The Lions' share of football glory has been fairly minimal down the  years and pre-season hopes were low, while Carlisle were play-off semi-finalists in May. Yet there has been a reversal of fortunes since August, even if a good run for Kenny Jackett's Millwall has been punctuated with nasty defeats. David Stubbs reports

As I enter The Den, the strains of Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe resound around the stadium from a PA system so tinny they could be better off making their announcements from the one at nearby South Bermondsey station and hoping the wind carries them. The cine-worm of Groundhog Day immediately squirms to mind – that was the song Bill Murray woke up to every morning. This being a cold evening – all gloves, big cups of coffee and visible breath – you half expect Murray and Andie McDowell to come running out of nowhere throwing snowballs at you. 

Groundhog Day offers a fleetingly tempting metaphor – poor old Millwall, same old same old, season in, season out, no one likes them, they are indifferent to this antipathy, and so forth. However, Millwall’s history is a bit more up-and-down than that. In the 1960s, they enjoyed a three-year unbeaten record at home, which suggests something of the terror the old Den inspired in visiting teams. In 2004, the Lions somehow found their way to the FA Cup final, only, disappointingly, to lie down lamb-like.

They built their new stadium in 1993, in an early, speculative grab for future Premier League dividends. But, despite early successes such as a 1994 FA Cup win against Arsenal, it soon became terrifyingly clear that the place was somewhat over capacity. Its very blandness – it makes the surrounding industrial estate area seem as characterful as the gardens at Hampton Court – went some way to nullifying their age-old hooligan problems, but has had something of a soul-crushing effect. At one point this decade, attendances dwindled to a low of 4,000, but this season they registered attendances of 13,000 and 9,000 against Leeds and Hereford respectively, the latter on a school night. They also attracted 9,000 at home to MK Dons, only to let the side of righteousness down spectacularly by losing 4-0.

Slipping all the way down to League One, Division Three in the old money, was never part of the business plan. What’s more, they’ve just announced annual losses of £6.1 million, to follow on from last year’s £5.1m, with outsider investor and invidious “Yank” John Berylson forced to come out and make soothing noises. On the pitch, however, Millwall are perkily poised: though apt to freakish setbacks – such as a 4-1 defeat at Brighton – they’re fourth in the table leading into this fixture, and playing some nice football under Kenny Jackett – the philosophy evidently being something like, look after the defence, and the midfield and attack will take care of themselves.

As for visitors Carlisle, they too have had their surprising ups – when Manchester United were relegated in 1974, this United replaced them. Right now, however, they’re bobbing about in the bottom half of the table, a long way off from needing another last-gasp, Jimmy Glass-style saviour but not exactly playing with the wind of upward momentum at their backs.

Carlisle are content to hang back deep in their own half in the opening stages, paralysed by some sort of ingrained Cumbrian humility, their chances of mounting a meaningful attack, let alone scoring, as remote as their home city itself. Millwall are playing some rather nifty stuff by contrast, let down early on by a policy of hitting high crosses into the area to a forward line comprising the sort of men with whom Ken Dodd used to associate himself.

“Single Source Solution” reads one of the hoardings around the ground, and that’s the role Neil “Bomber” Harris has often taken on at Millwall, the mantle of heart and soul of the club, a feisty gee-er upper and scorer of vital goals when all looks lost. In the opening minutes, however, he has an uncharacteristically distracted air, like Sergeant Wilson during one of Captain Mainwaring’s addresses to the platoon, and is caught out through lapses of concentration.

After only 15 minutes or so, a testiness begins to spread among the home support, which grows incrementally. The two blokes behind me, Millwall regulars of a certain vintage, keep up a Statler and Waldorf-like patter of derision of the “There’s nothing like a good game of football and this is nothing like a good game of football” variety.

Midway through the first half, Carlisle emerge, blinking and half-believing into the Millwall half, enjoying a good spell of possession, though with scant end product. Graham Kavanagh, advancing through left midfield, passes the ball almost apologetically to his Millwall opposite number, as if in atonement for trespassing. Minutes later, Carlisle even venture a shot, but it’s in more danger of landing in a Bermondsey housing estate than the back of the net.

