Last Saturday Leeds United played at Millwall, 10 miles as the crow flies from my home here in West London. As I have noted many times on this Blog, I have followed Leeds since childhood, but I was not at the game. Millwall won 2-1, aided by a refereeing decision which saw them awarded a 14th-minute penalty and the Leeds defender Gaetano Berardi sent off. As the highlights on Quest (channel 12 on my multi-channel box) showed, it was never a penalty. Berardi’s red card has since been overturned, but that’s no consolation.
Most people who follow football know that Leeds and Millwall would feature very near the top of any league table based solely on the likelihood of trouble at their fixtures. Cardiff, Birmingham City and Chelsea would traditionally be strong contenders too but Millwall v Leeds serves as a shorthand for the moodiest of encounters.
Last month, while watching sport in a local pub (Dublin’s Gaelic Football team winning the All-Ireland title for the fifth year in a row), I was chatting to a couple of QPR fans who had spent the afternoon at their home game against Luton Town. Neither club has a reputation for violence at their games, but it seemed that there were some Luton fans looking for trouble. The police numbers and visibility, before and after the match, were similar to how they might be for home fixtures against Leeds or Millwall. Both sets of fans were kept apart on all local streets.
Luton was the venue for one of English football’s worst nights of violence, a 6th Round FA Cup tie in March 1985 against (no surprise) Millwall. This 2013 piece by Sean Ingle summarizes how events unfolded, “the night football died a slow death”. It looks like there is footage of the violence on YouTube but I am not going to watch it or link to it. That night’s trouble was foretold in the days leading up to it. A friend of my sister’s was living in South East London at the time, beyond the tube network, and would often take cabs from New Cross station for the last part of her homeward journey. She told me about her conversation with a cabbie a few days before the match. He was looking forward to it. He was going, his brother was going, all his mates were going, and, he told her, “There’ll be trouble if we win”. After a brief pause he added, “There’ll be trouble if we don’t win”. He was right.
Chatting to the QPR fans last month about their experience against Luton the subject turned, unsurprisingly, to Millwall. Neither of them had been to a game at their home ground, the New Den. They asked if I had. “Yes, I’ve seen Leeds at Millwall,” I told them, “Took the train, walked down that alleyway leading to the ground …” I could have left it that, suggesting that I had braved the locals on that chicken-run leading from South Bermondsey station to the stadium, but it would have been misleading. The only time I have been to the New Den was for the Women’s FA Cup Final in 2006. Leeds lost heavily to Arsenal. These days the final is played at Wembley, but back then smaller grounds were used. A few years earlier I had seen Fulham’s women beat Doncaster Belles to win the trophy at Selhurst Park, a venue I am much more familiar with. I have seen Leeds (the men’s team) play there many times, against Crystal Palace and Wimbledon. I was fortunate enough to be there for this Tony Yeboah strike against Wimbledon in September 1995, the best goal I have ever seen at a game. Technically, I have seen Leeds at Millwall, but it was a family-friendly Women’s FA Cup Final rather than a full-blooded men’s League game. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.