“Let ’em come, let ’em come, let ’em all come down to The Den!” goes the famous chant of Millwall FC.
Seems like a friendly enough invitation, no?
With that in mind I accepted, and prepared myself to enter the lion’s den to watch Millwall take on Bristol City.
The game was an important one for both clubs.
Before kick-off the sides were level on points and goal difference, with only goals scored separating the two.
Both sets of supporters could smell the lure of the Premier League, complete with big-money arrivals who inevitably disappoint and away trips to the comfy seats of the Emirates.
I wasn’t particularly clued up on this current Millwall team and the vibe around the club, but I avoided the temptation to stick The Football Factory on and let Danny Dyer teach me all I needed to know.
However I had heard about Lewisham council breathing down Millwall’s neck in a fight over the land around The Den.
So, I entered the day heading very much into the unknown, prepared to do anything to get by, but also whilst harbouring genuine curiosity.
Think Bear Grylls (hopefully without the p*ss drinking), mixed with Louis Theroux (hopefully without the crystal meth).
It’s a dull grey afternoon, heavy clouds look as though they could burst at any point.
It’s also eerily quiet considering kick off is just over an hour away, aside from two fans discussing Millwall’s play-off chances .
“It’s no good looking at the teams around us, we can only focus on our results,” one declares, slightly adjusting his baseball cap, a legion of Millwall badges hanging from it.
A police helicopter circles the area, just as a lifeguard patrols a gym swimming pool, only this time not laughing at Yer Da in his new speedos.
There is no trouble outside, although I do bump into Iain Dowie at a bus stop (bus w**ker.)
Mr Incredible’s body double is still recognisable under the peak of his cap, he confirms ‘yeah, not bad mate,’ before quickly turning back to his phone.
At first I though he’d just got an absolute fire match on Tinder but it turned out he was covering the game for TV.
I reach the top of Zampa Road, where I get chatting to a local stall holder.
Just being a Millwall fan is reason enough to trust a man.
His pokey store, equipped with everything a Millwall fan would ever need, is sandwiched between rusty metal railings.
A young fan interrupts us to buy a badge- he seems to know the man.
The store holder confirms he’s a regular, they don’t know each other by name, only by face.
“It’s very much like that around here. You don’t have to know their life story, just being a Millwall fan is reason enough to trust a man,” he says.
The surrounding area outside The Den is shared by a row of car repair centres, each one identical to the next.
A destitute car, which best resembles something out of Mad Max, sits out on the road, just a few steps from the club shop.
Overlooking it, a mural to the manager Neil Harris, who’s status as a player with the Lions earns him pride of place under the railway bridge.
The Millwall Café is my next stop.
I join the queue as the crowds start to gather and battle cries of ‘no one likes us’ begin to echo out.
I pay £3.50 for literally the saddest looking burger you will ever see, which is definitely worthy of Football Cartophilic Info Exchange.
I attempt to bring it to life with some sauce.
As many as ten condiment bottles were open at once, many left discarded and a new one selected in its place, almost symptomatic of Millwall’s seasons in recent years.
Old ones quickly forgotten and each new one started with the hope of something better than the last.
But no matter how much you spend, or how many goals he scored in Ligue 2, burger sauce is burger sauce.
A little girl dressed in Millwall gear from head to toe drops her chips and gets upset.
An older fan offers what’s left of his, before staff at the cafe present her with new ones and soon the girl’s Cheshire grin is restored.
A kind gesture, not one I would have associated with the supporters before today.
Entering the club store, the pink bobble hats drawing my attention immediately, just for how very un-Millwall they are.
Outside the Zampa Road gate I get chatting to Ayse Smith, a committee member for the Millwall Supporter’s Club who last month was part of a team who collected sleeping bags for Home 4 Heroes.
Smith explains: “Millwall has always been like that, we just aren’t very good at publicising ourselves, we do so much for the community.
“Making a difference in someone’s life gives you a wonderful feeling when you get home at the end of the day.”
Ayse is also the editor of the club’s long-running fanzine called ‘The Lion’s Roar’.
