Why, to paraphrase Mario Balotelli, is it always them? Millwall. Always Millwall. Despite the attempts of many good people to soften the club’s features, to give them a more friendly face, there is always a knucklehead element dragging them down. ’Twas ever thus for the club with the longest rap sheet in football.
Do you know how long it took for the Den to be closed down because of fan unrest after it opened in August 1920? Less than two months, after fans threw missiles at the Newport goalkeeper, John Cooper – and then, for good measure, punched him when he climbed into the crowd. Millwall’s stadium was shut again in 1934, 1947, 1950, 1978 and 1994. They have probably got off lightly.
Throwing concrete at a linesman. Attacking referees. Ripping up Luton’s Kenilworth Road ground. Injuring up to 50 police officers after a riot following a play-off defeat to Birmingham. The list of crimes and misdemeanours is so long that their latest indiscretion – booing as players took a knee in support of the fight against racial injustice before Saturday’s match against Derby – might appear a relatively light charge by their own historical standards.
Yet the action, and subsequent reaction, says a lot. Not just about Millwall fans, but Britain and the politicians who lead us. Remember Millwall’s supporters had not been inside a stadium for nine months. The club has a shot at a play-off place. Saturday should have been a joyous occasion. Yet the first instinct of some of the 2,000 home crowd – all season-ticket holders, the hardcore of the hardcore – was to boo.
Afterwards some supporters claimed their actions were not racist but merely expressing their disdain for the politics of the “Marxist” Black Lives Matters movement. The Millwall defender Mahlon Romeo saw through that. “Spreading hatred”, he called it.
“What they’ve done is booed and condemned a peaceful gesture which was put in place to highlight, combat and stop any discriminatory behaviour and racism,” said Romeo, a London-born black player who has represented Antigua and Barbuda. “That’s it – that’s all that gesture is. But in society there is a problem – and that problem is racism.”
It is hard to argue, although some undoubtedly will. But, in truth, this is a toxic sludge that goes beyond Millwall and beyond football. And while things are nowhere near as bad as in the 70s and 80s, it is worrying to see it poisoning our national game again.
In the past two years, a Tottenham fan has been banned for hurling a banana at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the north London derby, while a Chelsea fan got a life ban for “racially abusive language” aimed at Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling. Millwall were themselves charged after a video circulated on the internet depicting fans singing: “I’d rather be a Paki than a scouse”.
And don’t forget the England fans singing abusive songs and welcoming Tommy Robinson at the Nations League finals in Portugal last year either. It’s not just the high-profile incidents. In September, Kick It Out warned of a “shocking” increase in reports of racist abuse in professional football – with 282 reports of racism in England grounds during 2019-2020 compared to 184 the season before, despite hundreds of matches being played behind closed doors or cancelled because of the pandemic.
Last year the academics Stefan Lawrence and Christian Davis came to a sobering conclusion after investigating why anti-racist campaigns had not translated into a significant increase in black, Asian and minority ethnic fans on the terraces. In an article in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, they noted “BAME fans still report the same fears as were associated with football decades ago” despite the actions of organisations such as Kick It Out.
The BAME fans they spoke to reported not wanting to “feel the emotional burden when people are throwing bananas or shouting discriminative things”, feared the impact on their children, and perceived they would be at “risk of violence or racism at football matches”. How would Saturday have made them feel?
For many of us it is clear the Brexit vote in 2016 has left some feeling they can now uncork all sorts of unsavoury opinions, without fear of shame or consequence. And, really, is it any surprise when George Eustice, the environment secretary, refused to condemn the behaviour of Millwall fans?
“The issue of race and racial discrimination is something we all take very seriously,” he said after being asked about the booing, before pivoting sharply. “My personal view is that Black Lives Matter is actually a political movement that is different to what most of us believe in, which is standing up for racial equality. Each individual can take their own choices on how they reflect this.”
That comes dangerously close to echoing Donald Trump’s comment about “very fine people on both sides” after Charlottesville. It is also very different to the response given by Margaret Thatcher after Millwall fans rioted at Kenilworth Road. “We were all utterly appalled when we saw Luton against Millwall,” she said. “What we are trying to do is build up a series of actions which first will identify the hooligans and stop them and progressively reduce this terrible scourge on football.”
True, Thatcher was no friend of football. But at least she was able to see what was staring at her in plain sight. Which is rather more than Eustice seems able to do.