Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Let 'Em Come - Millwall FC Vs Barnet FC, League Cup 1st Round, The Den (11/08/15)

Millwall FC is a team in the footballing world that conjures up all sorts of images, myths and folklore, some of which I'm sure are justified, some of which I'm sure are total bullshit. Tom and I wanted to find out for ourselves, so when Millwall drew Barnet FC in the first round of the League Cup, the chance to tick The Den off the "to do list" presented itself, nice and early in the season, in fact its Millwall's first home game of the 2015/16 season. I have seen Millwall play before, at Stockport County FC Edgeley park, that's a whole other story, but a visit to The Den, was one of the first places we had both wanted to visit since starting our quest. 

The P12 from Canada Water, took me a hop, skip and a jump from the ground, depositing me firmly South of the river, on a grey, humid, drizzly night, on the famous Zampa Road. Once off the bus, South East London presented me with a fox with a rat in its mouth, standing on the pavement opposite me, under a railway arch, like a vision of a dystopian future, swap the rat with an arm, and it was reminiscent of a scene from the 'Walking Dead'.
 

I was distracted from the search for my samurai sword, after spotting what could only be described as Jack Sparrows Dad walking past me, and broke away from the Mexican stand off I was having with the local wildlife. This was not an extra from a Disney film franchise, even though he had a bandana and a large bushy beard, but it was perhaps Barnet FC's biggest and well known fan, Village. We share a mutual friend, and I recognised him after they both appeared along side each other on Soccer AM, after the Barnet fans did a stint in the Luther Blissett stand. You could not ask to meet a nicer, more welcoming bloke, who was more than happy to pose for a picture, and we ended up chatting as we walked to the ground together, along the same pavement the fox had earlier occupied, but who had since "done one".
 

A coach passed us as it squeezed down the very narrow Zampa Road, Village seemed to know instinctively that it was the Barnet FC (BFC) coach, even though there were no obvious markings on the outside, but he waved his hand knowingly, to the people sitting on the other side of the blacked out glass, as it turned in to the car park. All of a sudden Village was off, striding up to Kevin Lisbie, the ex-Jamaican international, who was walking through the car park.

"You're Jamaican, aren't you?" asked Village, to a slightly confused looking Lisbie "hope so", Lisbie replied. Village went on to request a picture of Lisbie in front of the Jamaican flag, one of many he had arranged to hang outside the BFC home ground The Hive, to represent the players and fans of the club.

The bowels of the coach were opened, and various boxes, a white board, speaker and a broom, amongst other things were removed and taken inside, by men in bright orange t-shirts, through the players entrance the coach had pulled up alongside. Then it just sat there, the engine ticking over, figures could just be made out through the glass but no one was moving, Village joked "they are just finishing their card game".

Martin "Mad Dog" Allen, the BFC manager got off, Village said hello, Mad Dog reciprocated, and then got back on again. The two Millwall FC (MFC) mascots, both lions, like the one on the club badge, even started to look bored, as they waited for a chance to take a picture with the BFC players.
 

Tom who by this point had done a bit of a tour of the local area, after making his own way to The Den, arrived just in time to get a picture of the BFC players finally disembarking, posing with the lions, and then disappearing into the ground. That meant it was time for us to get our tickets, and find somewhere to get a pint.
 

Considering MFC's position, the new season finds them in League One, after relegation's from the Championship, I can imagine that tonight's game is only a distraction, from what can only be a promotion at all costs focused club at the moment. This is reflected in the cut price tickets, £15 for adults, £1 for kids, the fact that only 3 sides of The Den are open, and one of them for the away side. The club assuming that their fans also see the game, against a lower league opposition, as far from important.
 

On our way to the shop, for Tom to acquire a badge for his slowly growing collection from each club we visit, we see some high level "banter" from a local "youth" really sticking the knife in where it hurts to a group of 3 elderly BFC fans. "Conference" he shouts, peering over his shoulder as he walked away, and then celebrated like all his Christmases had come at once, after the slightest of slight reaction from one of them, "she looked, she looked".

A badge is all that can tempt Tom in the shop, its a bit of a novelty to see a club shop, its a rare sight at most of the non-league games we go to, but a MFC golf badge, signed shirt or onesie, can't make us part with our cash.

