My first experience of Millwall was in the mid-eighties at their old ground, the Den, which was a sort of damp and dank above-ground dungeon, only slightly less hospitable. It was also known by its postal address of Cold Blow Lane, as if to emphasise that this was not a place of entertainment; it was a place to get to, take care of business if possible, and then get away from as quickly as possible. On my only visit, the coach got its windows put through by means of a hail of half-bricks in lieu of welcoming ticker-tape and a brass band, and we put up an abject show, losing 3-1. It was a typical Leeds United day out in Bermondsey, a tradition of hostility and defeat that we have, by and large, maintained ever since.
That old name, though, Cold Blow Lane. How apt it was, and still seems now. Today, Leeds found the chill wind of Championship reality gusting around nether regions quivering under black shorts that, combined with white shirts and white socks, gave us a slight but deceptive resemblance to Germany’s national team. Perhaps they were trying to make Herr Lasogga feel at home – but nobody remotely civilised could ever feel cosily welcome in these parts, not even at the relatively shiny New Den.
The pattern of the match was set from the start. I will predict here and now that Millwall will lose their next game, through a combination of fatigue and a feeling of “after the Lord Mayor’s show”. They’ll simply be knackered. The home team could not have been more hyped-up and super-charged if they’d been playing in, well, a Cup Final. Taking to heart the rabid desire of the home crowd, they tore into Leeds at the first whistle, and they never let up. They could have been ahead early on, but a dodgy-looking offside decision saved Leeds and denied our former striker Steve Morison – yet Millwall were not discouraged. Every time a Leeds player got the ball in any kind of space, two or three Lions pounced hungrily, and a dispossessed United were under pressure again, every minute, all over the field. Getting to half-time on level terms was a notable achievement; getting a 0-0 draw was an expectation too far.
When the goal came, it felt strange – the sight of the ball in our net for a legitimate strike after so long a time since the opening day of the season. It was like the return of a half-forgotten childhood nightmare, and you had the feeling that, on the day, there was no way back. In the end, United tried manfully, having been swimming against a riptide of home pressure for the whole piece, but it was all effort and little penetration. We finished with ten on the park, all three subs having been used when Pontus had to limp out of the fray. It will be interesting (or maybe distressing) to see how many, if any, fit central defenders we have for Burnley in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday, and for Ipswich in the Championship at Elland Road next weekend.
But let us not be downhearted. We’re still top of the League, by virtue of our healthy goal difference – and I’d bet the tax due on Cellino’s yacht that we’d all have taken an impressive P8 W5 D2 L1 record after four home and four away games, if we’d been asked the question at the start of the season. A reminder that we are, after all, but mortal is not a bad thing at such an early stage of the season. There’s plenty of time and scope for us to pick up our heads again, and press on. This was the second “bogey ground” this season, so with the three points gained at Forest, we’re ahead of the game. And we’ll be ready for Millwall when they come to Leeds, with their dozen or so away followers.
Lessons will have been learned; the effect of application and effort on a hard but inferior team will have been noted. Hopefully, Leeds United will not be caught napping again for some little time – because that’s certainly what happened down Bermondsey way today.