The Den of Opportunity: Millwall Hope That Home Advantage Can Prove Their Secret Weapon Once Again.

“Ifill goes alone…blocked by Poom…Cahill! He’s earned a spot, that’s his game. Tim Cahill puts Millwall in front at Old Trafford in an FA Cup semi-final”

The primal roar that greeted Millwall’s greatest FA Cup moment seemed almost incongruous in the surroundings of Manchester United’s Theatre of Dreams. Up until Tim Cahill’s 26th minute goal, it had been Sunderland’s supporters making most of the noise, as they headed into the tie the favourites and looking to add a cup final appearance to their late charge for promotion back to the Premier League. Not for the last time, it was the boys in blue from South London that upset the odds.

Millwall have made something of a habit of reaching the latter stages of the FA Cup in the last twenty years. Up to 2003, the club had only fought their way to the last eight on six occasions in 115 attempts. In the sixteen seasons since, they’ve been back four times – once more than Liverpool in the same period. Against Brighton and Hove Albion on Sunday, they’ll be hoping to make the semi-final for only the fifth time in their history. But while some cup runs are influenced by the luck of the draw – on their way to the 2004 final, the Lions managed to avoid facing a Premier League side – others will see a team using a level playing field to their advantage. In Millwall’s case quite literally, with the fearsome surroundings of The Den proving a formidable arena for esteemed visitors.

Despite their reputation as something of an old-fashioned club, Millwall were ahead of the curve at the beginning of the nineties, becoming the first club to build a new all-seater stadium in response to the Taylor Report following the Hillsborough Disaster. Developed half a mile down the road from The Old Den, which had been the club’s home for over eighty years, Millwall moved into their new abode in 1993, and any fears that the infamous hostile environment created by the home supporters would be lost in a modern ground were quickly dispelled as the club finished third in Division One, losing just two home games all season. In its 25 years since opening, The Den has witnessed plenty of ups and downs, with Millwall tasting three relegations and three promotions, but despite a couple of flirtations with the playoffs, they’ve yet to come close to reaching the glamour and riches of the Premier League. Fortunately, the FA Cup has provided plenty of opportunities to maul English football’s elite.

Ironically, during the club’s first two decades in their new home, it was upsets away from The Den that provided Millwall’s supporters with their fondest cup memories, as both Arsenal and Chelsea were dispatched in replays during the 94/95 season, having both escaped from South Bermondsey with goalless draws. It wasn’t until Aston Villa’s visit in 2013 that Millwall finally had an opportunity to bare their teeth to a top flight side, with John Marquis’ 89th minute winner setting the club on course for the semi-finals. It wasn’t until the appointment of club legend Neil Harris as manager in March 2015 that Millwall’s giant-killing reputation was really cemented, as the man that bleeds blue and white harnessed the energy of The Den, restoring it as one of the most difficult places to go in the country.

In the midst of successfully steering the club back up to the Championship via the playoffs, Harris embarked on his first FA Cup campaign as manager, taking Millwall to the quarter-finals via three memorable victories over Premier League opposition. Bournemouth were the first to make a fruitless trip to South London in round three, finding themselves utterly overwhelmed as Steve Morison and co ran riot in a 3-0 victory. Watford were next to come unstuck at The Den, as a trademark late goal saw the Hornets edged out, before under pressure Claudio Ranieri took the reigning Premier League champions to SE16, only for Shaun Cummings to score the winner for the hosts in stoppage time. In the last eight, away from the discomforts of home, Harris’ side were hammered by Tottenham.

That surprise cup run reinforced the importance of The Den as part of the fabric of Millwall FC, a reminder that couldn’t have been more timely. A few short months before the beginning of that run to the FA Cup quarter finals, Lewisham’s Labour Council announced plans for compulsory purchase of land around The Den as part of a mass regeneration project. The announcement put Millwall’s footballing operations immediately under threat, and began a two and a half year battle between football club and local authority to determine the future of the land. Having initially rejected Millwall’s offer to purchase the land for a higher price than that being offered by developers, Lewisham’s hardline stance began to soften when supporters and inhabitants of the land around the stadium banded together to put pressure on the local authority, citing the football club’s importance to the local community. Though the CPO was scrapped in February 2017, the land on which The Den was built had still been conditionally sold, leaving the club in limbo and unable to develop its community scheme.