Past "Arrys Bar" a members only joint, and opposite the "Millwall Memorial Garden" a well kept, grassy area, outside the ground, adorned with flowers and wreaths in the clubs colours, left in memory of recent fans who have died, is a white marquee, the S17 bar. The cover it offers is much welcome, as the drizzle has turned to rain, but its still warm, and semi justifies my agonised decision to wear shorts. We sit contemplating the price of a plastic bottle of Carlsberg, with our view being comprised of a load of skips, and our soundtrack the constant rattle of the nearby railway line.
 

Conveniently for us, but quite by mistake, the turnstile for our seats in the Barry Kitchener upper stand, named after their longest serving player, is right next to the bar. We climb the concrete steps, to be presented with that familiar sight, from so many grounds of blank grey concrete floors and walls, the odd TV up high showing Sky Sports, and the large faded picture of previous triumphs, all accompanied by the wafting smell of the concession stands.
 

Keen to see what our seats are like, having left it in the hands of the girl at the ticket office, asking for the best place to sit, she has put us three rows from the front, almost bang on the half way line, the edge of the extendable blue players tunnel just visible, and the technical areas just below us. Today also allowed us for the first time to hang our newly acquired flag, so I hurriedly try and remember my knots from Scouts, hoping a steward does not ask me what I'm doing.
 

We sit briefly, and talk about that feeling you get walking into a "big" ground, the anticipation before the game. As you walk up the stairs of your block, for a few moments you can't see much, but then it slowly appears before you, at the top of the stairs you take a second to drink it in, the flood lights dazzling, highlighting the intense green of the pitch.
 

We love the non-league grounds we visit, so many of them have more character in their little finger than any modern, flat pack stadium, but their sheer size makes them imposing, impressive, you just can't wait for the game to get underway.

The Den has a interesting history, it was the the first all seater ground completed after the Taylor Report, following the Hillsborough disaster, and is MFC's sixth ground since they were formed on the Isle of Dogs in 1885. There are also lots of nods to the clubs community and area. The stand opposite us the "Dockers Stand", highlights the clubs position close to the river Thames, and its early fan base that once worked it. "Cold Blow Lane" in large blue letters adorns the roof of the stand to our right, named after the road that used to lead to their previous ground The Old Den, below spelt out in yellow seats is "THE DEN". As far as its construction, it's nothing fancy, each stand comprised of two tiers, with a gap at each corner.
 

Back on the concourse its impossible, to miss the the black plaques, with gold writing dotted around, with heart felt messages, once again like the memorial garden, a way to honour lost supporters. This just screams to me of a club being in touch with its community, that has a real connection with its loyal fans.
 

After swapping my warm bottle of Coke for a warm bottle of water, and Tom finishing another ice cool plastic bottle of beer and molten hot sausage roll, as he again insists on sampling some of the stadium cuisine, did he learn nothing from the aftermath of the Craven Cottage pie?

A handful of BFC occupy the middle block of the upper tier of the stand to our left, at the moment the flags stretched out across the empty blue seats, almost out number the fans.
 

As both teams go though the final warm up, the two lion mascots, kick about with one human mascot in the centre circle. The floodlights highlight the rain and the stadium announcer, someone you might describe as a bit of a "character" informs the crowd, which seems to be predominantly families, about the upcoming home game "On Saturday we welcome the might of Mowbrays men, Coventry"
 

"Let 'em come, Let 'em come, Let 'em come" the first few bars of Roy Green's song of the same name, brings the whole ground to its feet, clapping in time, and singing along;
 

"It's Saturday on Cold Blow Lane
We've all come down to cheer
We've had our jellied eels
And our glass of beer
Come rain or shine all the time
Our families we'll bring
And as the Lions run on the pitch
                                                                                    Everyone will sing"

As the last chorus plays out, the volume rises culminating in a rousing sing song aimed at the away end, the MFC fan next to us stands arms outstretched, singing at the top of his voice "Let 'em all come down to The Den, Let 'em all...... come down......... TO THE DEEEENNNNNNN".
 

Both teams appear from below us, MFC in blue shirts, BFC in orange and black stripes, a man with a microphone is milling about on the pitch, reading out the teams, in the case of BFC he seems to be welcoming back every other player, who at some point seem to have played at MFC. Once the teams shake hands the voice on the tannoy congratulates the mascot "Smashing bit of mascoting!"

MFC's fan anthem "No one likes us, we don't care" reverberates from the few fans in the Cold Blow Lane end, with a large chimney from a local factory poking up from behind it.
 

