Out in the New Den’s car park, police horses line up and each away bus snakes through the gap between them. South London fashion is out on the streets either side of the arriving coaches; Top Boy meets Flannels, that sort of thing. Here, as one journalist put it on Twitter yesterday, is the XL Bully of the EFL fixture list, a game liable to turn at any moment.
Leeds United pull up and walk into the stadium, obscenities flying at them. The welcoming party are vaguely kind to Jamie Shackleton and Charlie Cresswell. Those two were on loan here last season. Luke Ayling wasn’t and someone slates his haircut, prompting the Leeds captain to flash a wide smile in return. He loves a bit of it. It is not as if Ayling was not forewarned. And he’ll end up laughing at full-time too, with a collector’s item of a victory in his back pocket.
Millwall-Leeds; three years apart but the same as ever it was at Sunday’s reunion, with not a ticket to be had for the match ahead.
How to categorise this rivalry, except to say that it was born of little more than a basic inability to stand each other.
The uninitiated would look at the fixture and ask why it is that this of all dates — south east London vs West Yorkshire, one club a four-hour drive from the other — needed an appeal beforehand for calm, restrained behaviour and above-the-belt chanting; why the enmity runs deep. The initiated know full well.
There is no real genesis for the antipathy between Millwall and Leeds, no tinderbox moment which drew the battle lines. They got to know each other in the 1980s, a time when followers of both were active in the hooligan scene, but before 2004 they had played only 10 times competitively, with four of those matches coming in the 1930s and ’40s. The contest has history but not in the way that phrase suggests, and not in the scrapbook sense.
Their mutual disdain, becoming what it has over the years, is more a product of the early 2000s; a time when Leeds were cut adrift below the Premier League.
Two years from 1988-90 aside, life outside the top flight is all Millwall have ever known and Leeds’ relegation to the EFL brought together two teams who, at heart, have no desire to be loved by outsiders. People hated Millwall and people hated Leeds. Subconsciously or otherwise, being hated was not a problem for either of them. Nor was it much effort to dislike each other.
Briefly, there was a specific competitive edge — the race for promotion from League One between 2007 and 2010 — and one of the tiles on Millwall’s message wall references Jimmy Abdou sneaking them through a play-off semi-final at Elland Road in 2009. But the meaning of those fixtures only heightened friction which was there already, irrespective of the fact that there is no geographical aspect to Millwall versus Leeds, no local posturing at the root of their needle.
It has, routinely, had its moments, many of them unhealthy: chants about, and poisonous references to, the murders of two Leeds fans in Istanbul in 2000, the reason why players from both clubs took part in a video last week to appeal for a halt to tragedy chanting; the violence at Elland Road in 2007, made famous by two skinheads who were photographed smashing a bus window and came to be remembered as a Right Said Fred tribute act; racist abuse aimed at Leeds forward El-Hadji Diouf 10 years ago; their goalkeeper Casper Ankergren being struck by a fan during a pitch invasion at the New Den a few seasons earlier. In this environment, you cannot turn your back.
These were examples of why, as the contests became incendiary, West Yorkshire Police would send plain-clothes officers out in London on the night before a Leeds visit to Millwall, spotters used to identify who had made the trip and whether there was a problem element among the away support.
But for a while now, the risk of trouble at the New Den itself has been mitigated by the logistics of the stadium. Leeds are never given the bottom tier of the away end. That policy restricts their fans to the upper part of one stand. Most of these are bussed in and out, and the security operation is down to a fairly fine art.
Sky Sports picking a noon kick-off slot for a live broadcast yesterday will have suited the authorities, a bind though it was for anyone travelling a long distance to be there: Leeds’ supporters club in the North Yorkshire coastal town of Scarborough set 4am as their morning pick-up time for the 250-mile (400km) coach journey down to the capital.
There is a separate reality for Leeds too: that at the New Den, Millwall are so often better at playing both the game and the occasion. Season after season, Leeds have gone there and wilted. Season after season has seen Millwall find their inner thunder and roll them over.
The ground was sold out yesterday, as ready as ever. Daniel Farke, Leeds’ head coach, addressed the atmosphere with his players beforehand, trying to drum into them the importance of composure. “We spoke about the physicality and insanity,” he said, all of which comes as standard.
At the top of Zampa Road outside the stadium, not far from the Millwall Cafe, a group of three Millwall supporters are chatting among themselves a couple of hours before kick-off. They don’t want to give their names and one of them has a very curt answer for why, from their perspective, this contest generates more hostility than the typical Championship game, for why it is a sell-out.
“It’s Leeds.” Which is all that needed to be said.
There is no particular science here, and no bigger picture. Millwall bring it out of Leeds, Leeds bring it out of Millwall, the way it has been for almost two decades, especially when they meet in London. They don’t lose sleep over each other day to day but once they enter the other’s airspace, the old sentiment kicks in.
Only four Leeds managers had ever won at Millwall before yesterday. One of them died in 1952.
Marcelo Bielsa wasn’t able to master the place, although partly because Gaetano Berardi was sent off after 14 minutes of his Leeds side’s second visit.
How it goes here in the borough of Bermondsey is a marker not only of Leeds’ quality but also the strength of their backbone. Flaky sides get done in these parts. But after five frenzied opening minutes, Farke’s side assert themselves with aplomb. The opening goal on 15 minutes is a beauty, counter-attacking at its best, finished off by Joel Piroe. Millwall try to bring the mayhem but Leeds bring the quality — only in isolated moments, but enough to make it count.
A classic Championship scrap develops and it takes until the 78th minute for Leeds to finish it, with Dan James driving through space in the centre of the pitch, Georginio Rutter’s attempted cutback sliding off the Welshman’s feet and inadvertently giving Piroe a sitter which the Dutch striker sticks away.
Rutter adds a ruthless third for good measure, a shot smashed past Bartosz Bialkowski with Millwall’s defence nowhere.
The stands begin to empty. The crowd abandoning ship.
More than once they have had the knack of turning an everyday meeting into the sort of wild event they love. But not this time.
(Top photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)