In January, the impasse was finally broken.  The arrival of Damien Egan, the new Labour mayor for Lewisham, turned the tide in the club’s favour, as he, along with Millwall’s representatives and members of the local authority began to thrash out a deal that would see the Lions remain at their home, while also investing in the stadium and local area. Though at the time of writing nothing formal has been agreed, the outlook for Millwall and its supporters is far more positive, and football has been allowed to retain its place as the club’s top priority.

The news of a breakthrough in talks coincided with a dramatic upturn of form on the pitch. In his first season in the Championship, Harris had taken the Lions to within a whisker of the playoffs thanks largely to a remarkable run that saw the side unbeaten in seventeen games. At the beginning of this term, however, Millwall had looked far more fallible, losing six of their first ten and spending Christmas Day in the relegation zone. Three wins over the festive period however saw the club back in business, with victory over Hull City in the FA Cup Third Round the icing on a productive fortnight. With Premier League Everton pulled out of the hat to visit The Den, Millwall and their fans were provided the perfect opportunity to remind those watching of how daunting a trip to old Bermondsey could be. In the run-up to the match, Harris cited Millwall’s home ground as a potential secret weapon for the underdogs “Whatever experience you’ve got, however good a player you are, it’s very, very difficult to play in that atmosphere.”

So it proved as, on a highly charged evening in South London, Marco Silva’s expensively assembled side twice took the lead but were unable to justify their bumper price tags. First Lee Gregory, then Jake Cooper – aided and abetted by a lack of VAR – pegged the top flight side back before Murray Wallace scrambled in a winner during stoppage time to write another chapter in The Den’s increasingly storied cup history. Whilst on-the-pitch controversies provided most of the post-match talking points, there were also unpleasant scenes in the stands that returned from a supposedly bygone era.

Racist chants were heard from sections of home support throughout the match, prompting the FA to launch an investigation eventually charging the club for ‘failing to ensure their spectators conducted themselves in an orderly fashion’. Sadly, it stoked up reminders of the club’s reputation from the 1980s, when Millwall’s former home was often cited as one of the most discriminatory football grounds in the country, with parts of the British media drawing connections between the fanbase and the fascist National Front. Though Millwall, like the rest of English football, has largely managed to quell racism in the stands, the hard-of-thinking still remain at football grounds across the country, and the fight against discrimination is by no means a battle that has been won. In light of these accusations, the club acted impeccably. Their intention to dish out lifetime stadium bans to anyone found guilty of racist abuse was quickly announced, while Harris himself publicly condemned the behavior.

The incident was a depressing step backwards for a club that have been working hard to eradicate racism and promote inclusivity within the local community. Millwall were awarded ‘Family Club of the Year’ in 2017 by EFL, thanks largely to the work of the Millwall Community Trust, an affiliate of the football club that works to provide sporting, education, social and healthy lifestyle opportunities to the residents of South Bermondsey. Since being established in 1985, the MCT have founded football camps to harness the talent of youngsters, created employment programmes to help people overcome barriers to work, and invested in community development to offer activities to elderly and disabled supporters. The Trust have also introduced SLAM, a programme that provides free opportunities for anyone with mental health issues to get involved in sport. For all the stereotypes of Millwall and its supporters being stuck in the past, the Community Trust is a shining example of how progressive a football club can be.

Harris will be hoping for progress on the pitch when Chris Hughton brings his beleagured Seagulls to The Den for Sunday’s FA Cup Quarter-Final. From mid-table comfort at Christmas, Brighton and Hove Albion have found themselves on the outskirts of a relegation dogfight after a slump in form has seen them pick up just one league win in 2019. Away from home they’ve won just twice in the league all season, though their journey to the last eight has seen Hughton’s side pick up victories at Bournemouth and West Brom. The atmosphere in SE16 may prove an altogether more difficult proposition, however.

In the Championship, The Den has lost its fortress-like status in recent weeks, with Norwich and Preston both picking up wins in South London, and the victory over Everton currently the last time home supporters tasted victory. If anything the form books points to an away win, with Brighton unbeaten in their last six visits to The Den, but if the FA Cup has taught us anything, its that the form book goes right out the window. A return to Wembley is tantalisingly close for The Lions, and you can just imagine the proud roar that would greet a win on Sunday.

 

You can read more about the work the Millwall Community Trust do on their website

 

 

 

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