On Saturday 8 May 1993 for many of our fans, particularly, us older ones, an era came to an end. It was of course our last ever match at the Den and our move away from the wonderfully and aptly named Cold Blow Lane. Home for the Lions since our move from the Isle of Dogs in 1911.
I find it difficult not to be nostalgic about our old place of worship. Having been born in Kennington my real love for Millwall and it’s ground started in December 1961 when my two Uncles, my Dad didn’t like football, took me to my first game at home to York City, a fourth division game. I’m not sure if before that first match I actually supported them, I don’t mean I supported anyone else but I think I just liked Millwall because my Uncles supported them. I did have a replica shirt, the white one with the royal blue band across the centre which I had got for Christmas and todate is still my all time favourite.
We parked up by the hospital, I think it was a hospital, near the Crown & Anchor, off New Cross Road and we made our way down to Cold Blow Lane. I remember passing under a small railway bridge, which was later demolished, and on on the left almost under the bridge just before the ground was a small Supporters Club Hut where one of my Uncles bought me a badge. I then got a programme outside the turnstiles.
Having never been to a game the number of people seemed immense although in reality less than seven thousand attended my first match. We entered the Den at the entrance to the main stand or better described as the seating area. It always makes me smile when I think of the main stand as it was the only stand, the other three sides being standing terrace. In fact there was also a standing area below the seats in those days either side of the old dug outs.
I suppose as it was my first game my Uncles had thought it was better for us to have seats rather than to stand, although they normally stood on the Cold Blow Lane terrace. Our seats were in the front row, half way between the CBL and the home team dugout. Wooden seats not the plastic ones that now are the norm, I suppose for health & safety reasons.
In truth I don’t remember to much about most of the game, other than fans seemed far from satisfied with the teams performance especially when the team went two nil down. But like love at first sight I suppose, something pulled on the heart strings as Millwall scored three times in the last fifteen minutes or so to turn an inevitable defeat into a glorious victory. Fans went mad as that final goal was scored at the Cold Blow Lane end of the ground and it was a celebration that the like of I had never before witnessed.
Those fifteen minutes turned me from a football fan to a Millwall fan.
The euphoria, perhaps initiated by the surprise at the turnaround, and the sheer delight of the fans as we left the ground was unbelievable. A young lad left the ground that day proud to be Millwall a supporter. There was little mention on the way home of the first 75 minutes of the game just my uncles talking about the great fightback, which as far as I could ascertain didn’t happen like that very often.
So for me that was the beginning of many years of going to the Den. After that first game my Uncles went back to standing on the Cold Blow Lane, sending me down the front to stand, just to the left of the post as you looked from the pitch. Once of twice in those early days I would wonder further back but being a kid found the view not to good back there. Also there was nothing better than to be close up to the action and when a goal went in you almost felt you were part of it.
As the years moved on I took to standing at the Ilderton Road End in the first half, assuming we were kicking that way, and walking round to the CBL for the second half. Changing ends was common place then and now generally only seen at non league grounds. I loved the fact that I could have a better view of us attacking and that you were close to our goals going in.
I did however venture back to the seats in January 1965 for a third round F A Cup replay against first division Fulham. Our seats were about five or six rows from the front of the stand, about a third of the way along from the Cold Blow Lane End,.
Apparently the attendance that night was 31339, however close to kick off it seemed to me that in the main stand there were two seats for three people and fans were sitting in the isles. The terraces were packed and heaving, it was later reported that gates had been forced and many thousands had got into the ground for free. There were also mounds up by the old dog track at the Ilderton Road end of the ground that gave a partial if not full view. This was often and unkindly referred to as Jews Hill.
Opinions differ on how many were in the ground that night. 35000, 40000 even 45000. All I know is that the place was packed. The true attendance we will never know. What I do know is that the atmosphere was incredible and that one of the great nights at the old stadium was to unfold.
Very few if any games under the floodlights at the old stadium come close to matching the tension and noise generated by the fans that night. A two nil giant killing result against a team three divisions higher which included household names of the times such as Johnny Haynes, Bobby Robson and George Cohen.
Things hardly started well for Millwall, wing half Dave Harper hobbled off with a badly twisted ankle and in the days before substitutes came back on, his ankle heavily strapped, to play on the wing as little more than nuisance value. Or so we thought.
That night, with the help and encouragement or the huge crowd, Millwall fought and played wonderfully well and were not to be denied even with ten fit men. Dave Harper scored and a second at the end by Barry Rowan secured victory.
At the end everyone went crazy and it was all I could do not to let my uncles see me crying with joy. As was often the case following a giant killing in those days’ people ran on to the pitch to chair the players off. It would be looked on differently now, if Millwall were involved.
All I wanted to do was cheer, go home and dream about what I had just witnessed. This, at the time, was for me the greatest day of my life. We have all witnessed great times at the Den and new Den but this was something special.
As time passed I stood and sat in various parts of the ground, further up the terrace in the CBl, down the front on the half way line and after the birth of my oldest son between the corner flag and tunnel.
My lad started to go fairly regularly from 1984. We stood by the tunnel because it was a decent view for him and he could go down to the front to see the players enter and leave the pitch which he loved to do especially when Brian Horne was playing in goal for us. The characters and banter were great and even if the team performed badly you had a good time.
We then moved across to the family enclosure, a great view there because of the steep steps and my Son had mates who also went in there and who he would stand with a bit away from me, giving him that independence kids want.
What I truly think was unique about the Den was that wherever you stood it was good and felt right at the time. OK from time to time there would be a bit of hassle but you could easily steer clear of it. Great characters were in an abundance and when the crowd got behind the team there was nothing like it.
In the early 1970’s the Evening Standard did a great piece “ Saturday Afternoon in the Lions Den” saying that it was “London’s only
answer to Liverpool’s Kop”. Praise indeed at the time.
Sadly, in life things change and not always for the best. Now I’m not one of those who dislike or even detest the new stadiums. In many ways they are a great improvement. Generally speaking they have better views of the game, on the whole cleaner and tidier, all seater so arguably safer and easier to police, improved seats, more facilities, such as club shops, catering etc. for those that want them and certainly better toilets than the Den of old.
However, it would seem to me that for all these positive, not to everyone I know, the atmosphere at games doesn’t seem the same. For those of us lucky and priviieged enough to have witnessed and been part of the atmosphere first hand at the old Den will know rarely has the new Den met those high standards of yesteryear, Huddersfield Town in the playoffs is an exception and one game that comes to mind.
Since 1993 I have had season tickets in the CBL, the Dockers and the Kitchener stands and I still don’t feel like the new Den is home, it may be me or nostalgia getting in the way of reality.
I loved the old Den almost as much as I love Millwall. It was a place where other teams and fans didn’t like to visit. Joe Mercer once said if you lost there you were a mug, if you drew there you were a mug and even if you won there you were still a mug. Wise words indeed.
The new place is certainly not as intimidating as was the old, away teams and fans do not have the same trepidation as those who visited the old place. There was no walkway from the Cold Blow Lane.
No longer will 30000 plus squeeze in to see the Lions, even if it was only rare before.
I would of thought that after twenty years I would of got used to the new ground, perhaps I will in the next twenty?