By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
IT IS a widely held belief that you can change most things in your life but not the club you support. You can change your name, house, job, wife/husband, religion and nationality but your club is sacrosanct..it is forever.
Michael Calvin, a Watford fan since childhood, crossed the ultimate divide when he was writing Family – Life, Death and Football, his new book. He spent a year on the frontline with Millwall and achieved the dream of football writers and supporters by going into the heart of a club. He was at training, in the dressing room, at board meetings – in fact anywhere and everywhere.
Millwall, a club with a stigma brought about from incidents in the past, won Calvin over. He admits he lost his professional detachment during a game at Colchester. He calls it “a real us against them day”. The home club had done as much as they could to make conditions for the visitors – let’s say challenging.
Calvin said: “In was in the Aidy Boothroyd days, on Easter Monday. The dressing-room had been cut in half, the walls had been painted black and all electrical sockets had been removed.”
It takes more than that to intimidate Millwall. Calvin said: “The players pooled their batteries, put them into an iPOD charger and Dizzee Rascal was soon blaring out.
“Millwall took the lead and Colchester made it 1-1 after a goalkeeping mistake. The momentum of Paul Robinson took him into the back of the net as he tried to stop the ball going in.
“Paul found himself facing the away end and a Millwall fan behind the goal had a jumbo hot dog, about 12 inches long. He threw it like a javelin in disgust and it went through the net, hitting Paul right between the eyes, with onions and tomato ketchup and God knows what else all over his face.”
It’s funny but it isn’t.
“With 10 minutes to go Millwall scored what proved to be the winner. I was sitting next to Gary Alexander, a sub, on the bench and with a striker’s instinct he shouted ‘it’s in’ a second before the ball crossed the line. We both jumped up, and made eye contact. We knew what we were about to do was wrong, but we started hugging each other and jumping up and down like little kids.
“That was the moment Millwall got me.”
TO UNDERSTAND Millwall Football Club you first have to understand the area of south-east London where most of their fans live and where I grew up. Driving through Lewisham, Deptford or New Cross, down the Old Kent Road or Walworth Road you can find yourself stuck in a tenement time-warp, the surrounding boroughs sadly neglected in comparison to others where modernisation is concerned. Near the Den there are arches where, if you threw a couple of street urchins down, you could turn your clock back 150 years.
It was a learning curve for Calvin who said: “The club are in an area where there is a crossover between refurbished flats and deprivation.
“Millwall are an old fashioned football club with a real emotional intensity between the fans and the club. A couple of generations ago, if there was a death in the family the natural outlet for grief was the parish priest or vicar. For Millwall supporters the club has a more central part in their lives. “
A hardened journalist who has worked in more than 80 countries covering every major sporting event, Calvin is not embarrassed to admit a message from a Millwall fan brought a tear to his eye last week.
Returning on the team coach from Bristol City where Millwall had played well only to lose to a stoppage time goal, defender Alan Dunne was reading through his tweets. There was a message from a fan called Tim Dill which said: “Dunney, my dad died on New Year’s Day. Millwall all his life. I reckon he’d get a kick from an RT. ‘Safe trip, Red’ Thanks.” Of course, Dunne duly obliged.
While Calvin believes Millwall are “burdened by their outdated image” it is something the club have to live with. The book is excellent and the fly-on-the-wall insider accounts will appeal to fans of all clubs. It will, Calvin hopes, change the way outsiders look at Millwall. “If you have preconceptions about Millwall, read the book and come back to me,” he said. “It is a proper football club with the right values. Sadly people are judged by a small minority.”
Millwall’s reputation travelled ahead of them when they played West Ham United in the Carling Cup in August 2009. The policing of the game left much to be desired as did the home club’s overall control. Calvin witnessed first-hand the commotion outside Upton Park before retreating to the safety of the press box.
He said: “I sat behind a reporter who was under pressure from his news desk who had been watching some trouble on Sky News. He had to produce a piece and simply typed the words ‘Millwall’ ‘West Ham’ and ‘trouble’ into Google. The old stories came out from Cyberspace and formed the basis for his report about what was going on around him.”