"Come on 'Wall"
 

The main topic around us, as the game gets underway, is not the team or tactics, but Joey Bartons rumoured move to West Ham FC "Scum player, going to a scum club". With the game only minutes old, Mad Dog is already barking at his team, from his almost permanent position on the edge of his box, and it's his team who get the first shot away . The Bee Armys numbers have swelled considerably since we arrived, they have added more flags, and now take up about two blocks, a lot of them on their feet, and making a decent amount of noise, "come on Barnet".
 

MFC are quick to reply with a chance, a low fizzing free kick, is flicked on by the head of a player on the edge of the box, and it requires a smart, stretching save from the BFC keeper tipping it wide for a corner, but that's about it for MFC, they are second best. BFC from a league below are out working the home team, especially the speed and strength of the BFC number 9, and the towering centre back winning every ball lumped his way. It's totally in keeping with the way the game is going, when BFC take the lead from the penalty spot.
 

A powerful and direct run from the BFC forward, takes him into the area, the MFC defence melting away in his wake, as he charges at goal, he goes down. The referee has no hesitation in pointing to the spot, Tom and I are not convinced, looked like he tripped himself, the BFC fans are far from sympathetic "off, off, off, off", the quiet suited man next to us was sure it was the correct decision, his opinion is however not shared with the majority of fans who are for a few seconds lost for words, looking at each other appalled at the decision. The MFC player escapes a the red card, the same BFC player who won the penalty coolly rolls the ball in, the keeper going the wrong way, 0 - 1.
 

"1 - 0 TO THE BARNET BOYS"
 

"CAN YOU HEAR THE MILLWALL SING!?!"

The MFC fans around us try to rouse the troops "Come on you lions" but can't drown out the noisy away fans.
 

Mad Dog is a curious fellow, we had a slight run in with him at The Hive, on the last day of last season, nothing remotely severe, more funny than anything, but I cant pretend I'm his biggest fan. His passion cannot be questioned, and after seeing him recently on the new Channel 5 League show, his reaction to the home made production values of the programme and its presenters, has pushed him up in my estimations. Watching him on the sidelines, living out every pass and tackle, even on various occasions miming the exact movement or body position required from the player he was talking to, it's in vast contrast to Neil Harris the MFC manager, who just stands, arms crossed, and considering his teams performance, he might want to rev up his enthusiasm.
 

"They're just walking though you!" cries the most animated fan near us, a chap in a grey flat cap, and he is bang on, MFC look like conceding every time BFC get at them, they are not doing anything intricate or clever, but are simply being direct, running at the heart of the defence, and its causing so many problems.
 

"COME ON BARNET!!"

One corner of the ground is almost purple, as the sun sets, and it illuminates the gap between the stands, another is filled every few minutes by a train passing by the ground.
 

About 20 mins into the game the home fans finally have something to get off their feet about, when the ball almost trickles in to the BFC goal after the resulting save from a one on one, ricochets off the keeper and almost draws things level. Such is the home teams performance that after almost pulling a goal back, they almost go two down, after the debut keeper, tries to be tricky in the box, trying to out fox the onrushing BFC player, who he can't get the best of, and his hurried clearance, luckily for him, goes out for a goal kick. NAME has had enough, and his arms are quickly unfolded, and he gives his players hell for messing about, and the fans appreciate it, "sort them out!"

The end finishes with BFC ahead, "boos" ring out, people are happy to share their opinion "that was dire", "that was shit", and in some cruel twisted irony 'Itchycoo Park' by the Small Faces is playing as the teams head in, the line "it's all to beautiful" could not be further from the truth for MFC.
 

As if to make sure MFC's moral is at rock bottom as they come out for the second half, the most drippy saccharine guitar ballad is playing. They have come out a little early and go through a few quick sprints, around some cones set up during the break. BFC come out applauded by one end, and booed by the rest.
 

Tom as ever is woefully unprepared, and proclaims "I should of brought more sweets!"
 

Each team have a chance in the first few minutes, the BFC fans in a much better mood, "come on the bees, come on the bees", compared to MFC's "Harris do something different".
 

The home fans might of been buoyed by their teams early efforts, like the ball bouncing around the the BFC box only needing the slightest touches to put it in, but it's quickly fading, attempts by the fans to get things going "Millwall, Millwall" peter out, and they are getting increasingly angry, even the kids are happy to offer their high pitched judgement on a very poor performance.

