The Friendly Derby

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Millwall and West Ham United isn't the one they call the friendly derby. It's, cough, British football's most vicious rivalry. God only know why they can't all get along. There's some vaguely argued point about Millwall dockers scabbing during the General Strike while West Ham ones stayed out, but who cares? Really?
Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley can sit around a table together; Vietnam is one nation; South Africa's problems aren't all race-based and that Augusto Pinochet died peacefully in his sleep (unlike his victims, etc etc) meant Chile had transcended its past. So why can't some people who wouldn't recognise a dock if they lived in Tilbury (and some of them probably do) come to terms with a probably mythical past? Easy. Because they like it that way; they like the notoriety; they like outsiders calling it “football's most vicious rivalry” and they like the theatre of what usually, although not always, turns out to be shadow boxing rather than cage fighting.
Millwall entertaining West Ham is how England would be if Oswald Mosley had come to power: gangs of hard-looking – crivens, even their necks have grown coshflaps – white men looking for other gangs of hard-looking white men with a view to fighting. They're there at London Bridge when I get there, shaking hands like business colleagues, looking as though they eat motor bikes for breakfast and checking to see that those they don't know (ie me, assorted old ladies with shopping trollies and a gaggle of German tourists) aren't the other side in disguise or incognito.
And then there's the police, who would have run things under Mosley just as they do here. They're everywhere from the moment I exit the Northern Line. These are a different type of copper, not the sort who wear glasses, who joined to put “something” back or who proselytise for community policing. No, these are the big ugly bruisers, unsmiling faces as unyielding as their boots. Like those they're here to police, they’d quite fancy a fight and unlike everyone else they have truncheons, handcuffs and the courts to hand.
After the evening kick off for the 2009 West Ham v Millwall Carling Cup tie gave everyone the whole day to load themselves with drink (result: genuine mayhem and a stabbing) this one starts at lunchtime. At South Bermondsey station, two hours before the game, the police are waiting. They stop and search at what looks like random. Nobody complains, it’s part of the fun unless you’re carrying drugs or machetes.
“Hello officer,” says one fan.
“Fuck off,” replies the officer.
The West Ham team coach (a Clarke's like QPR; it doesn't look especially luxurious; Hallmark seem to have lost a lot of football club business of late) snakes its way through the car park, escorted by a platoon of policemen on foot, to the soundtrack of massed jeers, but nothing stronger. At the players’ entrance, there’s a pack of hungry police dogs and a pack of gum-chewing policemen to welcome the players, who look terrified to a man, apart from Sam Allardyce who smiles that knowing smile of his and John Carew who just smiles.
Predictably, Millwall are a club of extremes. I haven’t been for a few years and the press entrance has moved. Some stewards are more than helpful, some are more hostile than is necessary. There’s no food (soggy sandwiches do not count), but there’s space to work, some robust tea and a smattering people I know and like. What’s to moan about?
In the stands, the atmosphere is horrible. Apart from something about Chlamydia which confuses me, Millwall fans’ chants get to the point (“Noble you’re a cunt… Nolan you're a cunt” etc) and, cocooned in their end, the West Ham fans pretend they’re not worried about what probably won't (but still might) happen after the match. Tellingly there are so few replica shirts it might as well be the ‘70s. More than a few people here wish it were…
The real problem is the match. As if scripted by the police, it’s a damp squib which ends 0-0. Nobody gets sent off, nobody gets hurt. West Ham are better, Millwall are more plucky and I've forgotten it before the teams have reached their dressing room sanctuary.
There are sirens outside, but inside Kenny Jackett – the unlikely lovechild of Glenn Quagmire from Family Guy and Penny Pockett from Balamory – is full of beans, while Allardyce, as ever, rests his head on a hand and mumbles at length. He's never like this on television, so something's an act.
By the time I emerge blinking in the light, it's cold and a deserted. On the way to the station there's some broken bottles, a sign of trouble or just a sign of Bermondsey? There's a queue at the station where police are preventing access onto the platform. It starts to rain, really heavily (again more good news for the police: it's hard to riot in a deluge) and the drenched, dispirited queue tries to break through the surprised police. The natural order of things soon reasserts itself, but twitchy for some action, the police apprehend a few. There's a lot of grappling on the wet floor. The one who screams “you fucking bastards” at them is taken into a van; the one who flicked a policeman's helmet after being pushed out of the way is let off, as is the one who says “look, I'm really sorry”. There's some sort of moral there.
The train to London Bridge is packed with plainclothes Millwall (presumably the West Ham fans allowed themselves to be escorted en masse) fans. They're all wet and deflated. It's a wet and deflating kind of day.
Playlist
The Cars
Let's Go
(on Just What I Needed: The Cars Antholoy, Rhino, 1995)
The great lost Cars single. Impossibly catchy, brilliantly sung and there's hand-clapping.