No, the away experience at Millwall is something else. It consists of being herded by police onto a special train at London Bridge, getting to South Bermondsey and then taking the away fans’ exit into a concrete run, high-walled and winding, between two railway lines in the shadow of the municipal incinerator to a pen outside the North Stand. After the game, which you spend focusing on the pitch in front of you and not the hooting Neanderthals to your left and right, you’re kettled in the concrete pen again, then forced onto a train with all the legroom and personal space of the Delhi-Mumbai Express and dumped out at London Bridge, where the mob (now reacting to the men-together-today experience by singing their most boisterous, foul-mouthed songs at the top of their communal voice) are forced onto a non-stop tube to Paddington and then a non-stop train to Bristol. Only by pleading with a friendly copper and looking even more unthreatening than your correspondent usually manages can one escape the inexorable return to the West Country.
But this is all justified, of course; the herding, the limits, the enormous discomfort. Because it’s for our own good. We’re being protected from the barbarians at the gates by the Praetorian Guard. If we made our own way to the ground, well, who knows what depravities would be performed on our persons.
Except that this weekend, Southern Rail are performing engineering work on the line, so me and three (neutral) friends walk from a pub at New Cross Gate to the ground. We’re dressed deliberately neutrally and keeping our heads down, all except the guy who’s about 8’7” in his stockinged feet and so physically incapable of doing so. I shouldn’t laugh; I’m delighted he’s here. I feel it makes us less obvious targets as we make our way up the Old Kent Road.
And you know what? It’s fine. It’s completely fine. The main route to the Den, Ilderton Street, is just another street on a weekend full of fans doing that trudge to the ground unique to football fans; head down, shoulders up, the same stance as a half-million are adopting across the country. This particular corner of inner-city South-East London, with its tyre yards and its railway arches, doesn’t feel any different to any of the other parts of major cities with football grounds in them. There aren’t marauding gangs of thick-necked “villains” looking to get “proper naughty”, there are no Danny Dyers or (thank God) Elijah Woods at all. Just some football fans who’ve decided to eschew the promise of the game on Sky and head down to support their team.
It’s almost baffling, so far is it from what we’ve been given to expect, egged on by the media, the message boards but perhaps most of all the Met. We’re prepared for Lakshar Gah and we get Leyton Orient. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing dangerous. After a ridiculously satisfying 2-1 win in which we dominate, get three well-merited points and generally swat the home side out of the way, we might expect any aggro to emerge from the shadows on the way home, but no; we chat quite casually but clearly from the away fans’ perspective all the way back to the Hobgoblin for the Chelsea-Liverpool game.
So why do the people who make the decisions make it so hard to get to the Den on your own? Why are we denied yet another little bit of liberty in favour of being shoved together like those fish you see forming dense columns on David Attenborough programmes? I think it’s because it’s the easiest way to manage a group of football supporters, indeed the easiest way to manage any group – the more you restrict their freedom of movement the easier they are to corral. And inevitably, just like “rioters” in police kettles, the prophecy fulfils itself – people get upset, get angry, or just band together and sing “We’re going down the Rovers, to do the bastards over” in thick West Country accents in the middle of London Bridge station at 5 o’clock on a shopping Saturday.
So the story becomes even easier to sell. Society needs to be protected from us, a few hundred professionals and teenagers from a pleasant, arty city near Wales. But at the same time, we poor vulnerable provincials need to be protected from the feral pack of Millwall thugs who can’t be avoided in the mean streets of Southwark.
They’re both lies, pieces of inaccurate, contradictory Doublethink. But they’re lies nobody has the knowledge or inclination to effectively challenge until Southern Railways unwittingly drop the curtain and let us see the levers being pulled. We’re fed an illusion so that we become easier to control, and our control becomes socially acceptable, even welcomed. You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to draw the parallel, do you?
Millwall away is a microcosm of the way liberties are restricted, on a commonplace, kneejerk basis to justify the insignificant danger that would be faced if our right to move, associate – live – as we choose was restored. I’ve been talking a lot about the police but they’re not at the root of this, they’re just part of the system. This is endemic, it’s pronounced and it’s happening to every group the state can get away with doing it to. And that’s pretty much every group there is.
Walking to Millwall was the moment in that science-fiction movie when the Earth’s surface turns out to be inhabitable after all; when the threat to our children turns out to be a statistical likelihood on a par with every member of our family being hit by a car on the same day; when we realise we’re being deliberately, systemically, mislead and lied to.
I thought that walking to Millwall without being attacked would be a good thing. I was damn right.