Crisis club Leeds – I say “crisis club” because that’s how the Daily Mail and the Mirror and other such quality news outlets refer to us, so it must be true – may be about to suffer yet another shattering blow. A sporting rivalry treasured on both sides of an apparently vast divide could unthinkably be terminated by what would be a tragic relegation for those lovable chirpy cockney barrow-boys and girls of Bermondsey, Sarf Landan – Millwall FC.
How sad it would be to see this wonderful, heart-warming, community club disappear into the obscurity of the lower leagues. Community is such an important word when discussing the Lions of the New Den. It is at the heart of everything they do. Older fans may remember the days when community singing was a vital element of every Wembley Cup Final occasion – and it’s sad that those days seem to have gone amid a welter of fireworks and other pyrotechnics. How grateful we are then to Millwall, for their innovation of “community fighting” at a Wembley semi-final, battling among themselves, tearing into each other like playful and blood-crazed sharks as their team stumbled to defeat, heedless of the terror and confusion of those children present. It was a signature spectacle, bringing back in a manner peculiar to Millwall memories of those days when crowd participation was inextricably linked with the occasion itself. This was a few years back now – fortunately, perhaps, Millwall haven’t threatened to get near a semi-final since.
Visitor’s to the environs of Millwall’s homely little ground (local motto “Say it with half a brick”) will also have carried away with them memories of the warm – frequently hot – welcome they were usually afforded. Nothing was ever too much trouble for the natives, who were regularly available for cultural exchanges on a twelve-to-one basis, with demolition and amateur dental and glazing clearance work frequently offered at no extra cost, together with a complimentary visit to the local A&E department. Back in the day, the very name of the Lions’ former home, The Den, was enough to make any prospective Daniel all too aware of exactly where he was venturing. The address of the old ground, Cold Blow Lane, added its own especial piquancy to the air of goodwill and bonhomie that traditionally surrounded an away fixture at Millwall.
The thought that all of this could be lost to the fans of Leeds United and the other Championship clubs is a sobering one. And yet the threat is very real; after a series of defeats in December and the first half of January, Millwall were firmly in the danger zone. That inept run of results has been interrupted by a draw against Reading and an unlikely win at Forest – but the ragged cockernees are still firmly in the mire.
It would be such a shame if even these fairly flea-bitten and toothless Lions ended up plummeting through the relegation trapdoor. I’m happy to say that a cordial relationship has long existed between this blog and the close-bred supporters of the Bermondsey outfit. There has even been a bit of banter here and there – it may surprise some erudite Leeds-supporting readers of these pages that the odd instance of respectable IQ occurs even among the ‘Wall fans every now and then. Yes, even from such a limited gene-pool as that in which those chirpy, loveable cockney brick-slingers exist, there are one or two who can string enough four-letter words together to form a simple, declarative sentence. With their extraordinarily close “family ties” counting – so you might imagine – against any hybrid intellectual vigour such as we in the North enjoy, this seems remarkable. But, nevertheless, it does appear to be so.
The dialogue between this blog and those in the vanguard of the Bermondsey intelligentsia has usually been testy on the surface – that’s what rivalry is all about, even between two clubs so far apart on the evolutionary scale – but I’ve always been confident that warmth and humanity have underpinned all of our dealings. Why, those passionate and committed – or at least certifiable – fans have even taken the trouble to enquire after my family’s health and life insurance, taking great pains to find out all they can about where we live and what security arrangements we have.
When Leeds had their “Black Friday” almost exactly a year back, there were those Millwall scamps, tweeting away in numbers, playfully rubbing my nose in it. But the following day, as Leeds murdered Huddersfield 5-1 and Millwall surrendered 0-3 to Reading, it all went quiet on their side – still, at least they’d made the effort the previous night. It’s mainly been good, clean knockabout fun with only comparatively few threats of death and disfigurement coming my way – the defining characteristic of these salt-of-the-earth Lions fans. How I would miss all that if their beloved club’s relegation were to be confirmed – as seems sadly* likely. Then again, some welcome consolation would be found in the fact that Millwall’s demise will almost certainly mean the Championship survival of Leeds United after our most difficult season for a good few years.
Perhaps, if they do go down, they’ll be back sooner rather than later. If not, then beyond the fixture at Elland Road this coming Valentines Day, which Millwall will be under pressure to win, it’s unlikely that our paths will cross again in the foreseeable future. And, as Millwall normally bring only a few dozen fans to LS11, belying their obviously spurious reputation for being fighting troops (other than among themselves) it appears there will be little prospect of cultural exchanges of banter, or whatever on the February 14th matchday. Which again is a pity – but if North to Elland Road is too tough a trip for the majority of Lions fans, there’s little to be done about that.
It does rather look as though a whole era of friendly competition, mutual badinage and a couple of Cup Final outings in the limelight each year for little Millwall might just be coming to a tragic end. And it’s a pity. But United will find they have bigger fish to fry, the Millwall fans will be able to chalk one scary trip “Nawf” off their calendar, and each club will be able to get used to life in very different circles, with Leeds mixing it with huge clubs like Tuna billionaires Sheffield Wendies and Millwall – or in the local argot, Miwwwaww – bestowing their unique charm on the likes of Barnsley and so on.
So, let us not mourn over what might soon be past. Let us, rather, be grateful it happened at all. It was fun pretending we were on the same footing for a while, but all such fun has a natural end, and this may just be it. Let us, then, shed just one silent, wistful tear – and move on.
* Not really.