So, what does a man do when he has a train ticket to Braintree burning a hole in his pocket and no match to go to? There’s only one real option, a trip to see The Lions!
Well, that was literally the only option as it was the only professional level match going ahead in London on Saturday thanks to the weather and the FA Cup! But I was glad I went: as ever, Millwall presented a football experience full of genuine character.
It also presented a rather unpleasant reminder of Wrexham’s recent troubles. As my lad and I approached the ground we were greeted by a PA system appealing for support for a petition. Supporters were strung across the street asking for signatures against a development which looks dangerously like what happened to us.
It all felt so familiar. Millwall’s plight revolves around a lack of council support while property developers circle around, looking for parcels of ground around the stadium. We all know about the damage caused by developments on land historically used by a club, of course. At least the decisive action of Glyndwr University meant the danger of losing the ground was averted, for the moment at least, and the takeover of the club by the WST meant we have cause for cautious optimism. Millwall, however, have no hope of a benevolent organisation taking over the land around The New Den, and therefore are hostages to fortune. They may well find themselves living the nightmare scenario we faced for so long.
Basically, Lewisham Council have decided to sell land around The Den currently leased to the club to a property developer, despite Millwall’s plans to develop the areas themselves, not only allowing them to improve its long term stability but also providing affordable housing for the area.
It’s no surprise to see community put at the heart of their proposals, as there are few clubs who are so plainly part of the surrounding area as Millwall. Put aside the cartoon hooligan image: to visit The Den is to experience what, to me, is the essence of what football clubs ought to represent. The imprint of the local area is deep in the match experience, unlike the sanitised multinational entertainment experience you get at the big clubs these days. Milwall are what have always been and what they damn well ought to be: a working class club for the people of the area. Visiting The Den is visceral, sometimes a little scary and indubitably a pure footballing experience. Sky might try to sell a sanitised version of TV-friendly passion to their armchair subscribers; pop into the Cold Blow Lane stand and taste a bit of the real thing!
Just looking at the programme gives you a flavour of what the club means to the people. All other clubs’ player sponsorship pages feature the names of local companies and the odd enthusiastic fan, which is fair enough; Millwall’s features fourteen tributes to departed supporters. This club means something to folk.
Whether such sentiment cuts with Lewisham Council is a moot point though. While Millwall want to develop housing for the community, the council’s decision to sell the land, which is currently leased to the club, not only means they are cashing in on publicly-owned assets, but also means that Millwall’s long-standing and highly respected community scheme, which is housed on one of the parcels of land, will be evicted and their home, The Lions Centre, demolished. So which body has the community at heart, the council or the football club?
Quite plainly the council haven’t played fair with Millwall. The club’s chairman, John Berylson, outlined in his programme notes the basis of his grievance: he says he submitted the club’s regeneration plans to the council in August but they refused to consider them. The property developers have said the redevelopment will safeguard the club’s future: I invite Millwall fans to ask any of their Wrexham counterparts about the validity of promises made by property developers as we’ve all got chapter and verse on it. They’ll say what they need to get planning permission, and then do whatever suits them. We have student accommodation on what used to be our property, which was granted permission because it was promised that all income would go to the club. We have never, and will never, see a penny from it. It was also reported, with some regret, that the new stand which would be built from the profits would probably not be finished until 2012. Guess what? There’s still a great big derelict stand there, and if that ever changes it’ll have nothing to do with promises made in 2008.
Millwall hope to get the council to come to the table and consider their plans. I urge you to sign their petition and support a fellow community-centred club.
It’s not only right to support Millwall’s cause from a sense of kinship with fellow supporters; there’s also a hint of self-interest to backing them, There is, after all, no guarantee to the long term future of our stadium.
I’ve no doubt that Glyndwr are, and will continue to be, genuinely altruistic landlords, motivated in great part by a desire to support important elements of Wrexham’s community like our football club, but only a fool would guarantee that they will retain the ground in the long term.
Things change swiftly in education, and we have already seen pressure from without exerted on the University to cut their losses and sell the stadium. If budget cuts forced them to do so, or a future chancellor saw The Racecourse as an asset to be capitalised upon, then we would be dropped into the same nightmare situation we faced a couple of years ago and become desperate for support from the wider football community.
What goes around comes around: if we hope for help from other clubs in the future, we’d better earn it by showing our support for the likes of Millwall now.