By Matt Rowson
The term "vicious circle" was invented to describe Millwall. Players, managers, formations, playing aesthetics come and go... some things are constant and in Millwall's case, still, the one thing that sets them apart, that makes them slightly remarkable is the reputation that their followers, some of their followers, have nurtured over the years.
And once that reputation is in place, with the best will in the world it's one hell of a job to shake it. It almost doesn't matter who is following Millwall. Because Millwall are a name, because they have this reputation, their arrival is a landmark on the calendar for tosspots the country over to mass ranks and come out to play. And faced with fear and a heavy police presence, let alone the local (in)firm, the Millwall support, whoever they might be, are always going to be naturally defensive and hostile.
The fact is of course that Millwall do still have a lot of jokers hanging on to their name... or, more disturbingly, remembering their allegiance whenever an inflammable looking fixture comes along. This appears to have been the case on May 2nd, when violent clashes were the backdrop to the Lions' play-off final against the charming Birmingham City (whose club, it must be said, do far less to discourage such goings-on than Millwall do). Many of those Millwall "fans" involved in the fighting, according to reports, had not been to the game, nor had any intention of doing so. Many, indeed, were already serving life bans handed out and enforced by the football club. The line that clubs exert limited influence on their supporters' behaviour once they leave the stadium is often employed as a flimsy hand-washing technique by clubs with no appetite for confronting the problem. Not so here.
The person you envy least, perhaps, is the poor sod charged with improving Millwall's fortunes and ridding the club of its undesirable mantle. Theo Paphitis has not been shy about aggressively tackling Millwall's particular problems since he dragged the club from its last flirtation with financial oblivion around five years ago. True to form, the events of May 2nd led to travelling fans from a number of Division One clubs being banned from their fixtures at the New Den this season with reciprocal injunctions on Millwall following their side away. Watford, who only totted up twelve arrests at games last season, less than a tenth of the Millwall tally, are not one of the clubs facing an embargo.
In addition, Paphitis has elected to revisit an old idea by introducing a strict membership card scheme governing who can and can't attend games as a Millwall supporter. A number of details contribute to the considerable disquiet with which this development has been received; firstly, and perhaps most restrictively, there is currently no scope for bringing guests or non-members along to a game. This in itself seems to be restricting Millwall to an impossibly limited body of support, and is likely to be ultimately self-defeating if pursued... more plausible seems some sort of scheme where guests are signed in as the responsibility of a current member.
Secondly, the involvement of a commercial partner, "Team Card", who have apparently been touting around the Football League for this sort of business for a while, is perhaps a little unfortunate. Paphitis may have preserved a lot more trust were this a venture led from within the club, rather than a commercial proposal that, it might be argued, also served the purpose of being seen to be doing something.
Finally, the coincident comments made by Paphitis in the wake of the Football League's utter ineptitude re. ITV Digital coming to light will almost certainly come back to haunt him. His comment, along the lines of "If I owned a Kebab shop I wouldn't allow them (the Football League) to run it" enters folklore alongside the likes of "You can't win anything with kids" and "We're the Manchester United of the First Division". As membership applications have been dealt with by overstretched staff with a combination of officiousness and incompetence resulting in reports of season ticket holders awaiting their membership cards before the kick-off on August 10th, messageboard threads under headings such as "Mine's a large doner with extra chilli sauce, Mr.Paphitis" have become increasingly popular.
To return to the original thrust, however, it's impossible not to have sympathy with Paphitis, who is at least aggressively refusing to give in to the hooligans. To have come up with few or no measures in the light of the play-off trouble would have been tantamount to conceding that this sort of thing was inevitably going to happen again. Perhaps the worst thing you can accuse Paphitis of is believing a little too much of his own press.
The first competitive match at the Vic this season, then, and a chance for us to confirm whether or not the TV screen and the row of seats down the centre of the Vicarage Road stand really were flogged off to the highest bidder in St.Albans on market day, and whether the advertising hoardings really were burned as fuel. Chance also to see whether Millwall, one of the brightest and most enterprising sides to visit the Vic last year, have survived a summer of unrest which saw them not able to offer acceptable deals to three out-of-contract stars (to our benefit, in one case).
In goal for Millwall will be Tony Warner, who will live in my memory for the fantastic charge up the pitch undertaken in celebration of Neil Harris' audacious and highly symbolic goal on New Year's Day. Cover is Willy Gueret, one of an increasing number of French reserve keepers in this country.
At the back, Matt "Shaggy" Lawrence is likely to return in place of David Tuttle at rightback, Lawrence having missed much of pre-season. Ronnie Bull will probably play on the left; one of the most impressive performers at the tail end of last season, he is exceptionally quick. Robbie Ryan is the aggressive alternative. In the centre, team captain Stuart Nethercott is partnered by our old mate Darren Ward. Whilst prone to the occasional stinker, Ward is still a fine defender and has stepped into the position vacated by Sean Dyche. First choice cover here is likely to be Tuttle again, with highly-rated youngster Martin Phillips out with a back problem and Joe Dolan, having missed out on the whole of last season, injured again.
In midfield, Australian Tim Cahill can be relied upon to chip in with a few goals, as long as the rumours of interest from Aston Villa amongst others remain unsubstantiated. Alongside him, former Arsenal trainee Dave Livermore does a lot of the fetching and carrying.
On the right, Paul Ifill seems to have shaken off the mantle of being the fans' boo boy whilst on the left is usually the versatile and talented Stephen Reid. Reid is doubtful with an ankle problem, however; should he miss out his place is likely to be taken by Bull pushing forward into a much less comfortable advanced position, although Scottish teenager Peter Sweeney is also an option. Further cover in midfield is provided by two more promising youngsters, Leke Odunsi and Charlie Hearn.
Up front, it looks like two from three; Neil Harris, now apparently back to full fitness following his well-publicised cancer problems a year ago, should be one of the most dangerous strikers in the division. Alongside him, incorrigible warhorse Steve Claridge is likely to get the nod over Niall Quinn's heir apparent in the Irish side, Richard Sadlier, who is recovering from a knock but should make the bench.
Millwall should be greeted with a dramatically different side, both in make-up and attitude, to the increasingly turgid mess that they demolished so thoroughly on New Year's Day. People have their own views on the management and playing changes that have taken place over the summer, but for me the style of play seems altogether more appealing. As a general principle making a concerted effort to do something, even if occasionally the wrong thing, is a vast improvement on passing the buck and waiting for the perfect solution.
Postscript: Millwall 0 Rotherham United 6. What the...?