There are reasons why Millwall’s place in the Championship is hanging by a thread. Elements of the club’s support think Ian Holloway is one of them.
But if they do go under – and tragic that would be – it won’t be because they were forced to accept a bubble trip to Elland Road.
Holloway, it must be said, wasn’t trying to make that argument last weekend. He was annoyed and he was ranting about a subject which goads him. Some 234 Millwall supporters made it to Leeds, a smattering of faces in amongst empty seats. The rest took the view that the hassle and the restrictions that come with bubble trips weren’t worth the effort or the cost. Bit by bit and year by year, the turnout falls towards double figures.
It struck Holloway as unnecessary; a liberty taken by West Yorkshire Police who, in his words, weren’t willing to “get off your arse.” So Holloway asked a question: “When was the last time anyone from either team behaved in a dishonourable way?”
When indeed and where to begin. The best place might be August 9, 2014, the first day of this season. Millwall beat Leeds 2-0 at The Den; a fair result and a good start for Holloway. In his post-match press conference, he dealt with the game before devoting 10 minutes to attacking his own supporters for chanting about Jimmy Savile (and not, as he might have done, for their lack of originality).
“That’s an absolute disgrace,” Holloway said. “Let’s stop and think about what he’s actually done. Until we make a stand, the world ain’t right. How often do we turn a blind eye?” Again, to give him his due, it was an admirable and risky assault on those closest to home.
Two years earlier, in 2012, El-Hadji Diouf was the victim of racist abuse at The Den. The fan responsible, a 53-year-old, was arrested and convicted after an investigation by Sky Sports. Leeds’ previous visit was the infamous afternoon when Turkish flags were distributed en masse among the section of the crowd closest to the away end. It was so bad that day that bottles and coins flew before the game had even kicked off.
All this without touching on the reason why bubble trips became a tradition – the events of 2007 when 800 Millwall supporters bussed in from the train station in Leeds city centre and violence raged up and down Elland Road. It left the coach service First with shattered windows and a repair bill of £5,500.
Over the years there have been other incidents in Bermondsey, London Bridge station, ad nauseam; cigarette lighters thrown at Casper Ankergren. Dishonourable isn’t the half of it. Put the evidence together and history says that this is a fixture which cannot take care of itself. There are underlying problems in this particular rivalry that have never been dealt with. That is not to say Leeds or Millwall enjoy the routine. On the contrary, they are sick of it. Millwall have banned numerous fans for offences referencing Istanbul. Leeds, particularly while Ken Bates was chairman, were just as intolerant.
Neither club pretended to be clean. They became tired of spending the morning after sweeping up debris, teeth and media enquiries. Still it went on.
Above their heads there has always been a feeble wringing of hands. In nine years of reporting on Leeds – a period spanning 18 games against Millwall – no incident I’ve seen has led to sanctions against either club; not from the Football Association or the Football League, whichever jurisdiction the trouble falls into. The FA routinely “asks both clubs for their observations”, which can only amount to “pretty much the same as last time”, and the weeks go by in a haze of inaction. Until we meet again.
Armed with the experience of the Leeds-Millwall issue, you can see where West Yorkshire Police are coming from. Granted, it must make for easy work managing away crowds in the low hundreds and the cost of WYP’s operations can be questionable.
A report by the YEP last month showed that £17,400 was spent on policing Millwall’s visit to Elland Road last season, or £67 a head for the 260 away fans (albeit the take-up of a far bigger allocation), but the fixtures in Leeds are virtually trouble-free. It can’t be a coincidence. The end is justifying the means, even if bubble trips strike you as borderline draconian and the very last resort.
There might, of course, be another way but it’s rich to take aim at the police when the police are the only people getting their hands dirty with this perennial bombscare. By all means return to the days of free and open travel but before that happens, let’s decide whose head the decision is on. Ian?