Finally for MFC, there is a ray of hope, a gift, a chance to draw level. After only ever looking like they were going to loose, they get an opportunity in the form of the second penalty of the game. In front of the Cold Blow Lane stand, the MFC penalty taker steps up, shoots, and crashes it off the top side of the cross bar, its really not their day.
 

Jubilation floods out from the away stand "WHO ARE YA, WHO ARE YA" BFC fans are singing there hearts out, but the quiet suited man still has faith "we're going to win this Millwall". Can MFC repay some of his faith?
 

Having looked so solid, with about 10 minutes until full time, BFC are finaly breached, a header from a free kick. Roy Green's song plays, and once again arms outstretched, the man next to us directs his singing towards the away end "Let 'em all...... come down......... TO THE DEEEENNNNNNN".

"NO ONE LIKES US, BUT WE DON'T CARE!"
 

I'm really not convinced they deserved it, most people were not even sure it went in, the celebration was a delayed one, people around us looking at the person next to them, to confirm the goal.
 

However, they are back in the game, and spend the final 10 minutes, pinning BFC back, its like a different team have turned up, compared to the arduous, first 80 minutes. As they go in hunt of the winner, MFC have more chances than you can shake a stick at, but as 4 mins goes up on the 4th officials board, its still 1 - 1 and the quiet suited man does not fancy extra time, "come on I want to go home".
 

His wish is almost granted, but not in a way in which he would go home happy, BFC almost grab a winner at the death, after a deep in-swinging corner causes all sorts of problems, but to no avail, extra time here we come.

"Dreaded penalty shootout" is the possible conclusion to this evening the man on the tannoy announces, while both teams take the field. Players are in various states of exhaustion, some lie, some sit, some are helped by others to stretch, some just stand around taking a drink. The home fans once again try and gee on the team "Come on you lions",
 

All the attacking promise MFC had shown in the last 10 minutes of the second half have gone, in the few moments it took to have a drink, and its BFC who go ahead again. Not through tic - a - taca, or some Mad Dog tactical master plan, but simply by being direct, and MFC can't cope. The goal is  something you would see in Fifa: run down the wing, beat your man, cut along the by line, pass across the box, tap in, GOAL, 1 - 2 BFC.
 

"2 - 1 TO THE BARNET BOYS"
 

The away end explodes, as do all the suits in the directors box next to us, jumping to their feet punching the air in orange club ties. All Tom can say under his breath is "oh dear, oh dear".
 

Half time of extra time and its more water and stretching even more tired legs.
 

BFC are happy to sit back on their lead, MFC look at an all time low as far as ideas are concerned, and are running out of steam. One BFC player does his best Terry Butcher impression, and has blood pissing from his head, his surname is Gash and his injury inspires an impromptu chant of "la la la la Gash has got a gash" When he does come back on to the pitch, he looks wobbly and drunk.
 

The MFC fans start to leave, and BFC supporters taunt them "cheerio, cheerio, cheerio.
 

Five minutes of extra time is up, and MFC are out of the cup at the first hurdle, but I'm not convinced they could really care less. BFC on the other hand look delighted, the players approaching the fans, and applauding them for their fantastic support.
 

As we leave we can still hear them singing to the tune of Hey Jude "la la la, la la la Barnet".
 

Tonight all the ghouls and ghosts of Millwall folklore were not apparent, perhaps they are not bothered about the League Cup, or they are still on their holidays. I understand that a first round League Cup game against Barnet, might not be the fixture to forge your opinion on, but you would also be amiss to judge a whole club on the actions of a few or because of a fan culture that was relevant over 30 years ago.

The few people we spoke to were very nice, the staff very helpful and the fan base is clearly a passionate one, if the people around us were anything to go by, which in this day and age can only be a good thing. I loved the memorial garden, and the plaques, I think this is such a wonderful touch, it proves how important some people's club is to them, and it's great to see Millwall respecting this. I'm aware it's something that happens at other clubs, but I have never seen it to this level.

I'm sure if you rocked up on a Saturday afternoon in a claret shirt, f'ing and blinding, someone might take exception, but the same would happen if you turned up to White Hart Lane in a red shirt, being an arsehole.


So as long as you go to The Den, or any football club, with the right intentions,  9 times out of 10, you can only have a good time, except perhaps for the result or the quality of the football on show.

Unfortunately though Roy Green is a little off the mark, because on this performance they are not even close to being "the best team in London".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE



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