By Matt Rowson
A Tuesday evening in January. You could spend it with your collar turned up and your eyes fixed downwards, trying to keep warm and avoid unwanted attention in Bermondsey. Or you could spend the time hammering six inch nails into your forehead whilst watching videoed episodes of "Watchdog". It's a close one.
Millwall's reputation is slightly curious. Football hooliganism has been on the wane for years; if not eradicated, then certainly no longer a predominant consideration in visiting most grounds. Millwall is still a hostile prospect however, despite the fact that we've not been there for four years and despite the fact that the incidents to receive media coverage in the interim have rarely featured the Lions.
The reputation is not entirely without justification, naturally. Millwall was an extremely intimidating place to go four years ago, it's difficult to imagine that the environs have changed much since, and of course reputations tend to have some basis in fact.
Millwall's rep has always been a big part of its problem, though. In a self-perpetuating sense, that Millwall had the worst reputation for trouble always meant that less families and kids, in so many ways a discouragement, would be tempted (or permitted) to attend games. Equally, any knuckledragger from anywhere in London or affiliated with any other club would pencil Lions games in. A vicious circle, therefore, that the club are making admirable efforts to break out of.
All of this puts a particular spin on events of the past week. Certainly the media has a responsibility to report the news (or, more to the point, makes its living from reporting current affairs and therefore can't be expected to refrain from comment on crowd trouble in a high profile game). It is also probably healthy that such incidents are covered and condemned. Nonetheless, there is a danger in fanning the unpleasantness that evidently already surrounds Cardiff City's games by crass coverage. Radio 5, in particular, whose approach to current affairs is becoming increasingly inane, seem to have interviewed Sam Hammam every day this week about some newly uncovered facet or other of his "disgraceful" club whilst being blithely ignorant of the role they are playing in helping to develop its notoriety. (Am fully expecting Jane Garvey to disdainfully grill the blustering Hammam about the lack of toilet paper in the left hand cubicle in the main stand ladies' toilets at Ninian Park on Friday evening).
Almost as infuriatingly, Manchester United's pitch invasion at Villa Park on the same day has received practically no coverage, which doesn't seem very even-handed. Admittedly, it was a less dramatic incident, but no less hostile. I guess without a comedy chairman to paint a caricature of, without a malleable reputation to turn into a short-term "story" and, most pertinently, with a large following of potential customers, viewers and listeners to offend, perhaps the nation's journalists have too much to lose to be in any way fair in their coverage?
It's less than a fortnight, of course, since Millwall put us to the sword at Vicarage Road with a competitive, purposeful performance in contrast with our own New Year's lack of resolution. The rearrangement of the return fixture from October's abortive attempt (which certainly left me with a match's worth of adrenaline coursing around and nowhere to use it) means that we get a chance to avenge that stuffing whilst the memory is still fresh.
Despite the short gap, Millwall are likely to field a slightly altered side on Tuesday, having picked up one or two knocks in the interim. Australian midfielder Tim Cahill, one of the Lions' most important players and scorer of the first goal on New Year's Day, picked up a nasty injury in the Cup tie against Scunthorpe last weekend and will miss at least a month. Richard Sadlier, another goalscorer in the earlier game, missed Thursday evening's draw with Birmingham and must therefore be doubtful.
Meanwhile, the Lions are being heavily linked with possible transfer targets and some action by Tuesday is possible. Manchester City midfielder Dickson Etuhu and Tottenham's Matthew Etherington, who also scored against the Hornets earlier in the season whilst on loan at Bradford, are two names mentioned whilst Orient fullback Matt Lockwood is a long-standing target.
Failing new signings, Millwall's line-up on Tuesday is likely to feature Tony Warner in goal, with Frenchman Willy Gueret as cover.
The popular Matt "Shaggy" Lawrence is at right back. Lawrence's Dad works at the same place as I do, and Lawrence is therefore indirectly responsible for the signed Fulham ball dating from his Craven Cottage days that stains our home in my wife's honour.
Robbie Ryan will be on the left, with Stuart Nethercott and Sean Dyche, scorer of Millwall's equaliser on Thursday evening, in the centre. Darren Ward, ex- of this parish, is likely to be on the bench but Joe Dolan is still out with a long-term problem.
In midfield, Thursday evening saw Londoner Ronnie Bull come in for the missing Cahill. He partnered the left-sided David Livermore and Canadian ballwinner Marc Bircham, who picked up a booking for diving on New Year's Day, against Birmingham with Stephen Reid given a free role. Leke Odunsi could also come in here, but Belgian winger Christophe Kinet is returning to fitness and Paul Ifill is still out.
The forward pairing, assuming Sadlier's continued absence, should be hassler-in-chief Steve Claridge, and Neil Harris. Mark McGhee has described Harris' highly symbolic goal at Vicarage Road, his first since recovering from testicular cancer, as the highlight of the Lions' season so far. Whilst it pains me to come down on the same side as McGhee, I have to confess that the same incident, and seeing Tony Warner and the rest of the Millwall side charge after the goalscorer at Vicarage Road, was a rare source of warmth on a grim afternoon.
Barring fires in local factories, frozen pitches, the wrong kind of snow or other unforeseen mishaps, a tough trip awaits us on Tuesday evening. One hopes it will only be tough on the pitch. The Hornets have taken a total of two points in eight games against the division's current top seven this season; if we're serious about a play-off challenge, a win against a decent side needs to come sooner rather than later.