It’s the same, old song ...
Ten years on, The Archbishop considers the impact and legacy of the May 2nd 2002 trouble
It was when I saw the orange glow of flames reflected under the Zampa Road arch that I first knew that this was serious trouble. There being a difference between trouble and serious trouble after all. The animalistic roar of a full swing ruck could certainly be heard - but oddly not seen due to the crowds in the way. But after 30 years’s support of the Lions, that wasn’t something that fazed me particularly. Indeed all season there had been an increasing sense of tension and regular small-scale ‘offs’ along the Ilderton Road - then the away fans police escorted route along toward the railway station at South Bermondsey. This though? Flames? The whinnying of police horses? Batons and shields out? This one looked like a different gravy as they say.
“Come on James - let’s go this way” I said to my then partner’s 13 year-old son. Our heads were still reeling from Stern John’s 93rd minute dream crushing goal for Birmingham. Now we were looking at something even more disastrous. I indicated the Stockholm Road exit route, without really knowing where we’d easily go from there. My car was parked down Verney Road and - on reaching the junction of Stockholm and Ilderton Road - we and the thousands of other exiting Lions fans could see our way barred by what looked like a full scale riot directly outside the African church and opposite what was then still the Cliftonville Tavern. Illuminated by the fiery glow of a car that had been set alight, I could see enough to tell me that this was going to be the icing on the oldest cake in the media cookbook. Riot at The Den. Cancer club. Shut them down. FA enquiry. Questions in parliament. Blah blah blah.
Eventually we reached our motor via a long walk around to the Old Kent and Rotherhithe New Roads. The drive back home to Croydon after a game used to be a combination of a 13 year-olds’ excitement at feeling part of a three season success rise of the club. Discussing the game. Talking about permutations of the league table. Reviewing his favourite players - Stephen Reid being the normal choice. Having a laugh in general. This drive though? This was different. More silence. Less match analysis. Probably the same sense of shock as I felt years before at Cold Blow Lane when I saw my first kicking on the terraces. A slight sense of numbness. Driving through East Dulwich, I put Radio Two on to fill the void. I didn’t want a news channel, as I kind of knew what was coming. Instead on came the Four Tops doing ‘It’s the same old song’. “Someone up there’s having a laugh at us Jamesy” I said. “Yeah” he replied. Though I’m sure didn’t really know what I meant.
The 2001-02 season itself had been one of steadily rising expectations. Play-offs in 1999-00. Champions in 2000-01. The shock loss of star striker Neil Harris to his fight against testicular cancer over the summer, had been negated by manager Mark McGhee’s masterstroke signing of Steve Claridge at the end of the promotion campaign. A poor man’s Kenny Dalglish? Well yes he might have been, but we were poor men and so in no mood to quibble. His opening day goal in the 4-0 stuffing of Norwich City setting the tone for what was to prove to be a memorable roller-coaster ride of a season. Indeed a surge from 9th at the start of December, to 2nd spot after a 1-0 win over Watford in January 2002 fueled a sense that maybe - just maybe - this Millwall team were finally going to exploit the construction of the New Den in 1993 - and achieve top flight football. The riches of the Premier League, combined with the full seats of the still reasonably new stadium, plus business acumen of chairman Theo Paphitis might together mean that we even stayed there. Giddy thoughts.
Any ideas of automatic promotion however took a knock during a poor March. From the televised 1-0 win over West Brom of 19.02.02. Infamous for the media furore over a Pukka Pie that was lobbed onto the pitch during the game - and subjected to a lingering camera shot. Through to a reassuring 3-0 victory over Stockport at home on 30.03.02, Millwall won just one game. As consolation, the play-offs were certainly still doable. But as any Lions fan knows, Millwall and play-offs were a poor mix - certainly until the triumph at Wembley in 2010 anyway. Solid victories over Wolves, Coventry and Grimsby during April - bolstered by the loan signing of old warhorse Dion Dublin to replace the injured Richard Sadlier - set the stage for the fateful two-legged post-season fixtures with Birmingham City.
