BY MARK GODFREY
Wimbledon’s FA Cup win in 1988 may not quite have confirmed them a place as one of the ‘Establishment’ in English football, but it went a long way to legitimising their claim of belonging amongst the First Division big boys. And once the ‘Crazy Gang’ – renowned for their on-field terrorism rather than any attached terrace hooligan element – had been accepted, the game in England – and perhaps more specifically the media – needed to find its new ‘bogeymen’. Luckily for them, they neither had to search for long, nor invent a new pseudo-enemy with which to frighten the elite and their followers.
Millwall earned promotion to Division One in May 1988 as Second Division champions; a tight race only won close to the finish with a four point margin over Graham Taylor’s resurgent Aston Villa; a side that contained the likes of David Platt and Martin Keown.
John Docherty was responsible for guiding The Lions to their first ever crack at the top flight, but his was a job of completion. The seeds of success were sewn five years previous by a feisty, firebrand Scot with an iron will and a determination to turn the unfashionable, unloved Third Division bottom-feeders into a competent, feared outfit. His influence brought about immediate improvement as the winds of change swept briskly down Cold Blow Lane. George Graham’s Millwall were beginning to be noticed.
While fortunes on the playing side were taking an upturn, it was the more unsavoury element associated with the south-east Londoners that occupied newspaper headlines and gained the club its unwanted notoriety. Hooliganism had blighted the British game for the best part of two decades, and if our European neighbours had coined the phrase ‘the English disease’ to describe the problem, then Millwall during the 70’s and 80’s was probably its most virulent carrier.
With a longstanding history of violence and hostility, trips to The Den or away visits from their ‘firm’ F-Troop – and latterly the Bushwhackers - usually promised anger and ambush; blood spilt in the pursuit of forging and maintaining a fearsome reputation. During the mid-eighties, with a back catalogue full of skirmishes with rival supporters and Police, one shameful occasion came to epitomise Millwall’s following.
A 1977 documentary by the BBC’s Panorama programme brought F-Troop’s infamy to a wider audience at a time when characters known by such charming sobriquets as ‘Harry the Dog’ and ‘Dr. Death’ would travel to away fixtures wearing surgical masks, keeping their identity guarded as they ‘liberated’ packages from the goods vans of British Rail trains. Such cases of high-jinx were mere preludes to the main events for this particular firm. By 1985 – the year of the Heysel disaster - with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and the football authorities struggling to adequately deal with the spiralling hooliganism problem, the horrific behaviour of the Millwall mob had reached its zenith.
Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road played host to an FA Cup sixth round tie on March 13th. Graham’s side were in the midst of their (eventually successful) promotion push for the second tier, while the home side, who were toiling near the bottom of Division One, should have welcomed the distraction. It was anything but. The immediate build up to the match was a shocking portent of what was to come later in the evening; a disproportionately large Millwall following arrived in Luton – perhaps encouraged to do so by the game’s lack of an all-ticket status – seemingly bent on destruction. More than two hours before kick-off, skirmishes, vandalism and fighting had broken out at various locations around the Bedfordshire town.
Once the main body of Millwall’s swollen numbers moved inside the stadium, pandemonium became inevitable; the Kenilworth Stand terracing behind one goal was bursting with menace fully 45 minutes before play was due to begin. People began clambering over the metal fences and advanced across the turf (the infamous plastic pitch was installed later that year), some with makeshift weapons gleaned from a whole day of disorder, toward the other three sides of the ground with the intention to provoke conflict with anyone willing to oblige. Despite appeals from George Graham himself over the tannoy, Millwall’s unruly followers continued to hold up proceedings, tearing out seats to use as projectiles in their war with the police. Eventually, the game got under way but suffered continual interruption by sporadic bouts of violence; a 25-minute break was required after barely quarter of an hour’s play while order was restored.
Brian Stein’s goal settled matters on the pitch and helped The Hatters progress to a Villa Park semi-final against Everton but in manager David Pleat’s own words, the victory left him “feeling empty” as a consequence of what transpired after the final whistle. The visiting Millwall fans scaled the perimeter fencing and began marauding across the turf once again; hurling more missiles, throwing more punches, aiming more kicks. The police eventually regained control of the situation, but not before 81 people suffered injury – 31 of their own including Sgt. Colin Cooke who had a concrete block dropped on his head. He had to be resuscitated by colleague PC Phil Evans in the centre circle; himself under a barrage of physical abuse while attending to the stricken officer.
