by Paul Breen, author of The Charlton Men
Since we have been in the news on account of sex in recent times, and we played Millwall recently, this might be a good time to recall the loss of my derby virginity.
Though I’m not sure I want to think too deeply on sex and Millwall in the same sentence, this encounter took place on a dark December day in 2009.
This was when Deon Burton was our main striker, and Nicky Bailey more famous for his battling midfield displays than the missed penalty in the play-offs.
It was also a time too when the country was looking forward to a general election, and change was in the air.
But before going any further, I do need to confess something. The event took place in the company of a trans man, or more accurately a trans-club man.
What’s that when it’s at home, you might well ask?
Well, it’s a thing that dare not speak its name in either of our respective grounds on derby days, but there are a very small minority of older supporters and even couples who follow both South London sides.
Generally it’s a relic of the days before the rivalry was as fierce, and it’s most often older men who got into the post-war habit of going to games, week about, when the two clubs were in different divisions for a long time.
So that’s what the trans-club man is. I won’t say who he is, but he’s been following both teams since the 1940s, and once held a season ticket for each!
Anyway, on a day of Scandinavian temperatures, we had to wrap up warm on our walk to the ground, where we took our seats in the NW quadrant.
“Don’t do anything,” I whispered, “if Millwall score.”
My companion laughed, knowing the etiquette of London football far better than me.
Maybe if it’s Hartlepool or Rochdale, nobody cares much for the presence of a fifth columnist, but there’s a lot of history where these two clubs are concerned.
Millwall tend to get the worst possible press too when it comes to their supporters. A few months before, they’d found themselves suddenly thrust into the spotlight of the ten o’clock news; bringing back memories from the dark decades of football hooliganism.
Before, during, and after a Carling Cup tie against West Ham, fighting had erupted outside a Tube station, spreading all the way through the streets and on to the stands.
We’d seen pictures of barrel-bellied men with tattoos and shaven heads rioting, throwing bricks, smashing bottles, and stabbing a man to death; a Millwall fan who’d accidentally followed the wrong direction.
“That’s only a few of the more extreme ones,” my companion defended the majority of his team’s supporters, whose flags had smothered the Jimmy Seed Stand in tides of blue and white.
“Every club has them.”
Perhaps Charlton did as well, but I hadn’t seen them yet. Then again, maybe you don’t see them when they’re on your side. You only notice the logs and splinters in your enemies’ eyes.
Today’s game, though, was about peace, and not war. It was being played in memory of two teenagers murdered in south London in the past year.
One boy came from a family of Millwall supporters, and the other was a Charlton fan.
The initiative had come from Charlton Athletic Community Trust with the theme being that Street Violence Ruins Lives.
Nearly 30 kids suffered violent deaths across London in 2008 - mostly as a result of stabbings.
Before the game, when members of the two families came out on to the pitch, both sets of supporters put rivalries aside to applaud their bravery in the face of such suffering.
Once the action started, I was hoping the applause would soon die down in the south side of the stadium colonised by Millwall fans. But 12 minutes into the game, the Jimmy Seed Stand cracked to life like a bottle of champagne when a ship sets sail.
“For God’s sake,” lamented the home fans, as Millwall’s Steve Morison capitalised on defensive mistakes to give them the lead. “It’s not Christmas for another bloody week.”
Though my companion managed to stay silent, a secret smile curved across the closed bow of his mouth. I realised then he’s 60-40 Millwall, not 50-50!
Fifteen minutes later, the men with jerseys the colour of Santa Claus suits had conceded another goal.
Morison’s second of the afternoon awakened a deafening blast of sickening triumph from the blue side. This was where we surely tumbled towards defeat, watching our deepest and bluest rivals catch up with us, and then overtake us in the league table.
But then minutes later the referee’s whistle suddenly sounded. Turning back towards the pitch, where December’s ephemeral daylight had started receding, our Jamaican international striker, in long sleeves, had become the centre of attention.
We’d been awarded a penalty, and he was strolling towards goal with the measured calm of a reggae beat.