The thing began reasonably well. An away leg 1-1 Sunday morning draw at St Andrews - thanks to an 80th minute Dublin equaliser of an early Blues goal. Many fans posted after the game that we deserved more from the match. And so expectations for the Thursday evening return led at The Den were high. Adrenalin high in fact. The form of the Lions during April - plus the fact that The Den on big match night is a venue like no other - actually made me put aside my instinctive wariness of the hysteria that can overtake Millwall on such occasions. Like many, I believed in this team. I believed that - just once - ‘fate’ was on our side. That there was justice. That we would win promotion for our fallen striker Neil Bomber Harris and so finally put the long years of third division dross behind us. Finally we would get on to the big stage once again. Yes, I believed all that as James and I drove up through Dulwich in the early evening monster traffic. Making the ground only just in time as the teams were entering the pitch. The time I thought, was finally ours. Naive me - and maybe naive you too.
The game itself as ever with play-off matches was a tight, tense and cagey affair. if I am honest at ten years’ remove, i can only recall snatches of moments. Dion Dublin missing a touch-in winner late in the second-half by an inch (or so it seemed). And then of course the 93rd minute slam-home inside the penalty area for Stern John to steal the tie with no time remaining for Millwall. Put simply, that goal it was one of the most gutty experiences I have ever had in now 40 years support for the club. And that’s saying something isn’t it? Please don’t ask me to say whose defensive error allowed him the time to turn and shoot, because i simply can’t remember - and nor do I care. Normally writing an article like this I’d check You Tube for clarification on a point like that. Someone has invariably posted TV footage on that site and it’s an invaluable aid to clear cloudy memories. But in this case i simply can’t bring myself to look. So if you’re interested, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave it to you to look.
Some news reports from the time tell the story as it unfolded in the days after:
Injured officer describes battlefield’ - BBC News 03.05.02. A police veteran of May Day and Poll Tax riots said the rampage by hooligans outside Millwall Football Club was the worst violence he had ever experienced. Sergeant Russell Lamb was one of 47 officers hurt in clashes after the London club's defeat on Thursday in a Division One play-off against Birmingham City. The 35-year-old said the situation was "like a battlefield" with fellow officers "dropping like nine pins". “It was just the ferocity of the assault and the level and amount of ammunition they were using” said Lamb. He described how he and colleagues endured two hours of "ridiculous, mindless violence" at the hands of hundreds of supporters. "It was one of the most frightening situations I have ever been in. I have done the poll tax, the May Day riots and Wapping in the 1980s and I am in no doubt that it was one of the most unbelievable and violent situations I have been in.”
Four charged over Millwall violence - BBC News 04.05.02. Four men have been charged following the "ferocious" violence after Thursday's Millwall game, in which 47 officers were injured. The trouble, involving between 600 and 900 Millwall fans, followed the club's bitter Division One play-off defeat by Birmingham City. Police are considering suing the south London football club for damages after the "vicious" violence in which they came under a barrage of missiles for more than an hour.
However, club chairman Theo Paphitis said Millwall itself could not be blamed for the actions of a "mindless minority". "Where incidents occur away from the Den we do of course feel a moral responsibility," Mr Paphitis said. "But the problem of mob violence is not solely a Millwall problem, it is not a football problem, it is a problem which plagues the whole of our society."24 police horses were also injured.
Sheer hell - Mirror 04.05.12. In an unprecedented move police now plan to sue the South London club and the Football League for the cost of policing the riot. Outraged Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair said yesterday: "This was absolutely unacceptable. I'll be bringing Millwall and the Football League into Scotland Yard and shall take legal advice over whether it is appropriate to seek compensation. We had cars on fire, residents hiding in desperate fear and officers with broken legs and arms. Anybody should be asking what has gone on."
Last night officers who admit they cannot cope with continuing violence at the troubled South London club said Thursday's riot was the "last straw". Scotland Yard is now threatening to withdraw policing of matches - which costs hundreds of thousands of pounds - unless the club clamps down on its hooligans. Millwall police liaison officer Neil MacPherson tells the forthcoming BBC series Hooligans: "We don't have the resources to do anything other than keep the lid on it."