The magazine has seen a decline in its pool of subscribers, but still provides a service in the community, with any profits made going to Macmillan or Help for Heroes.
As I queued up to collect my ticket, I got chatting with three fans who had come from Uppsala in Sweden to watch the game.
Lars Larsson, 70, Fredrick Larsson, 41, and William Larsson, 18, three generations of the family, had come to see their first game in England.
So why Millwall?
“We heard that they have a great atmosphere with great fans,” says Lars.
To my amazement, Fredrick reveals how Millwall are very popular in Sweden, with the club often being shown on TV.
“The impression of Millwall is amazing fans, good football too,” is the questionable last comment from Fredrick, but the first part I’ll agree with.
The conversation somehow gets onto Zlatan.
“I hate Zlatan”, declares William. “I don’t think he would ever come to Millwall, maybe he could get on the bench!”
The club’s worldwide attraction is further confirmed to me by Tom Gale and Harry Cooper, who both run the supporter’s club’s online platforms.
“We’re always called the biggest small club in the world, it’s really starting to feel that way,” Tom explains.
“There were people literally in Timbuktu, Gambia and even one fan in Greenland, I didn’t even know that was a country!”
Now for the game.
I was sat in the Cold Blow Lane stand, and it took me ages to work out that it was all unreserved seating- very continental.
Admittedly, the football was poor, very poor in fact.
An absolute thunderbastard from Jed Wallace was the single highlight in an otherwise shocking half.
I had initially feared for the single steward who had been tasked with policing our section, but the fans were very well behaved.
The twelfth man was in full force, with the ear ringing chant of ‘Miiii’ (look it up at your own peril) urging the players on.
Through the gap between two of the stands you can see trains departing South Bermondsey station, yet you would be forgiven for missing it, with the roar of the crowd drowning out all around The Den.
A man draped in an ill-fitting replica shirt, sporting a bulldog tattoo on his arm and as many as five rings in one ear, sits in front of me.
When the half time whistle goes Kylie Minogue’s new song blasts out (it’s a banger to be fair).
Mid-way through the second half, captain Steve Morison, who couldn’t look any less like a footballer, adds Millwall’s second of the day.
Tim Cahill gets a brief cameo before the end, with chants of ‘if Timmy scores, we’re on the pitch’ showering his entrance.
After the game I was left surprised at how smoothly the day had gone, the fans caused no issues, perhaps it was wrong of me to presume something negative would happen?
A long queue back to South Bermondsey station was the low point of the day.
Rows of police watch us take one step at a time, they stand their redundant, supporters only getting close to them when they reach out a hand to stroke the mounted horses.
Where are the unfavourable gang of troublemakers I had heard so much about?
In May, The Den will be the setting for the Wonderwall Cup, a charity football tournament in aid of the victims of the Manchester and London terror attacks.
Proceeds from the event will be used to help the victims and the emergency services. The club is proud of its roots, and rightfully so, but, there is also a willingness to evolve.
Even the club’s message board has recently updated its system to something new, a sign of the club’s increasingly modern stance.
Nick Hart, a fan for 46 years, runs the popular Millwall podcast ‘Achtung!’ and has witnessed all the changes at the south London club.
“You’ll find fans here today who may not necessarily fit the sanitised Premier League template, but you can find those people anywhere,” he says.
“I always question how this cartoon image of Millwall has been allowed to take hold. We’re all trying to do something to change that.”
On the train back, I mull over my experiences of the day. I feared trouble, yet there was none to be found.
The stereotypical view of Millwall and its supporters appears to be nothing but a lazy hangover from English football’s dark days.
Whilst on the train, I overhear a dad asking his young son, for who it was his first Millwall match, what he thought of it all.
The young fan playfully replies, “I liked it, but, there was a bit too much swearing.”
READ THE OTHER ACCOUNTS FROM DREAM TEAM’S FOOTBALL’S FRONT LINES:
- The true story behind English football’s most complicated rivalry
- What will it take to wake the sleeping giants of English football?