Wrong end of the stick

Paul Casella of fanzine The Lion Roars believes that Millwall fans are used to false accusations being made against the club, but a recent article in the Sun took the level of misrepresentation to new levels

As the nearest club to Wapping, a disproportionate amount of senior newspaper journalists visit The Den on a regular basis. It is not rare for the press box to see stars of stage and screen; or at least, stars of Jimmy Hill’s Sunday Supplement. Indeed, judging by the amount of media coverage, Millwall are by far and away the “biggest” club that has 10,000 fans in the country.

Hence perhaps, what has become MFC’s own football philosophy T-shirt quotation, by former chairman Reg Burr, who said in 1993: “We are a convenient coat-peg upon which football hangs all its evils.” However, the difference between what has gone before and the latest groundless nonsense is stark, and quite remarkable for at least one thing: the Sun has apologised for a stunningly ill-conceived article by New Nation sports editor Raymond Enisuoh.

Monkey chants and Sieg Heils screamed the headline. After reading this, anyone with any knowledge of English football would know that what might follow could only possibly be twisted fiction. And it was. Sent to watch a Millwall game, Enisuoh took a seat in the Cold Blow Lane and claimed: “No one actually sat directly next to me.” A picture was included of someone sitting next to him. “A miskick from Millwall’s black player Barry Hayles was met with some disturbing jeers. ‘You fucking animal!’ shouted someone to the top left of me.” Enisuoh was referring to a first-half foul on Hayles and the subsequent abuse directed at a Brighton player. “Just minutes later I could distinctly hear monkey-grunting noises… The mood was beginning to grow ugly.” Of course no one else heard this, al­though it could have been snoring. The mood, as at many mid-table club’s grounds, was silent apathy. “After the final whistle, the photographer who accompanied me said he’d seen the section on the stand above me unfurl a racist banner.” What a perfect opportunity for a photograph to support an article, but there was no banner and there was no photo.

There was of course much more nonsense in the two page article, but saving the best for last, Enisuoh wrote: “Sieg heil. Sieg heil,” (German for ‘hail victory’) was being chanted by some fans and it was increasing in volume.” Even if all the rest of the report had been accurate this was so obviously Brighton fans, chanting “Seagulls, Seagulls”, that it made a complete mockery of the Sun’s agenda.

The Sun once ran a two-page story claiming that Millwall supporters had hatched an evil plot to steal the famous Highbury clock before a cup-tie. Rupert Murdoch’s most profitable newspaper also mem­orably included a full-page story about a Millwall fol­lower who threw a meat pie on the pitch, after coin throwing became a popular tabloid topic. News, especially football news, goes in cycles and Millwall fans have grown used to their club being the easiest target, until the headlines move on, and the latest hot topic is racism.

Millwall have a “Zero tolerance to racism” policy that has seen the club ban more people than any other League member. It also proudly boasts that it has achieved more racism-related convictions than any other. The media is fully aware that this is not because Millwall have more racists than any other club, but because Millwall have done more than anyone else to combat racism. It had to, otherwise they faced the severe possibility of being refused a safety certificate by the police after a play-off defeat to Birmingham saw a riot two seasons ago.

Millwall’s outspoken chairman, Theo Paphitis, has since re-invented the notion of a self-policing club and recent arrest and banning-order figures speak for themselves. Cardiff and Stoke followed Millwall’s lead; admitting they also have problems with trouble-makers, by implementing similarly successful away travel membership schemes. But the Football Association steadfastly refuses to accept they, too, have problems, with the national team’s following.

It is perhaps partly because of this that Millwall will never gain favour in the appropriate circles. A good example being the racism charge that sparked Enis­uoh’s article; alleged taunting of Liverpool’s Djimi Traoré during a recent cup tie. Paphitis immediately issued a statement: “I just find the whole thing staggering. It seems like the FA is a rudderless-ship and are seeking publicity for their own aim. Racism is too an important subject to use to point score. The charges are completely ridiculous.”

Articles such as Enisuoh’s are water off a duck’s back to Millwall supporters, but the glib approach of the media and the football authorities to tackling racism undermines the work of the Kick It Out, campaign. Two days after Enisuoh’s article, the Sun included a full page of readers’ letters condemning the piece. It also included a half-page right of reply by self-appointed Millwall fan spokesman Frank Maloney in the main editorial spot, which is usually reserved for the Sun to have a go at “scrounging” asylum seekers. Although they will undoubtedly miss this particular irony, they will presumably wheel out their offer of a right of reply in the libel courts when defending Millwall’s forthcoming action.

From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month