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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/01/02
Picking an argument
By Ian Grant

One of the curious aspects of this most curious of divisions is its local rivalries. As the concentration of clubs in the West Midlands, Yorkshire, and Manchester has increased, so those located elsewhere have been left searching for a derby game. Among others, Norwich no longer have Ipswich, Forest no longer have Derby, Burnley no longer have Blackburn...and we, of course, no longer have Luton.

As a consequence, certain clubs with an apparently infinite capacity for being bloody annoying - Birmingham, Wolves, and Palace, in particular - have become surrogate "scummers" for virtually everyone in the division. Additionally, lesser rivalries have been formed by vague mutual agreement in the absence of anything more satisfying. One thinks of our short-lived and unconvincing quarrels with Wycombe and QPR in recent seasons.

Picking an argument with opponents and then trying to find fresh ways of sustaining it can be lots of fun, of course. Sometimes circumstances conspire to make it impossible - even if QPR hadn't been relegated, we'd still have found ourselves unable to summon up genuine hatred for a club that employs two of our greatest, most loyal servants and other likeable former Hornets. So much depends on who you choose as your temporary rivals.

There are certain clubs that no-one with any sanity would choose, obviously. The consequences are simply too troublesome to make it worthwhile. That Gillingham fans are seemingly less than enthusiastic about returning the jibes of their London not-really-neighbours-but-closer-than-anyone-else seems entirely understandable. When the hardest kids in the playground are glaring in your direction, you avoid eye contact.

Millwall are, as ever, a conundrum. On and off the pitch, much happens at the New Den and much of it is both progressive and admirable...and nobody notices unless there's a Daily Mail-style headline in it. On the playing side, Mark McGhee appears destined to guide a new club to that coveted seventh place in the First Division, something that he achieved with relentless accuracy while at Wolves. Away from that, the club itself is active and positive within the local community, led by one of the more likeable chairman. And, contrary to popular myth, it not only preaches the anti-racist gospel but puts it into practice by banning and prosecuting offenders. That's more than many can claim.

This isn't to suggest that the Lions' reputation is entirely undeserved. A visit to the New Den remains a singularly unpleasant experience for away fans, characterised by hidden colours and forced facial expressions. It is, however, to say that to concentrate on the club's problems to the exclusion of all else is to contribute significantly to them.

Think back to the 1993/94 season, when the National Front made a short-lived and thoroughly revolting attempt to lay claim to Vicarage Road by selling their literature outside the ground and wonder what might've happened if that attempt had then been fuelled by media coverage that slapped a fascist label on the club and its supporters. Or, more recently, imagine if reports of the racist abuse at Maine Road in August had given the club a new, unwelcome image that the subsequent life bans couldn't shake off. In reality, whether they've been entirely successful or not, Millwall have done much to try to kick out racism and hooliganism. They deserve credit for that and recognition that it's not an easy task.

Despite my earlier jibe, Millwall are in sufficiently fine form to suggest that they'll finish higher than seventh, perhaps joining others, including ourselves, in following promotion to the First Division with another promotion from it. Saturday's home victory over Crewe kept them in fifth, narrowly ahead of more established names and will take them to the Vic with one defeat in their last seven games and a settled side. Bearing in mind that past results in this fixture haven't been especially pleasing for Watford fans, this will be a serious test of whether we're ever going to escape from mid-table.

In goal, Tony "Denzil" Warner has been ever-present so far, after losing his place in the middle of last season and recovering his form in time for its celebratory end. His deputy, the tremendously named Willy Gueret, has been restricted to a solitary substitute appearance in this campaign.

Naturally, Watford fans will be most interested in Darren Ward, whose sale to the Lions in September provoked a great deal of dissent, and will be delighted to know that he still has pointy hair, even if he's only made a couple of starts so far. With the Millwall defence conceding few goals - the clean sheet against Crewe was their fourth in a row - he'll find it difficult to establish himself. Instead, the pairing of Stuart Nethercott, formerly of Spurs, and Sean Dyche, formerly of Bristol City, appears to be thoroughly dominant and settled. Along with Ward, Welsh international Ryan Green and the versatile youth product Ronnie Bull provide cover at the back.

In the right back position, Matt Lawrence won the "Player of the Season" award last time around, has a degree in American Literature, and has returned from an injury that would've excluded him from the postponed fixture at the New Den in early October. The wholehearted Marc Bircham, a Canadian international, has been shifted into midfield as a consequence. On the other side, Robbie Ryan has won caps for the Republic of Ireland and, according to "House Of Fun", can be seen doing "his trademark sliding tackle with one leg aiming for the right winger's midriff". What is it with left backs, eh?

Midfielder Tim Cahill, a youth team product who's scored ten goals already, would undoubtedly be in contention for the Australian national side, had he not made the mistake of playing for Samoa at the age of fifteen and thus making himself ineligible. While Cahill likes to attack, the hard-tackling David Livermore, a former Arsenal trainee, used to be a central defender and so tends to play a stabilising role. With Bircham alongside, a more attacking option is offered by versatile winger Steven Reid and Paul Ifill, who can play wide when no striking positions are available.

It's in attack that Millwall have surprised this season, and the adoption of thirty-five year old Steve Claridge has been one of the year's best signings. His game was always about effort over style and finishing over creating, and he remains a terrific player at this level. His partner, also with twelve goals to his name, is the tall, line-leading Richard Sadlier, who spent some time struggling to fulfil his promise after emerging from the youth team but is evidently doing so now.

On Boxing Day, those two were finally re-joined by the prolific Neil Harris, who has now completed his recovery from testicular cancer and succeeded in raising over four thousand quid for cancer research with a collection from fans at the game against Palace. To take us back to where we were earlier, the idea that Millwall fans might be "charitable" probably didn't make any headlines.

In short, Millwall have got into the playoff places by being a bloody good, solid team. To beat them, we'll need to copy them.