Each club faced charges of failure to ensure their supporters refrained from violent, threatening, obscene and provocative behaviour; failure to ensure their supporters refrained from racist behaviour and failure to ensure their supporters did not throw missiles, harmful or dangerous objects onto the pitch. While West Ham were found guilty, Millwall, who were not involved in any of the security talks, were cleared by the Football Association of any wrongdoing. It cost Millwall £100,000 to defend the charges.
IT TOOK Millwall manager Kenny Jackett “about 10 seconds” to agree to the book, granting Calvin an access all areas pass to the club.
He said: When I turned up on the first day Kenny told the players what was happening. Neil Harris, who was the spiritual leader of the group, came over for a chat. I felt very privileged but most of all accepted. The chairman [John Berylson] and the manager had said it was OK so the players were fine.”
Calvin became what he calls a chameleon in the dressing room, staying in the background but taking notes in a small pad. The club had no editorial control over what was written but Calvin gave the manuscript to Jackett and the players out of courtesy. Jackett’s mother told him off because he had sworn so much.
“The dialogue had to be real, it had to be honest,” said Calvin who saw the good, bad and ugly that go with the roller-coaster of emotions experienced by a football club.
He said: “You see the rage where players are at each other’s throats. You see the frustrations, the fear, the insecurity and even the awe after a really good performance.
“You also see real tenderness. I shall never forget the touching moment involving Danny Senda after he tore an Achilles tendon. He was laying face down on the physio table, the players gathered around him and Harris kissed him gently on the back of the head. It was saying ‘we’re all with you.’”
It is obvious in the book that Harris, the club’s all-time record goalscorer and a true Millwall legend, was the player who made the biggest impression on Calvin. Harris, now with Southend, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2001 and Calvin confirmed: “Yes, by a distance. He is one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. He’s street-wise, a brilliant politician in a football sense and there is a humility in the guy that goes back to coming into the pro game so late.
“What I found hugely impressive was the way he used his cancer as a source of mental strength which he shared with others, especially by undertaking counselling work with other sufferers. Vince Lombardi, the famous Green Bay Packers coach, said that the strength of a group is in its leaders. Harris comes into that category.”
Then there is Steve Morison who joined Millwall from Stevenage Borough in 2009. “At 16 he was one of a group of players told by Tottenham they did not think he would made the grade, nothing personal, sorry, don’t come back. He played for Northampton, Bishop’s Stortford and then Stevenage. Kenny signed him, for £130,000. It wasn’t an instant success story.
“I remember speaking to him after his first game at Southampton. He said ‘wow, everything happens so fast, I almost couldn’t catch my breath. I was thinking so fast I thought my head was going to explode.’
“Gradually he became more accustomed to the pace but he went through the fires of hell. He missed a goal in an FA Cup tie at Staines which beggared belief.
“On the Monday morning I was in Kenny’s office. He went through the miss on the DVD and said ‘I’ve seen some things in my time but how did that happen?’
“Kenny told Steve he was built like a brick you-know-what…he was a Millwall-type player but he wasn’t acting like one. He actually said ‘sorry’ to a defender he’d accidentally bumped into. Kenny went mad. You don’t apologise to defenders, he told Steve. You have to put yourself about not say sorry.
“Once, Steve was substituted at half-time. It was all going on around him in the dressing-room, he got undressed slowly and as the other players were going out for the second-half he just stood there in a world of his own, obviously wondering if he was good enough.
“Fair play to the guy. He came through, scored a lot of goals for Millwall who sold him for £2.8 million to Norwich where he’s been a revelation, also making his mark for Wales. He proves there is talent in the lower leagues. Kenny worked really hard with Steve on the training pitch and it paid dividends.”
HAS THE experience of living the dream made Calvin a better journalist?
“That is for others to judge. It has given me an insight that I never had into the realities of a game that we tend to judge on superficialities. I have also noticed a respect that is routinely denied to football writers these days from managers and players who have read the book.
“At the 1982 World Cup I remember travelling from the airport in the England team bus and chatting to Ray Wilkins. I was the youngest member of the Press corps and he was one of the youngest players in the squad. We spoke about our respective positions. That sort of intimacy of contact has gone now, it’s too much us versus them now.”
There can be no follow-up to Family but Calvin is writing a prequel, interviewing the 30 most popular Millwall legends including, of course, Harris plus among others Terry Hurlock, Tim Cahill, Barry Kitchener and Keith Stevens.
Watch Michael Calvin talk about Family – Life, Death and Football here…