Metropolitan Police Service/Millwall FC -www.millwallfc.co.uk 07.05.02. A meeting was held this afternoon between representatives of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), Millwall Football Club, Simon Hughes MP, chaired by Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair. It was held following the previously unseen levels of violence last Thursday, to discuss the future policing and safety at Millwall Football Club and of the surrounding community.
On behalf of the Management of Millwall Football Club, Chairman Theo Paphitis again repeated his best wishes to all those officers injured and formally apologised to the MPS for the events of last Thursday.
The Club has offered their fullest support to the post-incident investigation and has pledged that anything that can be done by them to identify those responsible for the violence will be done, drawing on information from the Club and supporters. This will include posting appeals and photographs on the Club's website. Looking to the future and start of next season, Millwall Football Club have pledged to work with the MPS and relevant Local Authorities in a bid to improve safety through improving existing environmental factors, such as extending CCTV to the surrounding areas and improving street lighting.
The MPS believes that the Club should pay compensation for costs incurred last Thursday and should also meet additional policing costs for next season's matches. These areas will be pursued intensively by the MPS and will be matters for further, early discussions. Millwall Football Club and the MPS are determined to work together and will take unprecedented action to ensure the future safety of the local community, genuine fans and MPS officers. These measures may include placing restrictions on travelling supporters, both home and away, and re-scheduling both kick-off times and dates of matches. Acts of violence such as those witnessed on Thursday will not be tolerated.
Theo on police meeting - www.millwallfc.co.uk 08.05.02. Theo Paphitis was asked about his meeting with the Metropolitan Police Service at New Scotland Yard on Tuesday afternoon when he appeared on BBC Newsroom Southeast that evening.
Lions chairman Theo, who is a guest on Radio Five Live's Drive Time programme on Wednesday gave the following reaction:
Q - So what was decided at the meeting? We had a brief discussion about the cost situation, but the important thing that we had to deal with was the atrocious events of last Thursday where so many police officers were injured. And it's violence that can't be tolerated. It's set the club back five years but has also done huge damage to our local community.
Q - And you accept full responsibility for that? I think that what I said is that I accept full moral responsibility. Obviously we can't as a football club manage what goes on outside the ground that's for the police to deal with. But that doesn't detract from the fact that so many police men actually got injured, and there is a full investigation going on at the moment.
Q - So what does this mean for the club ? More costs I assume for things like CCTV? To be honest with you I think that is the least of our problems. The more important thing is obviously our community and we can't really afford for those sort of disgraceful events to happen again. And one of the things that was proposed to us through the Metropolitan Police was our stadium safety certificate, and the fact that maybe we shouldn't be allowed to have fans traveling to home and away. Which obviously would hit our pockets quite considerably and would really upset many of our fans. But unfortunately after the horrendous events of last Thursday I don't believe we have any other option.
Q - So you're talking about banning Millwall fans from traveling to away games? Away supporters actually visiting the Den and for our supporters visiting away grounds. That's the proposal at the moment from the police and that's something that we've got to go away and think about. But obviously that's unprecedented in football and would be a big knock back for all the hard work that's been done over the last five years.
Millwall FC/Metropolitan Police joint statement - www.millwallfc.co.uk 11.06.02. Millwall FC and the Metropolitan Police issued the following statement at a joint press conference held at The Den on Tuesday morning: It is now almost six weeks since the appalling post match violence following Millwall's play-off match with Birmingham City. The damage to our reputation and its community relations is only exceeded by the physical injury and damage inflicted on the Police and local community on that night. All of us at Millwall Football Club repeat our deepest regret and sadness at the events after the match. Whilst the post-match enquiry and arrests continue, debate, dialogue and discussion continue with the aim of reducing the potential for future repetition.
We want to minimise the possible difficulties for our immediate community, the Police and the vast majority of our decent supporters that certain matches could present.
