For those of us employed as journalists and in the business of publicising Millwall’s flaws, it is necessary to differentiate between the club’s demented supporters and the club itself.
A shared ethos would answer many questions about the headlines and images that defile Millwall’s name, but the club are not an extension of their fanbase.
As the media see it, they are friendly, accommodating and good-natured; in short, a pleasant club to work with.
The irony is never hard to spot while coins fly around the New Den.
Missiles not withstanding, you cannot leave the stadium without a shred of sympathy for the men and women who administer Millwall (and who, in the past few years, have fashioned a team worth watching).
Whatever feeds the spite associated with their club, it is not coming from the top or even the middle. What pleasure could be drawn from the incoming fire thrown at them on Monday morning?
By lunchtime, four of the fans responsible for provoking Leeds United’s supporters at the New Den on Saturday were beginning indefinite bans. Others will follow, as they always seem to in the wake of this particular fixture. The days after last season’s game in Bermondsey were spent chasing one imbecile whose idea of a sound investment and a good day out was to purchase a Galatasaray shirt and flaunt it in front of United’s fans. Millwall promised to ban him for life and later confirmed his identity to the police.
When it comes to threats of that nature, the club are often as good as their word or as good as close-circuit video footage allows them to be. It would suit Millwall to rid their stadium of Turkish flags and spectators who delight in taunts of ‘Istanbul’ and stabbing gestures aimed towards the away end.
But not even the most optimistic member of Millwall’s board could claim that their strategy is working.
Saturday’s game was the fourth that I have covered in Bermondsey as a reporter with the Yorkshire Evening Post. A feature of all four has been references to the murder of two Leeds fans in Turkey 11 years ago, the anniversary for which fell days before last weekend’s fixture (not that the crowd needed that excuse).
Millwall are scarcely alone in abusing a raw and delicate subject – Cardiff City did likewise on United’s final appearance at Ninian Park in 2007 – but their supporters are more brazen than most. Some seem to have reached the stage of planning in advance for the arrival of Leeds, sourcing Turkish shirts and flags en masse. It is not exactly an improvised act.
Columns of this tone typically yield responses stating that United are in no position to throw stones. In a sense they are right. The fans in these parts who revel in the Munich air disaster or incidents as sensitive are cut from the same cloth as those in Millwall who obsess with Istanbul. But Turkish-themed taunts are entrenched in Bermondsey; Leeds’ FA Cup tie at Old Trafford in 2010 passed off without any significant reference to Munich. It was not indicative of a gathering in whom Manchester United’s deepest tragedy is ingrained.
So how is Millwall’s attempt to cleanse themselves going? Three years ago, when United were beaten 3-1 at the New Den, a solitary Turkish flag was flown in a section of the ground closest to the away end. It was promptly confiscated. Last weekend, scores of flags (apparently printed on paper) appeared in the minutes before kick-off, too many to remove.
These are not supporters cowed by the prospect of banning orders but supporters who couldn’t care less. If anything, the problem has escalated.
Millwall consistently seek to break the trend but the Football Association has a duty to ask whether a sledgehammer is now needed.
By the governing body’s own standards and regulations, the conduct of the crowd at the New Den brought the game into disrepute and has done repeatedly when United play there. The FA must have known that it would be “asking for observations”, as it did from both clubs this week, long before Saturday’s match.
A basic responsibility of clubs on matchdays is to maintain control of their supporters. It is clear enough that on days like Saturday, Millwall cannot.
On the strength of Turkish paraphernalia, missiles and tasteless chants, there is an argument to be had about whether the New Den should have been open to spectators at all.
Millwall’s reputation took a hit over the weekend but they will get over that, particularly once they count the proceeds of their highest attendance of the season.
It is a grim indictment of Saturday’s atmosphere to be discussing the merits of staging a compelling fixture behind closed doors.
But if Millwall cannot police themselves then the FA is there to police games for them. As answers to the problem go, it would rank among the most severe.
But in three years, no other sanction has worked.
The usual strategy of weeding around the fringes will continue to produce the result it deserves.