Friday, 2 December 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten - The Den, Millwall

This week we take a trip to London with Kate Murray and visit The Den in Millwall. You can also follow Kate on Twitter @kate_murray

Talk to any supporter of a certain age about their least favourite ground and The Den as it was known, is bound to be near the top of the list. I’ve lost count of the number of times fans of other clubs have told me what a nightmare an away trip to Millwall used to be. The dark tunnel under the railway line, the narrow streets, the hostile atmosphere, the rough old loos, the floodlights blocking the away supporters’ view of the pitch…

But for those of us lucky enough to spend our formative years watching the Lions, there was no other place we would rather have been. I first went to The Den in the Seventies, I was so little I can’t even remember my first game, and my Dad died before I’d thought to ask him when exactly it was he first took me.

The Den
But although the date of that first match now escapes me, I’ve got so many fantastic memories of the old ground. I can still recall that thrill of anticipation I’d get going through the turnstiles and then negotiating the puddles on the slope up to the main stand.

I can still picture the faces of the elderly couple who had season tickets next to my brother and me and who used to share their tea from a thermos with us on a cold afternoon. I remember too my first introduction to the language of the football ground, courtesy of the regular whose strongest insult, reserved for some really poor reffing, was: 'You bug-eyed monster'.

Later, when we were in our teens, my brother and I moved on to the terraces at the Cold Blow Lane end. Later still, when I took the first tentative steps in my journalism career, I persuaded my local paper to let me do some football reporting and got to sit in the Den press box alongside the Fleet Street hacks. Fun as it was to go behind the scenes, diplomacy was never my strong point and I almost managed to get myself thrown out for getting a tad over-excited.  I was always best suited to the terraces.

I’ve had some great Millwall experiences since: the Wembley finals, the FA Cup final in Cardiff, the trip to Budapest, all those things my Dad would perhaps never have believed possible when he first took me down to the Den.

But what my club means to me is best summed up by those days on a packed terrace behind the goal, singing Let 'em Come (sample line: “It’s Saturday in Cold Blow Lane, we’ve all come down to cheer, we’ve had our jellied eels, and our glass of beer”). It was there that you found the humour, solidarity and sense of community that have always been an essential part of the matchday experience for me.

Opponents may have hated the Den. But that’s why we loved it so. At its best, with a noisy crowd on the backs of the opposition, it gave the Lions an undeniable edge. And yes, the intimidating atmosphere could spill over into something worse: I was at the Cup quarter-final against Ipswich where a pitch invasion landed us with a ground closure.

But this is not a story of trouble. The Den, to me, was not about the reputation that has, often unfairly I feel, defined Millwall.  It was a place of passion, but just as often of endurance. A rainswept evening fixture attended by a few thousand hardy souls was as much a part of the Den experience as the big Cup matches or the glory days when we finally made it into the top flight.

And finally, after 83 years of history, our stay at The Den had to come to an end. The final act came on 8 May 1993 with a 3-0 defeat to the mighty Bristol Rovers. Typical Millwall, to go out in such style, we said to ourselves.

The New Den
Then off we went down the road, to our shiny new identikit stadium. We still had some arches to pass under, plus our cheery pre-match announcer, known as Bye for Now thanks to his catchphrase, to remind us of the past. And over the years, the new place has started to feel a bit more like home, thanks to dropping the “new” tag and of course to the atmosphere we can still create on a good day.

But if I’m driving to a match, I still park up near the site of the old ground. As I walk down through the housing estate built on top of the pitch where Kitchener and Seasman and Sheringham and Carter used to strut their stuff, I often have a wistful thought or two for the old place. No one liked it. But we didn’t care.

Last Gone But Not Forgotten: Withdean Stadium, Brighton

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