“If you score this,” cried a girl, forgetting the boyfriend beside her, ‘“I’ll marry you and have your babies, Deon Burton.”
Sure enough, ice-cool as always, he gave voice to the girl’s fantasies. He’d stroked home our first goal of the afternoon - setting sparks in motion to fuel a comeback for the men in red shirts, contemplating a title charge.
It was only a matter of minutes until the fantasies flowered once more. Another tussle in the box brought a sharp whistle from the referee’s beak, and then a red card buried somewhere in his crow-dark feathers. Almost before the seed had settled in the young girl’s heart, the man she’d dreamed of dating was strutting down the aisle once more.
“Looks like she’ll be having his twins,” remarked a guy in the row behind us. “That’s what you call taking one for the team.”
Seconds later, the centre forward had everyone squealing in delight. Lava had erupted on three sides of the stadium’s volcano.
The match was certainly approaching football orgasm at this stage.
“Game on,” I said to my silenced companion, with the scores locked at two goals each and our rivals reduced to ten men.
The fans in the Jimmy Seed Stand weren’t so happy now. Their ship had stalled and seemed to be heading for the rocks.
When the second half kicked off, the game was ours for the taking. During the interval, a deep purple darkness had swallowed the entrails of the stadium.
Within that darkness the temperatures dropped by several degrees, but the pulse of the game was such that you couldn’t feel the cold.
This was like one of those higher tempo, higher division games where you can’t take your eyes off the pitch for even an instant.
Shortly after the restart, Bailey volleyed home a goal right under the away fans’ noses; a goal as good as any seen all season.
“You can always rely on a ginger mate,” somebody
Over the past season and a half, we’d relied on Bailey as much as any other player, the red-headed Strachan at the heart of midfield.
His strike suddenly had The Good Ship Millwall on the rocks. With the wind in their sails, the home side continued to dominate. But, as hard as they tried, they didn’t turn their possession into scores. Slowly, but surely, Millwall forged a path back into the contest.
“Who’s singing now?” they chanted in the 81st
They’d scored; the bastards in blue had scored. Suddenly, instead of sitting there in the cold, in a special brew stupor, 3,000 away fans had found their feet, and their voices from the start of the game.
‘Tomorrow’s headlines written,’ the home fans grumbled.
Not quite though, as events transpired. The tale of two strikers would take another twist, as Steve Morison headed a third of the day, but this time had put the ball into his own team’s net.
‘Four goals to three,’ the scoreboard announced.
Headlines had to be rewritten. The typesetters would start afresh. As they did so, the team in blue surged forward in the purple darkness; in search of justice. Morison’s goal had been a kick up the backside they hadn’t deserved. They knew we’d been bloody lucky and we knew it too, from fans down to players.
‘We’ll hold out,’ I prophesied to my companion, who was now sitting so far forward on the edge of his seat I thought he was going to take flight to his rightful place in the Millwall end of the ground.
Then after a slow crawl of several hundred seconds, the 90 minutes were over, but the referee decided on an additional five for injury time; causing a collective groan on three sides.
Millwall continued to surge forward, but the reds, though sometimes looking lost and frostbitten in the growing darkness, seemed to have just enough energy left to survive.
‘These minutes are taking forever,’ grumbled the home fans.
Time was passing as slowly as Christmas shopping trips.
And then all of a sudden the typesetters speeded up. Halfway through the additional minutes, a new headline had to be written. The name of Danny Schofield would grace tomorrow’s back pages. With a strike to the bottom left, he brought a smile to my companion’s open mouth as the whistle sounded. The first league derby between these teams since 1996, had ended four goals apiece, keeping Charlton in second place in the table and Millwall hovering below.
My companion spoke softly. ‘It was a fair result.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, as we made our way towards the exit, suddenly aware of the cold that had congealed the volcano to a block of ice. ‘It’s going to be an interesting 2010 for these two teams.’
And it was – but maybe not in the ways we had hoped! Certain groups of politicians formed strange alliances, and Nicky Bailey sent a ball soaring high above Swindon’s goal and into outer space. Maybe it dropped down somewhere over Belgium and caught the eye of a businessman, and the rest is his story.