The riot confirmed – if any confirmation were needed - that Millwall, and more specifically their hooligan support, had become English football’s chief pariah. However, the hatred and revulsion were taken more as a badge of honour than something to be ashamed of; the slogan ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ became the rallying call for regulars down at The Den. While the television and print media set about the demonisation of the club as a whole, the team’s rise through the divisions went relatively unheralded.
At the end of that tumultuous 1984-85 campaign, former Arsenal midfielder Graham had guided the club back to Division Two for the first time since 1979. In doing so, ‘Stroller’ was beginning to win admirers from further up the league, and when Arsenal dispensed with the services of Don Howe in March 1986, they waited until May to appoint one of their former double winners of 1971 as his successor – but not before he left Millwall in a respectable ninth place come the end of that season and with the nucleus of a squad that would continue his good works.
With the chief architect lured away to north London, the job of leading the Lions into the promised land was given to another Glaswegian, John Docherty; a former Brentford winger whose previous managerial job at Cambridge United had ended three years earlier and whose credentials were not likely to set pulses racing. Despite the loss of a certain John Fashanu to First Division-bound Wimbledon, Docherty had fallen on his feet with the personnel he inherited; club stalwarts Alan McLeary and Keith Stevens, skipper Les Briley and a 20-year-old unknown striker by the name of Teddy Sheringham to name but a few. Over the following months, he also added some new faces through canny transfer acquistions; winger Jimmy Carter from QPR for £15,000, curly-haired hardman Terry Hurlock arrived from Brentford for £95,000 and, perhaps most tellingly, Gillingham target man Tony Cascarino for £225,000.
In Docherty’s first season, 1986-87, a mid-season push put them briefly into contention for the first ever promotion play-offs but a slump in form from late February onwards put paid to those ambitions and resulted in a disappointing 16th place finish. There would be no ‘difficult second season’ syndrome though and 1987-88 proved to be the culmination of a five-year plan to put Millwall’s cat amongst the First Division’s pigeons.
After an inconsistent start to the campaign, the blue touch paper was lit by a 2-1 win at Villa Park in November 1987 just as the Sheringham/Cascarino partnership really began to blossom; it was a hot streak that the pair would enjoy for the remainder of the season, with 47 of Millwall’s 74 league and cup goals coming from one of the deadly duo. Yet, Docherty’s team had more about it than just its two future international strikers; a consistent defence marshalled by McLeary, the snarling, testosterone-fuelled presence of Hurlock in midfield – no mean ball player either, when he wanted to be – and the creative, speedy wing play of Carter, ‘Chicken George’ Lawrence and Irish international Kevin O’Callaghan.
The promotion race entered its final few weeks with several clubs in contention for both the automatic and play-off spots, but as the pressure increased, Docherty and his players rose to the challenge, getting themselves on a roll that would see them win seven straight games from mid-March to clinch the title. For the first time in their 103-year history, they were joining the elite; and the elite were justifiably anxious.
The squad remained largely the same for the club’s top flight debut; QPR’s experienced full-back Ian Dawes the most notable recruit and far from being overawed by their new surroundings, Millwall hit the ground running, topping the First Division table in October. Cascarino and Sheringham were taking the plaudits again for their goal scoring exploits, terrorising unsuspecting defences wherever they went. In his autobiography, Sheringham said, "It was a crazy exhilarating time. There we were, little Millwall, in our first season in the First Division and topping the table until about March. Everybody said it couldn't last and of course it couldn't and it didn't, but we gave them all a good run for their money. We were beating the best teams when we shouldn't and getting away draws to which we had no right”. Gradually and inevitably, they did slip away from the top of the league but managed to end that season in a more than respectable tenth – two points and one place above Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.
The following year was an almighty struggle from the very beginning. Just five victories earned in the entire league campaign and a mere five points won from Christmas 1989 onwards tells its own sorry story as Millwall finished stranded at the bottom of the table, a full 17 points from safety – ironically a place occupied by Luton Town.
On the terraces, Millwall’s firms and followers did their best to put the frighteners on a whole new set of adversaries, both at The Den and on their travels. However, with the larger venues policed on a grander scale, thankfully, the scenes of carnage and rampage witnessed at Kenilworth Road in 1985 never materialised on the big stage. The consequences of the Hillsborough tragedy, the Taylor Report and advances in technology and crowd control went some way to nullifying the ability of the likes of Millwall’s Bushwhackers to be quite so notorious once the 1990’s dawned.
Unlike Wimbledon before them, Millwall were unable to sustain their success, slipping back to whence they’d came, but for a few short years at least, they were able to occupy the front and back pages of the newspapers.