TOBY PORTER on the public perception of FA Cup semi-finalists Millwall
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
NO ONE may like Millwall, but Toby Porter certainly does care about how others view the club.
Porter is the sports editor of the South London Press and has covered Millwall for 11 years. Millwall have a stigma, mostly outdated and based on events from 30 or 40 years ago, but it is an image that the club will find difficult to shake off even though they have done everything to eliminate violence and racism with success.
As the Lions prepare for their FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic at Wembley, the perception most have about Millwall does not affect the way Porter goes about his job, but on a personal level it is a different story.
He said: “In the first season I covered Millwall there were 187 arrests for football-related incidents. Since then there have been no more than 20 or 30 [a season] and consistently lower than that. Basically about a tenth of what it was.
“The 2002 playoff semi-final against Birmingham City [at The Den], where there was a lot of unrest, was significant in Millwall moving forward, making a decision to ensure anyone with a criminal background was not allowed in the ground or allowed to go to away games with the club.
“The reality is that the violence is much less than it was. There are still some elements drawn to Millwall because of the past, but the club could not have done more to eradicate violence or racism. Those who work for Millwall must pull their hair out at times at the way the club are depicted in a quite out-of-date manner by lazy journalists.
“Millwall’s main claim to fame was the 59-game unbeaten home run ended in 1967 [by Plymouth Argyle]. Most people would not have heard of the club apart from the bad stuff.
“For the media, there is no other hook to hang on Millwall. It doesn’t affect my job in any way because I know what the truth is. But inaccuracies should hurt any journalist and it affects me personally when I see the club depicted in an unfair manner, though that’s an emotional reaction.”
Bradford City of League Two reached the Capital One Cup final on the crest of a media wave with most neutrals hoping the Bantams would add Swansea City to their list of Barclays Premier League scalps, underlining the British affection for the underdog. Should Millwall overcome Wigan they are unlikely to enjoy such support, even against Chelsea or Manchester City, whose Russian and Middle Eastern financial backing causes such resentment.
Porter said: “The crucial period for Millwall’s reputation was the Panorama documentary in 1974.”
Millwall had invited the TV cameras into The Den for a programme about their supporters. Over the previous three years there had been a considerable drop in hooliganism, which was rife in English football at the time, and the club hoped the programme could show the benefits of responsible stewarding.
It backfired spectacularly with the BBC concentrating almost exclusively on the alleged thug element that followed the club. When Millwall and the police saw a review of the show they implored it should not be broadcast. Denis Howell, the Minister for Sport, met with Sir Michael Swann, chairman of the BBC, because of fears that the programme would succeed in encouraging rather than discouraging unruly behaviour. And so it proved.
The horrendous scenes at the 1985 FA Cup tie at Luton gave Millwall a scar for life and it is the image many people still have of the south-east London club.
That was then. When Millwall reached the FA Cup final nine years ago, there were zero arrests among their fans at the semi-final against Sunderland at Old Trafford or in Cardiff where Manchester United won 3-0 at the Millennium stadium.
Millwall are no strangers to Wembley in recent years – they made their debut in the Auto Windscreens Shield final in 1999, losing 1-0 to Wigan, the Lions cheered on by an estimated 47,000 of the 55,000 in attendance. They also reached League One playoff finals in 2009 (losing to Scunthorpe) and 2010 (beating Swindon).
This is their first FA Cup semi-final at English football’s headquarters and Porter said: “It means more to the older generation because for them Wembley was a long wait. Millwall have now been to Wembley four times in the last decade and a half whereas there had been none previously to that.”
Porter and the South London Press have enjoyed a close relationship with Millwall over the years and it would be difficult to find any football writer with a complaint about manager Kenny Jackett’s commitment to the media. “They give me all the co-operation a journalist needs,” said Porter. “It’s a very good, positive relationship and works best that way.
“Kenny is a considerate man. He likes to keep his cards very close to his chest when it comes to giving out information on the club purely because it makes his job more difficult if this becomes public. I understand that even though as a journalist I want every bit of news possible.”
Porter will be writing the bulk of the eight-page supplement ahead of the Wembley match which should boost sales of the SLP. “Since I joined the paper the only time sales increased drastically and were sustained was in 2004 when Millwall reached the FA Cup final.”
To paraphrase Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Wigan are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. They are as likely to score three goals as concede three, though Porter does not see a goal-feast at Wembley.
He said: “In recent games Jackett’s made it hard to score against Millwall. They have had five clean sheets in the last seven matches and I think they’ll be difficult to break down. Wigan have some very talented players and I think it will be close.”