I stepped off the train, onto the platform, and into what I assumed would be the usual London-area train station: people coming and going, lively street down below, if I’m lucky a coffee shop on the platform. This is particularly true as I had only come one stop from bustling London Bridge, and just a moment before I had seen a football ground, all lit up and ready for the evening’s game.
But at South Bermondsey Station … well, it’s really just a platform. With nothing on it but a tiny, three-sided wind shelter. On both sides are dark rooftops above mostly dark windows. A damp wind whips across the scene. In the distance I can see what I have just left — the shining and colorful towers of Central London — but here I could easily believe I had somehow traveled to at least the far-flung suburbs, if not a rural village. I felt, and largely was, alone and away from everything.
But I was not in the suburbs, nor the country, nor some dilapidated former town. I had in fact come to see a professional football game, in what would appear on a map to be near the center of London. But I had come to Millwall Football Club. Which is to say I had somehow traveled back in time, to when football was local and personal, intense, and at times a bit horrifying.
Beyond the station, where a special walkway “for away supporters only” was guarded by two police officers, I saw a single strip of a handful of shops: Indian food, barber, burgers, and a chippie. I generally test the local chippies, but I also generally avoid any chippie which also offers burgers and kebabs, which this one does. I decided to head for the ground and look for something else.
But on the way to the ground, I instead see an RV park, a trucking firm, a tyre shop, more dark side streets … and then the ground. Heading in to pick up my ticket, I see a group of around 100 supporters waiting by the Players and Staff Entrance, and I think it’s nice that they still line up to welcome their heroes. Later I would chuckle at this bit of naïveté.
I got my ticket and headed the other way on the street, looking for food. I found instead more industry. Taking out my phone, I saw there was a rated chippie about 15 minutes away, so I headed for that. After 15 minutes’ walking, passing housing estates along the way, I saw lights and people and movement, plus a crowded fish and chip shop called Express. The staff were wearing little white hats, a good sign.
Inside, it was pure noise and close spaces, the main man re-yelling orders from the register, wrapping great piles of chips in paper, tossing on a piece of fish or a sausage and then looking into the assembled masses and yelling “fish and chips” or “cod and chips” or “saveloy and chips!”
The saveloy, in particular, seemed to cause great confusion, as there were people in line who just ordered it, others in the corner waiting for it, and apparently someone on the street who ordered at least one a while ago. Whenever “saveloy” came bellowing out from the kitchen, several hands would go up in the shop, and people on the street would echo it around. Whenever the man offered actual saveloy — it’s some kind of bright red sausage — there was a moment of confusion, followed by somebody either running in from the street, running to the street and yelling, or simply grabbing the thing — once plucking the sausage off the pile of chips and beginning to eat it. It was mad and wonderful, and the mix of regulars and football fans and at least one slightly overwhelmed tourist made for a fun scene.
Out on the street, this tourist decided to eat, then walk, only to realize I forgot to grab a fork. Not going back in there, thanks! So I ate with my hands, barbarian style, on a side street, and felt a bit conspicuous — until I looked around and saw wave after wave of young men, beers in their hands, stumbling and weaving and singing their way towards the football ground, occasionally sending out group volleys of long “Miiiiiiiiiiiiiillll.” I dug in shamelessly.
Following the colors, I followed a walkway littered with the same boxes I was eating from. Clearly, others simply let it go. Graffiti on the walls, a towering factory of some sort behind a fence, overflowing rubbish bins, another tyre shop … not exactly a romantic approach.
The romance, for me, is always there walking into the ground. So now, join me as we walk into The Den on a December evening:
I got to my seat, down low on the side, as always with a good view of the away fans. On this night it was Queens Park Rangers, from just a few miles away across London, and I was hoping for a little derby atmosphere. Before kickoff, things felt rather sweet around me, with old friends and regulars greeting each other, checking in about their holidays, wondering how the team will fare — the usual.
Speaking of the usual, the PA system played the Clash’s “London Calling,” which is apparently required by an Act of Parliament at all games in the capital, and the crowd belted out “I live by the river!” Also required. Additional, and much appreciated: Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.”
The teams came out, and the PA played one of those old 80s soccer songs, “Let ‘Em Come.” It’s got lines about jellied eels and everything; here it is. The crowd sang along, in great voice, with the last line, and I thought, “I love it when they sing these old-fashioned songs!” Then they busted out the last bit of “Hey Jude,” replacing those words with Millwall — but, as you can hear, they somehow manage to say their club’s name without pronouncing a single “l.”
