kick the shit out of a fellow human being simply because of his football allegiance, his place of birth or his accent. Millwall, West Ham, Cardiff, Chelsea, Leeds were places where you trod carefully. BUT WE STILL WENT!

  3. A lot of people are coming here from a Millwall site, House of Fun. Would someone there like to write a riposte? It would be welcome and, subject to usual legal/libel/decency rules, get an airing. salutsunderland@gmail.com is the address. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had unpleasant memories of visiting Roker as an away fan. These were football’s dark ages.

  4. I also seem to remember the demolition of a wall separating the Millwall fans from us. Not to get access to the Sunderland supporters, but to use the bricks as ammunition. My how we laughed!

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