Richard Sutcliffe: It’s madness as United fans are forced to run the gauntlet

Millwall fans taunt the Leeds faithful
Millwall fans taunt the Leeds faithful
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MILLWALL v Leeds United.

Hardly a fixture to whet the appetite of the ordinary man in the street. Not, that is, unless an atmosphere dripping with evil intent is what rows the boat of said gentleman.

Regardless of whether staged at The Den or Elland Road, meetings between these two clubs have invariably been troublesome affairs.

From the 2007 visit of Millwall when buses ferrying the visiting fans to the ground were bricked through any of the recent clashes in London that have seen Galatasaray and Turkish flags paraded in an attempt to goad the Leeds contingent about the murders of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight in Istanbul, ‘spiteful’ hardly comes close to describing the atmosphere when these two go head-to-head.

Sadly, it has been this way ever since the mid-Eighties when a rivalry that is now as poisonous as they come first developed thanks to a combination of Millwall’s rise up the leagues and United’s fall from grace.

Such was the potential for trouble back then that the Metropolitan Police insisted on a morning kick-off in South London at a time when few, if any, games were moved from the traditional 3pm kick-off slot.

Since then, the enmity has endured to such an extent that a huge police presence and a match-day operation on a par with the protection afforded visiting heads of state is required to keep the two factions apart.

Not for nothing did this fixture feature in a 2005 documentary series entitled Football’s Hardest Away Days.

Bearing all this in mind, imagine, therefore, the surprise among United supporters when a story appeared on the club’s official website in late July.

Leeds’s fixture list for the 2012-13 campaign had been out for five or so weeks and the trip to The Den pencilled in for Saturday, November 17, with a 3pm kick-off. As is always the case, the publishing of the fixtures had come with the caveat that all games were subject to change.

The news that the Millwall game had been moved to the following day with a 1.15pm kick-off to be shown live on Sky was not, therefore, too much of a surprise.

No problem with that. In fact, an earlier kick-off might prevent some of the more excitable element firing as much lager as possible down their necks before the game and causing problems as a result.

What did come as a shock, however, was the second paragraph of the website story, which read: “We have been informed by the local rail operator that South Bermondsey Station, which has a separate walkway for away supporters, will be closed on the day of our trip to The Den due to essential maintenance.”

As anyone who has attended Millwall as a visiting fan will appreciate, the closure of the nearest train station has serious implications.

This dedicated walkway from platform to turnstile was, let’s not forget, built a few years ago to solve the huge problem the police were having in escorting away fans from the stadium to the station via Ilderton Road.

As the 2002 BBC documentary Hooligan vividly revealed, the police were in an impossible position in terms of trying to prevent disorder breaking out in the short distance between The Den and South Bermondsey Station.

As the exasperated intelligence officer dedicated to policing Millwall supporters told the documentary makers: “We have tried everything. We have tried letting everyone out together, we have tried just a couple of PCs walking up the road – we have tried everything and nothing works. It always ends in the same scenario.”

The building of the walkway ended those depressing fortnightly instances of trouble. So, in the wake of Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds being staged on a Friday night when the more volatile members of each club’s support were always going to spend all day getting ‘tanked up’, why is United’s trip to Millwall being allowed to go ahead without that walkway in use?

Leeds have already appealed for fans to travel by coach. That, however, simply is not a viable option for everyone, not least the large numbers of fans that United draw from not only the capital but all the capital’s satellite towns and cities.

So, instead, several hundred Leeds fans face the prospect of running the gauntlet of a 20-minute walk to either Surrey Quays or New Cross Gate stations. And all in order that, just like last Friday, Sky can screen a fixture at their convenience rather than that of the fans.