Hundreds of suggestions have been made, all have been considered taking account of the fact that some apparent solutions could create more problems than they resolve. We have personally answered in excess of 800 letters, emails and phone calls of which only 28 were condemnatory. The majority were constructive and encouraging. Today's Press Conference outlines some of the steps we have taken, and others will be announced before the season commences on 10th August 2002.
First and foremost every fixture has been examined for its potential 'difficulties'. Following analysis they have been divided into three categories:
Category 'C' - Six fixtures - it has been agreed that no 'away' supporters be allowed at each of the home/away fixtures. These matches are Wolves, Burnley, Nottingham Forest, Stoke City, Portsmouth, Leicester City.
Category 'B' - Four matches will be 'all ticket' for 'away' supporters. The matches will kick-off at a time when at least one hour of daylight exists after the final whistle. In the event of an evening fixture being announced, other arrangements will be made. These will be reviewed on an on-going basis. These matches are Coventry City, Derby County, Reading, Crystal Palace.
Category 'A' - Thirteen matches, which whilst considered at this time to be 'low risk' will be monitored carefully, reviewed weekly and if intelligence and information or other factors become apparent can be upgraded or other measures put in place. These matches are Brighton, Bradford City, Gillingham, Grimsby Town, Ipswich Town, Norwich City, Preston North End, Rotherham United, Sheffield Wednesday, Walsall, Watford, Wimbledon, Sheffield United.
Membership Scheme. In order to buy a ticket for ANY Millwall game during the 2002/3 season, supporters will need to be either Season Ticket holders OR members of the Millwall Supporters Club.
'Away' supporters walkway to South Bermondsey. This will go before Lewisham Council's Planning Committee on June 18th 2002 for approval. If approved, Southwark Council could commence work within two weeks.
Away ban is drastic - www.millwallfc.co.uk 18.06.02. Lions chairman Theo Paphitis was at pains to explain to Millwall fans and supporters of the six clubs who will not be able to visit The Den next season that the 'away fan ban' was not a matter of choice. Theo emphasised that the decision to ban Leicester, Stoke, Portsmouth, Burnley, Nottingham Forest and Wolves fans next season, with Millwall supporters likewise unable to travel to the grounds of those clubs, was unpalatable. He stated: "It will affect the club in terms of revenue, the players due to the lack of support they'll have at six grounds, and the decent fans who should be able to follow their team home and away.
"Anyone who thinks that this was an idea that we just dreamed up and are in any way happy with couldn't be more wrong. However, it was the best we could do to make sure we have supporters at our ground next season. The police made it absolutely clear that they didn't feel that they could safely police these games next season, which left us exposed with regard to our safety certificate. Without that there would be no fans in the ground at all. We are not pleased with this, but it is the best case scenario for us at the moment. The club has done as much as is humanly possible and now the police need to arrest and prosecute anyone who is still determined to damage this football club and its community."
Hooligan gets two years - www.millwallfc.co.uk - 18.06.02. The Metropolitan Police have released the following statement after convicted hooligan XXX was jailed for two years on Thursday. The statement said: "XXX [name deleted by NOLU - if you want to know it, look on the internet], a 37-year old roofer from XXX [ditto] was jailed for two years for his part in the riot after the Millwall v Birmingham City game on 2nd May. He appeared in custody at Woolwich Crown Court for sentencing, having first pleaded guilty to violent disorder at Greenwich MC on 7 May. He has also been banned from attending designated football games in the UK and abroad for ten years.
The court heard that XXX was one of the first people to start throwing missiles at police that night. His picture was taken from CCTV footage of the violence that broke out in roads surrounding Millwall's stadium, The Den, in Bermondsey. The image was circulated in the media and he was arrested, at his home, on 6 May. DCI Peter Newman, who is leading the investigation team known as Operation Zampa, welcomed the sentence.
