Grey skies, black jackets and brown flat caps. A loose procession of people wind their way along Ilderton Road after congregating on the Old Kent Road, the rain spitting in menace, shoulders hunched, some looking back for others to catch up. Passing the rows of brown walls, mechanics and tyre yards, the grimness is infectious. A car wreckage is laid on the side of the road in front of one of the garages, air bags deployed, its face hideously disfigured. The fans walk by with indifference, except for the young children, who peer in curiously. Burberry, Stone Island and Barbour in blue and black are the uniform of the day; stone washed jeans are a staple. The procession takes a right on Zampa Road under the train arches to reveal The Den.
It’s nearly the end of the season and Millwall, the “Lions” of South East London, are playing one of the biggest games of the season, with a derby against their local rivals Charlton. The Addicks are playing well and, more importantly, are above a relegation-threatened Millwall in the Championship. They have won seven of their last nine games and a win today will break their terrible record against the Lions, having not won in 19 years. The mood is sombre for good reason; this season has been dismal and the outlook for this game and the end of the season is bleak. The Lions haven't won at the Den since October; the stadium is hardly the intimidating home it once was.
Millwall fans are aware of themselves and their place in football. They're under no illusions, they don’t come to the ground for entertainment. They come because they must. Tradition, loyalty and an irrepressible sense of belonging bring them back. They return nowadays not so much from Bermondsey and the old Surrey Docks, but rather the suburbia of Erith and Bexleyheath. Those who could have left the deprived areas of South East London to front gardens and drives did so. But every other Saturday, the A2 all along Blackheath and New Cross is peppered with Millwall convoys, returning like geese.
The car park is full, the queues at the ticket offices snake around the groups of families loitering around, waiting for late members of their parties. The Charlton fans arrive, along the same route as many of the home fans, but today this corner of SE London is off limits to them. Less than six miles lie between the two London clubs, however, they arrive as if they’ve come from Blackpool: in coaches. The Millwall fans glare, some swearing, and the Charlton fans stare back within the safety of their coaches.
South London has always been the poorer sibling to the other London corners; this applies to its football landscape also. The traditionally big clubs are all north of the Thames (even if Arsenal originally were from Woolwich). The south of London has been dying for a big club of their own, one to cheer on in the Premiership, experience Champions League nights and the open roof top bus parades. Presently, Crystal Palace are the only club in the Premiership. On the surface, Millwall have many advantageous qualities to enable them to be a bigger team. They have a long footballing history and a recognisable name, they occupy a relatively central spot in the city in Zone 2, one stop away from London Bridge, a stadium with room for expansion and a fertile surrounding area for support. The only problem is, as their famous chant iterates, "no one likes us, we don't care".
Many clubs have bad images, but Millwall are defined by theirs. Their notorious hooligan history has dogged them for the last 40 years. Millwall has become synonymous with violence and racism, tags that the fans just don't care about. Their chant is an embrace of their image, of their isolation and of their inadequacies, just as Ajax sought to turn around their anti-Semitic slurs by calling themselves yids. Millwall have accepted their position as a hated club even within their own community. Much of the Old Kent Road and the surrounding areas are richly diverse and a multiethnic mixture, many are recent immigrants. Instead of becoming Chelsea and Arsenal supporters, these potential new fans could support their local team. But indifference and suspicion is returned on both sides. Millwall has always been a closed club.
“Miiiiiillllllllllllll”. The chants warm up the crowd, Millwall start well and push with fervour. The fans back them all this way, especially against the red threat; the blues try their best, the players are aware of what's expected of them. It's not victory, it's effort. The fans want to see them show how much they want to please them, how much they love the badge, and what they're prepared to do for it. Tackles fly, the pace is fierce, the fans are pleased.