Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Story So Far - Edition *106

The story so far

So here we are. Just 10,800 seconds from Wembley again. Seven years on from the fateful night of May 2nd 2002 we’re once again within touching distance of promotion to a higher league with ‘tasty’ opposition in our way. Last time it was Birmingham City, this time it’s Leeds United. Both with followers with a reputation for aggravation. And both irresistible magnets for their south London counterparts. Success might be two matches or four halves of football away - but so too is disaster. One riot that could mean non-existence for the Lions. Don’t say we don’t do drama at The Den.

Excuse us for dampening your mood this Saturday lunchtime as you pore over your play-off special NOLU. The West Yorkshire Police security measures put in place are of course onerous. Only 1000 Millwall fans to be permitted at Elland Road. Ticket collection to be by voucher ONLY at Checkpoint Charlie in the Wooley Edge service station, located just outside Guantanamo Bay in case you’ve never heard of it. No ticket collection at the ground. No allowance made for fans travelling on any route other than the M1. Eye scans and DNA records to be stored on the government ID information bank held at GCHQ…

Ever felt not wanted?

All this security for a game of third division football has good cause in fairness. Nobody in London or Yorkshire can hide from the fact that this is a volatile fixture with every possibility of it kicking off if the two rival fans get close enough to each other. But equally games like these - the clash of north v south and fallen giants versus the eternal underdogs - are really what professional football in this country has traditionally been all about. Take away events like Millwall v Leeds / Cardiff / Brum / w*st h*m and all you have left is just another sport. Go and watch UK basketball some time and see what ‘just another sport’ feels like. Nice, interesting even - but basically meaningless.

The weight of history is heavy though. Police restrictions or not, the collective Millwall folk memories of the play-off riots in 1994 against Derby and 2002 at home to Birmingham are still fresh. As much as we like to see the amusing side of our chequered history at NOLU, we cannot hide from the stark fact that this season’s improvement in form is largely down to the financial stability provided by our American chairman John Berylson How would he react to argy-bargy on the grand scale? We simply don’t know. The worst case fear would be that he’d decide the whole Millwall project was simply too much grief and fly home to Boston leaving the club in the financial pits of hell once again. We can’t afford trouble on any level. So as much as The Lions Trust’s recent joint press release with the Leeds United Supporters Trust is a laudable effort to draw attention to the incompetence and unfairness of the 1000 away fans per game rule, we at NOLU simply can’t see any way that’s going to change. Which politician will stand in next year’s General Election on a platform of liberalising football security and making away fan travel easier? Not even Gordon Brown is that desperate - yet.

With regard to the football, Millwall’s AWFUL track record in these matches remains a monkey on everyone’s back at The Den today. Eight playoffs played since 1991 have resulted in no wins, two draws and six defeats. Hardly a glittering array of success is it? Today would be a great day to put the old Millwall adage that we have to get promoted automatically or not at all to rest. Maybe it’s something about the playoff system itself that holds us back. Too much hysteria isn’t good for the Lions faithful’s nerves after all. As a concept though, we believe the play-offs to be a fantastic way of keeping the season alive until the final games of the season for teams as far down the table as eighth, ninth and tenth. For what it’s worth, we’d even bring back the old system of the third from bottom team from the higher division being given the chance to play for their lives instead of the sixth place side from the lower one. Why? Well there’s an argument that the current system rewards the surging team. The one that nicks the last play-off spot at the death - Scunthorpe on this occasion with a late, late equaliser at home to Tranmere last Saturday. Do they now have the mojo to get promotion? Will MK, Leeds or even us see themselves as having lost automatic promotion? Rather than gaining the chance via the playoff lottery? Looking at the two matches in front of us today and away next Thursday, we have to see this as a chance of success gained rather than lost. If we are honest our poor result last weekend away at Carlisle was symbolic of our whole season. Finishing in fifth spot in some ways masks our inconsistent form all year. The same team that in October could put three past today‘s opponents and produce the goods so spectacularly at home to Peterborough in April, could also cock up against MK Dons, Leicester and lowly Northampton plus quite few others. The never ending contrast of the two Millwalls – the pussycats and the lions - remains as true today as it did back at the start of the season.

Kenny Jackett too remains an enigma. A man who in one match can infuriate with his bizarre substitutions, tactical tinkering and obsessions with certain players to the exclusion of others, can then excite with his tactical genius substitutions, tactical changes and perseverance with certain players. Here we are, two seasons into his reign and playing for the chance of promotion with some of the best performances in the last five years seen under our belts. And yet who knows what kind of Millwall performance we’ll see today? And then which version of The Lions will show up at Leeds in five days time? The contrast between the best and the worst of this squad has been so stark at times as to make you wonder whether it was the same team. Whatever becomes of the Lions fortunes though, one thing has been developed which harks back to earlier eras of Millwall history - a fantastic team spirit which has made the squad a far greater whole than the sum of its parts. We conclude this commentary then with four players who sum our season and our club up. Each represents a different attribute that may combine to produce one of the club’s greatest ever performance today - or yet another pratfall:

Neil Harris – ‘The Past’ - Millwall’s greatest ever goalscorer and our last link with the great championship side of 2000-01. Sadly never the player he was before the cancer, these days Neil’s head moves faster than his body is able to. But as Kenny Jackett’s brave renewal of his contract shows, his presence in the squad is vital. It is to both men’s credit that they have put aside early differences and united for the greater cause . The Harris / Jackett combination looks to have Millwall legend potential - whatever the outcome of this season‘s play-offs.

Lewis Grabban – ‘The Talent’ – the archetypal mercurial player. The kind who delivers sometimes - and then sometimes doesn’t. Headstrong and sensitive, Grabban has the ability to do the unexpected in a way not seen since the departure of that other Zampa Road mystery Paul Ifill. Is Lewis the future? Has he got the thick skin needed to make it at Millwall? Does he truly have the temperament for big time football? You tell us.

Andy Frampton – ‘The Honest Man’ (copyright William Donachie esq.) who gives everything he has to give in every game. A player of moderate skill – but a man who never shirks, never hides and never goes missing. Yes what he has is limited, but since when did Millwall crowds want any more than a salt of the Earth type in the Cripps mould? Monstered by the home crowd in his early days, Andy Frampton has made the journey from whipping boy to Player of the Season. A Lions legend in the making.

Gary Alexander – ‘The Endeavour’ – do-do-dooh Gary Alexander will run himself into the ground for Millwall. Not only that, he will shed blood for the cause and will keep working away until the success comes. Now that might be along wait, but work and work and work he will. A Millwall supporter, he really is one of us. All of our strengths, all of our weaknesses all of our characters are summed up in Gary Alexander.

In the end of course, it’s all so much hot air. What will be will be, will be what we all collectively want it to be. Willpower, luck and messianic force. It all comes down to this. Zampa and Elland Roads. Everything at stake, all we can say is to B-E-L-I-E-V-E. Oh and to keep shouting like our third division lives depend on it: