Visiting Millwall’s Den - or New Den as it is technically called - for the first time filled with me some trepidation.
It was 2018 on my 17th birthday, and a struggling Sunderland side were headed, through a snowstorm, to the capital to play the team “no one” likes.
Having navigated an enormously disrupted east coast main line train schedule, I was excited but also wary of an equally icy, treacherous welcome south of the Thames.
Approaching the stadium from the nearest tube station, the naïve young away fan can’t help but be put on edge by the presence of cage-style barriers lining the walkway to the away end of the stadium.
The implication is that the locals really must be pretty scary.
I was with an older family friend, a Spurs fan much more acquainted with the London football scene than me. He also seemed slightly on edge. Which wasn’t hugely reassuring.
As it happened, the most danger I came to was the sprint back up the concrete steps from the loos midway through the first half. I tried in vain to make it back in time to see Bryan Oviedo smash in a rare classy strike. It would have been a lovely birthday present in a season where gifts were thin on the ground for Lads fans. Oh, well.
On a more positive note, we successfully held onto a point and escaped without a scratch from the Lions’ Den, even if a police cordon was needed on top of the caging to keep the two sets of fans apart after the final whistle. A lovely night in London awaited, and all was right with the world. At least until we visited the capital again the weekend after, when a Jason Steele mind blank cost us the game at Loftus Road (a great away trip, by the way).
My next visit to the New Den was a bit more random. I sat in the home end as Chris Wilder’s rampaging Sheffield United overlapping centre backs took them to an FA Cup victory over the hosts in January 2019. Funnily enough, this fixture is repeated in this year’s third round.
Anyway, other than a few posturing macho men in Burberry macs in the home stand nearest to the away end, what struck me most this time was how pleasant a trip to the Den could be.
There was a bus acting as a beer-serving fan zone hub before the game, frequented by a mixture of well-heeled young Londoners and what social media might call “legacy” fans. For all the cold January weather, it was lovely.
Inside the New Den itself, I was surrounded by jovial old blokes, young families and a cast as generally diverse as London is itself these days. There was no abuse that I can recall, and for someone technically in enemy territory, I felt surprisingly at home. Little wonder Millwall have won EFL family club of the year in recent times, I thought.
The club continues to have (perhaps more) than its fair share of unruly, and indeed sometimes foully abusive and even racist, fans. Yet in many ways my trips there have served to reinforce Millwall as representative of modern day football as a whole in this country.
Much like the city they’re based in, for large periods of time the club and its renovated historic home seem to be a beacon of triumphant multiculturalism.
A place where people of all ages, races and dispositions can mingle amiably, brought together by a shared love of sport.
So, despite their reputation, I look forward to our games with Millwall this season, starting on Saturday at the Stadium of Light. Let’s just hope it’s the friendly contingent I bump into. Perhaps they’ll have even read this (and can feel free to buy me a pint if they have).
I still hope we beat them, mind.