May 2nd 2002. In Millwall terms, a watershed moment. A disaster in hindsight. The kind date after which nothing will ever be as it was before. In those short few minutes from Stern John’s winner, to James and I leaving the West Upper to see the flames of the unfolding riot, our club plummeted from being within touching distance of the big time - to fighting for our very existence. Even now, a decade on I find it hard to absorb.
Was the violence pre-planned? It seemed to me at the time and now ten years on - that it must have been. It looked to me as if it were properly kicking off outside the ground for a good while prior to John’s goal. But how would I know? I was there to watch the match with my stepson in tow Like many, many others. I have never lost my suspicions - not that it matters now. Re-reading the internet reports of the time however brought back the sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces faced by the club at the time. The planned or spontaneous actions of the rioters. The hostility of the police. And the stereotyping of the media. All versus one relatively small-scale football club with few powerful friends. In business and political terms, a featherweight - up against super-heavyweight opponents. The meeting between Theo Paphitis and the Deputy Commissioner of the time Ian Blair (no stranger of controversy himself - nor a tasty police pension for that matter) was fateful. The police wanted a total ban on away fans at The Den and for Lions fans travelling. Concede or we won’t police your games and you won’t be able to trade being the threat. Many have said since that this wasn’t a real prospect. All I can say is that at the time, it looked very real. The club - whether rightly, wrongly or naively according to your view of Paphitis - conceded the much disliked membership scheme of the 2002-03 season as a means of survival. The concept that you needed a membership card to watch football at The Den took years to get rid of.
Here we are ten years on and I read a lot on the message boards about police incompetence, brutality and overkill. Indeed as these notes are being written, the damage being done by poor or vindictive stewarding is a current topic doing the rounds of the internet. But for me, everything that we might say is worse now than in the Millwall of our pasts, can draw a direct line back to the Birmingham play-off riot. Nothing was the same after - and never will be again. Whether that’s good or bad is your call as the reader to decide. To close this article, I have ‘borrowed’ an article from the unlikely source of Horse and Hound magazine (31.10.03). I found the mental picture of the horse rearing up from a thunderflash put under it’s hoof moving in a way that I can’t easily explain. Maybe seeing ‘War Horse’ has made me go all soppy, but something in the account sums up the whole wastefulness and inhumanity of the night - mixed with a dark magnificence. How apt that the brave animal’s name was ‘Alamein’...
Awards for police horse heroes. “Two Metropolitan Police grooms have received awards from the RSPCA and the force in recognition of the role they played in saving the life of Alamein, the police horse who was severely injured in the riots outside the Millwall football stadium last year.
The actions of Helen Wolski and Natasha Streek, two police support staff who have both worked for 8 years, undoubtedly saved the life of Alamein, who had a severed artery in his off-fore. The incident happened around 1hr after the football match between Millwall and Birmingham ended, while police horses were being used to keep the rival fans apart. A thunderflash — a device which explodes on contact — was thrown at Alamein, causing him to rear up and come down with his front legs through a car windscreen.
"Natasha and I were with the horse box in a car park outside the ground while the riot was going on close by," explains Helen, who is based at Wandsworth in south London. "We could hear it was getting pretty heated outside, then Alamein and his rider arrived. It was dark and very noisy but even working by torchlight it was obviously he was seriously injured — there was blood everywhere. In fact there was so much blood that we couldn't tell where the injury was until we had sluiced his legs down with buckets of water.”
“Once we realised it was a damaged artery we knew we had to stop the bleeding quickly so we grabbed some field dressings from a nearby ambulance and bandaged them in place. That stemmed the bleeding so we could get him back to the stables where a vet was waiting to see him." Alamein made an amazing recovery, returning to full duties within four weeks of the riots after convalescing at the Metropolitan Police's Imber Court training centre.
Helen was delighted to receive the awards and told HHO she believed it was important that the efforts of support staff like herself were recognised, especially as 2 May 2002 was the most challenging incident she has had to deal with during her time with the police to date. "I have attended many football matches and ceremonial occasions, and that was definitely the worst, but it wasn't until after it was all over that I realised what we had had to deal with," she explains.