Generally, the first half is a story of reasonably fluid football, particularly from Millwall, marred by enigmatic ­decision-making by both teams, such as Carlisle full-back David Raven’s daft concession of a corner, under no pressure, from a going-nowhere Millwall cross, or visiting keeper Ben Williams panicking and hoofing out for a throw-in a ball trickling towards him with all the menace of a famished hedgehog approaching a saucer of milk.

Millwall seem nervous, too, with only right-winger Lewis Grabban on top of his game. He creates one of the best chances of the first half, slotting inside to Gary Alexander, only for the No 8 to deliver his shot tamely into the midriff of the prostrate Carlisle keeper. He almost has better luck with a header a few minutes later, with Grabban, a Walcott-style nuisance, again the supplier.

As the half-time whistle goes, the mood is one of mild disgruntlement, perhaps touching on the churlish – but then, expectations have been raised in these parts. Come the second half and Millwall, ears perhaps metaphorically boxed by Jackett in the dressing room, make much the brighter start, with some silken passing movement. But it all unravels in the end product, with shots going so waywardly awry you begin to suspect they’re doing it on purpose, just to wind up the many older geezers in the crowd who still go on about the good old days and Harry Cripps.

There’s real anxiety and anger in the crowd now, especially as Carlisle are a man short, with defender Richard Keogh spending ten minutes off the pitch with a head wound and Millwall still unable to capitalise. Only Grabban really shines, jinking time and again down the right, the team’s ideas now reduced to the single one of “give it to Lewis!” He again finds Alexander, but with only fresh air to beat three yards out he skies the ball calamitously, as mortifying as teacher splitting his trousers in front of a classroom of fifth-form boys – only no one’s laughing here. Soon, he’s substituted.

Grabban then hits the post and the home fans’ excitement expresses itself in the form of a sustained, baying drone as the momentum of inevitability seems to be building. Alan Dunne, singled out for a boost today in the programme, has been especially error-prone, playing like he’d have problems passing a wet stool, and a cruel cheer goes up when he’s eventually taken off.

With ten minutes to go, it looks like Carlisle are somehow going to hold out. Chris Hackett, who you’d just love to believe is only in the team to provide a rhyming partner for his manager, whacks a ball wildly into orbit when a decent cross was the obvious option. But then, with seconds left, Hackett delivers a hopeful up and under into the penalty area, the defence mistime their leaps and substitute Tresor Kandol gets on the end of it from three yards out to arc it into the net, clattering poor Bomber Harris in the process, a spread-eagled friendly-fire victim in the Carlisle six-yard box.

Millwall see out injury-time panic stations and the final whistle marks a deserved victory, albeit one made exceedingly hard work of, for the home support in particular.

The fans are in full, hubristic throat on the walk back to South Bermondsey station, during the unfeasibly crammed train journey and up the connecting walkway at London Bridge. “No one likes us... we don’t care,” sing a brace of youngsters. But is this quite the case? Certainly, no one likes acne-pockmarked, ferret-faced, greasy-haired teenage boys – they never have, they never will – but as for Millwall, they’ve played at times very attractive football in a game remarkable for its fluidity and a riposte to those who imagine the lower leagues to be all blood and thunder, and pub car-park fights in shorts.

There has been only one card awarded, a rather harsh yellow for a Carlisle handball which raised the eyebrows of even Millwall fans, with none of the petulant flashpoints routine in Premier League matches. It’s been mostly football, not always great, but football nonetheless – something to build on, something worth watching.

The stadium may be half-empty but an attendance of nearly 7,000, on a freezing weekday night with Champions League football on ITV and money tight, makes it seem remarkably full. As for Carlisle, they’ve brought 210 supporters. Some of them will be London-based, of course, but some will have made the journey down this night, one on which even Captain Oates would have been reluctant to venture out, which is truly chastening. Indeed, those that did should be commemorated with huddles of statues forged in their likeness, the sort in which Anthony Gormley specialises, placed in the town square. Those who are about to witness a relegation struggle, we salute you. 

From WSC 263 January 2009

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