“No one likes us, we don’t care”? ANTON RIPPON on the dilemma for sports writers covering their local football club
Toby Porter must be tearing out his own hair today.
Last week, the sports editor of the South London Press complained at the outdated way in which “lazy journalists” choose to portray Millwall Football Club must have those who work for the club “pulling their hair out at times”.
And then came Wembley …
Talking to Christopher Davies for the Football Writers’ Association’s website, Porter, who has covered Millwall for the last 11 years, said: “In the first season I covered Millwall there were 187 arrests for football-related incidents.” Porter said that since then, there have been no more than 20 or 30 arrests each season. “Basically about a tenth of what it was,” he said.
“The 2002 play-off semi-final against Birmingham City, 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 Those who work for Millwall must pull their hair out at times at the way the club is depicted in a quite out-of-date manner by lazy journalists.”
Unhappily for Porter, and for everyone connected with Millwall, sportswriters – lazy or otherwise – were handed plenty of ready-made copy when trouble erupted at yesterday’ FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic.
The television pictures were depressingly familiar, underlining the continuing struggle that this football club obviously has in keeping under control a minority of those who follow it – some reports today suggest that the fighting was between members of two south London families – and highlighting the dilemma for local newspaper journalists, like Porter who want to present the club that they cover in a positive light.
Therein lies a problem for local newspaper reporters, as we highlighted in coverage of Crawley Town’s banning of a journalist when her paper had headlines to which the manager took exception. Porter’s predecessors at the SLP have been banned by the club in the past when they’ve reported things that the club disliked, notably Brian Alexander for breaking the story about the club’s poor organisation of ticket sales for a 1985 cup tie at Luton that led to one of the more notorious riots in even the Coldblow Lane club’s history.
Alexander went on to bigger and better things, becoming sports editor at the Mail on Sunday and The Sun in his time. And the club, wisely, let the SLP back inside the old ground. The relationship between Millwall and the SLP has always been very close – while the paper has covered Charlton, Crystal Palace and, until they moved to Milton Keynes, Wimbledon, it has always been Millwall coverage that has driven sales of the paper each Tuesday and Friday.
The importance of the club to the newspaper’s circulation was underlined by the SLP even being among the club’s sponsors in the past.
But it has long been the position of the club’s owners and management that Millwall have been an “easy target” for the media. Even before yesterday’s shameful scenes at Wembley, from the outside looking in it was all too easy to produce a stereotype from a football club that has, over the years, achieved few highlights but plenty of notoriety.
Not for nothing has Millwall been the “star” of more than one feature film about football hooliganism. Give a Lion a bad name …
It goes back a long way. In the 1960s, a good mate of mine, Nigel Cleevely, played a few Football League games for Derby County. I remember him coming home from a game at The (old) Den to tell us in the pub that evening of the spectators who filled paper cups with gravel from the terraces and hurled them at him throughout the game (unfortunately for him he was a touchline-hugging winger).
In the 1970s a photographer mate was similarly bombarded, and I’ve never got over being spat at and told to “Fack orff” by an old woman outside The New Den after the 1994 First Division play-off semi-final. That was the night that Derby’s black players were substituted for their own safety and BBC Radio Derby’s car was trashed.
Every visiting player and spectator seems to have a tale to tell about a game at Millwall. And about a visit from Millwall. As Davies writes: “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.”
It must be difficult for a sportswriter like Porter to present a fair and balanced picture. He told Davies: “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.”
After yesterday, he must feel really emotional. All the hard work that Millwall has done to eliminate the poisonous element among its support – and it is rewarded with scenes like that. True, relative to thousands of decent family people who support the club each week, the troublemakers are a tiny handful. But we’ve always known that about any football violence.
Club and newspaper appear to have an uphill struggle. Tuesday’s edition may be a particular challenge for Porter. The tearing out of hair will continue for some time yet.