Before I say anything else, let me offer the thought that Millwall fans – decent ones, anyway, and please do not automatically assume decency and Millwall are mutually exclusive terms – have a point when they say a few missiles thrown by gormless hoodlums should not tarnish an entire club.
What happend during Millwall v Boro was nasty enough for the referee to want to abandon the game, according to both managers, who reportedly talked him out of it.
But the outbreaks of appalling behaviour that still pollute football are not confined to the New Den. Think back to the Birmingham derby or even our own derbies. Every football club has a yob element to its support.
It is also true that as a club, Millwall has tried hard to minimise the problem. And no excuses will ever be found on my lips for the Sun reporter who once based a hostile piece on a repeated chant he took to be Sieg Heil from Millwall neo-Nazis but was in fact Seagulls (from Brighton fans).
That said, there does seem to be something exceptional about Millwall and it has never in my long memory been a pleasant experience to go there as an away supporter.
A man who clearly regards himself as among the decent contingent rang a London phone-in programme to complain about media demonisation of his club.
He liked the passion of support at Millwall and felt perfectly happy taking his daughter to games. But no, he would never “grass up” a lowlife thug who lobbed a coin or other object at a player or official, no matter what risk of injury arose.
I may be naive but thought the term “grass up” was one used predominantly or even exclusively by underworld figures, in other words criminals. Well, Salut! Sunderland is happy to see most points of view – and supports the principle of innocent until proved guilty to the extent of condemning stadium bans on people “suspected” of football disorder but so far convicted of nothing – but draws the line at offering understanding and succour to criminals.
My first experience of Millwall’s passionate home support was at the old Den in the 1970s. Millwall deservedly won 2-1 but for a large bunch of Millwall “fans”, the football was an irrelevance: they just wanted to get at the Sunderland away support and would have attacked had there not been physical and human (police) barriers to their ability to do so.
When the New Den opened, I remember being held back for 20-30 minutes after a game so that police, as one officer put it to me, could clear the “animals” from the estate that lay between the ground and the station.
Later, a cage-like walkway was installed to make the walk from train to ground more secure, though it felt like being in a concentration camp to have to use it.
Just before Euro 2000, I interviewed by e-mail a Millwall supporter and semi-reformed yob who now wrote books (not the one shown above). He was not remotely ashamed of his disgusting past; indeed, he felt hooligans by and large created the passionate atmosphere appreciated by others and also thought the young men who followed England abroad – there’d be no cause to follow Millwall overseas, of course – for the sole purpose of making trouble were in fact the flower of English youth intent on teaching Johnny Foreigner some respect.
Another caller to the radio show talked about record sums donated by Millwall supporters, at their 2009 Wembley playoff final, for wounded servicemen. That’s to be applauded; it does not exonerate any of the same people or fellow Millwall supporters who act violently, join in happily if violence occurs or cheerfully help savages intent on GBH or worse get away with it.