I was grateful to be among an honest, enthusiastic football crowd for an evening London derby.
And that was the last happy thought I had for a while, because just after the music ended, everyone around me began to sing, even louder than they had before:
Ole, ole ole ole,
Now, I have heard people say cunt before, and I used to work on a fishing boat, so I wasn’t offended. But with that ringing in my ears, I had a hard time reconciling what I was seeing two rows in front of me, which was a man, 60ish, standing on his seat, looking around to encourage the singers to new levels, screaming himself hoarse already … and right next to him what appeared to be his — or somebody’s — two grandchildren! They were two girls and couldn’t have been north of 14. And for all the cunts and wankers and bastards and fuck-offs flying around them, I have to say they didn’t look upset, worried, or even surprised. I guess this is what they do at Millwall.
A quick glance at Twitter informed me this wasn’t a standard pregame ritual. I saw this video of that crowd I had seen waiting for the coach earlier, with the opposing manager walking off and that whole ensemble singing the same cunt song at him. He was playing along, with a hand to an ear, and when he actually disembarked there was a moment when I thought the crowd might go for him:
Off to Wikipedia I went, to determine that it wasn’t “ole” they were singing, it was “Ollie,” short for Ian Holloway, who committed two unforgivable sins in combination: he was in charge at Millwall in a bad year that saw them relegated to League One, and (perhaps worse) he had arrived here from Crystal Palace. The former was a disaster, the latter would be something like Hillary Clinton on the Republican ticket, and the combination made Holloway, in Millwall World, a proper cunt who needed to be reminded of his cunt status.
All. Night. Long.
Go back and watch that video again, and let it be your soundtrack as you read on. When it is stuck in your head … Welcome to my evening at Millwall.
There was, in fact, a game that evening. Millwall scored a goal, QPR didn’t, the action was fairly even, neither of them is likely to go up or down this season, and it’s vaguely possible that someone outside of South or West London gives a crap. Where I stood, the goal only served to let the Millwall fans get the upper hand on the QPR lot in the end, and otherwise everyone played their roles to perfection.
QPR sang Millwall’s support is fucking shit, and Millwall responded with wanker signs and a mocking cheer. Millwall did their famous song, “No one likes us, we don’t care,” and QPR responded with “No one likes you, ‘cause you’re shit.” QPR taunted Millwall when some of “us” thought a side-netter was a goal, and Millwall taunted Holloway with “Sacked in the Morning.”
Then some fool in the QPR end — this is my favorite — decided to stand on a rail, raise his arms and invite an entire stand of Millwall supporters to “come on, ya fuckers,” to the massive amusement of those across the way — an amusement greatly heightened when a steward led him down the tunnel, but not before he ran out and gave it one more “come on!” gesture.
I spent much of my evening trying to catalog the various adjectives that I heard used before “cunt.” They included — and this is truly a partial list — fat, ugly, useless, goddamn, fucking, horrible, horrific, lazy, and poofy. That last one pretty much means gay, because hey, might as well do the double.
Here are the evening’s highlights — on the pitch:
And here is a “fan cam” for the winner.
It ended at 1-0, pulling Millwall up to about 15th in the table, but the crowd was joyous. Not only did they beat the wankers from across town, they got to remind that cunt Ollie where he stands over and over, and they joined in with a musical selection post-match: Down to the Den, Rockin’ All Over the World, and Sweet Caroline. Well after the game was over, a last few Millwallers in the upper section were still standing on rails, giving the cunts in the end a “come on!” or two. Half-hearted wanker signs were all the response QPR could muster.
As for me, I stuck around to take some stadium pictures and wound up helping out with a picture of 10 groundhopping Belgians — it’s amazing how often this happens, really — and then headed into the night, back to the windswept platform, onto the train where supporters seemed to have become human again, and down in South London to my safe, civilized home.
All along the way, there were really two of me, having a bit of a disagreement. One said, “I need never return to this shithole again,” while the other called it a proper old-fashioned football experience. That one also rejected many of the decency advances of late (aka political correctness) and thought Ollie’s greeting hilarious, but the other considered it absolutely juvenile. What on Earth makes “adults” act this way? One said atmosphere, the other said vulgarity. One said honest and real, the other said role-playing. One said when’s the next derby, the other said fuck you, never again.
But both of “me” agreed that, at the end of the night, it’s just football, and it’s just fucking Millwall.