Millwall Football Club: the truth
It is open season on Millwall Football Club. An incendiary TV programme has depicted it as an irredeemably racist institution, and, by implication, damned thousands of decent, well-intentioned football supporters who are loyal to a much-maligned cause.
I have absolutely no intention of defending the indefensible. I trust the principal character in the programme, a so-called Millwall fan captured by an undercover camera apparently screaming the most vile abuse at Leeds forward El Hadji Diouf, will be identified, prosecuted and, if found guilty, banned from football grounds for life.
The images of him using the N-word were, in a literal sense, repeated ad nauseam. It made me feel sick to the stomach because I knew the damage it would cause to a club which works proactively as a force for good in a multicultural, economically depressed community.
To declare an interest, I spent a season embedded at Millwall for my book Family: Life, Death and Football. I tried to do justice to a unique club, one which has warmth, vitality and a raw honesty. Suddenly, the stereotypes I sought to challenge have been strengthened. An agenda has been reset.
All clubs are prisoners of their history. The moment Millwall were drawn to play at Luton Town in the fifth round of the FA Cup. it was inevitable that grainy images of infamous scenes at Kenilworth Road in 1985 would be recycled. Any disturbances on Saturday will be magnified. Perspective – Millwall have played at Luton 13 times since 1985 without major incident – will be lost. The danger of attention seekers causing havoc is very real.
As is so often the case, perception is more important than reality. Fans talk of media bias as if it is applied by vengeful editors who just happen to support a rival club to the one in the firing line. Millwall’s misfortune is that they are an easy story. It is simple to dive into the archives and illustrate any point you wish to make.
There were unmistakable aspects of trial by tabloid TV in the latest programme, which was intellectually and journalistically flawed. It was surprising that, unlike other contributors, Lord Herman Ouseley was not shown watching the most offensive footage. The chairman of Kick it Out grew up in Peckham and began to follow Millwall as a boy. As a young black man in the seventies, he was driven away from the game by violence and naked prejudice.
This is what he said about the club at an FA hearing: “Millwall Football Club have made enormous progress in making football a safer and more enjoyable spectator experience. The Den is no longer a no go area for decent football fans. Football fans do not learn their racism through football; they take it to football. As much as clubs have been doing to tackle effectively the worst excesses of anti-social behaviour associated with a minority of their fans, the problem has not gone away.
“It is well managed, better controlled, sensitively suppressed. The present social and economic climate, coupled with the rise of BNP activities, poses huge challenges, including a resurgence of unacceptable behaviour from so-called football fans. I know that Millwall have done as much as anyone, and more than most, to get rid of the louts and, while we must encourage them to do more, we must not penalise them for not doing what was not possible to do.”
Such sentiments would not have fitted the narrative. Just as it is absurd to present racism as a football issue, detached from society, it is wilfully ignorant to imply that it is a problem that exists mainly in a small corner of south east London. All clubs have their knuckle draggers, and fans need to be self-policing. The Millwall I know is rough and ready, but colour blind. Community programmes counter such evils as gun crime and racially induced violence. Just ask the parents of murdered boys Jimmy Mizen, David Idowu and Damilola Taylor. They’ve worked with the club – they know the truth.
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Watch Millwall live on BT Vision:
Luton v Millwall, midday, 16 February, ESPN
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