Let Em All Come Down To The Den
“A Look At The History Of Millwall’s Crowd Size” by WI Lion
I started to support Millwall around 1970 when I was ten years old. I remember some of my early impressions were that everyone around me knew all of the player’s names, the ground itself with it’s lush green pitch and white goals center stage seemed very big, and the volume of noise emanating from the crowd at times could be almost deafening. I guess when you are young; a sporting event is often the first time you get to experience what it feels like to be in a large crowd. One of my early games was against Bristol City, where I got to stand in a crowd of around 9,000. One of my all time favourite players “Harry Boy” scored our second goal and the noise and joy from our supporters celebrating his goal hooked me for life! I remember that my uncle (who was trusted with my safety at this game) would tell me about past games in the late 1960’s, when Millwall entertained both Tottenham and Leicester in the FACup and attracted huge crowds to both fixtures.
From an early stage, I would often wonder what it would feel like to be packed into a full Den. As it happened, Millwall’s next season was 1971-72; I did not have to wait long before Millwall started to pull some big crowds to The Den. In Feb 1972 I attended the great comeback FACup 4th round tie with Middlesborough, watched by 23,678. I stood on the half way line and remember that we were tightly packed in, with little space to stand and being a small ten year old had great trouble seeing the pitch. I was eventually lifted onto a yellow barrier and managed to get a good view. I don’t know why, but I also can remember the disc-jockey (it might have been half-time Les) asking people to move forward to let the latecomers in, a request that we all got used to hearing at every “big” game.
As I started to watch Millwall more regularly with my friends, we got used to estimating the size of the crowd. You would always hear people standing around you talking about the crowd…. “it’s a bigger crowd today, probably because we won away last week” or “today’s gate is going to be poor ‘cause we’re on this losing run (and we’re crap)”. Think back to games when you thought the crowd was “such a size” only to read the attendance figure in the next day’s paper, reported as several thousand less than you estimated. Who remembers a game against Charlton at home (Aug 1988), our first home game in our second season in the old First Division? We were packed in like sardines in the CBL end, and the half way line was pretty full too. I was expecting the crowd to be close to 20,000 and the final number, a mere 14,806. What about the game last season against Ferencvaros with the gate quoted as 11,667. For obvious reasons, no-one will ever confess to crowd figure manipulation, but we have all been witness to this phenomenon.
The current size of our fan base and capacity of the “New Den” has been debated ad nausea over the past ten years. Of course more bums on seats, implies more revenue, which paints a healthier financial picture for the club. Revenue generation through the turnstiles has never been more of an issue for Millwall than our plight today. We play at the second tier of the Football League (call it what you like) competing on average crowds of around 11,000. We have one of the poorest home crowd averages in our Division, and not only that, many of our rivals can attract 10,000 to 20,000 more supporters per home game.
However, in the dim and distant past, Millwall used to be one of the best supported teams in the South of England. Over the years I have often delved into Millwall’s turbulent history and become interested in how the size of Millwall’s support has fluctuated through the years. This article is an attempt to record the highlights and lowlights of our support, including a few facts that were surprising to me (and hopefully to you too).
Before I start, I would like to mention the following references / sources of information. I would on occasions find conflicting crowd attendance figures. For season average figures I quote Brain Tabner’s book and for Millwall individual home gates I used data from Richard Lindsay and James Murray.
Millwall, A Complete Record – Richard Lindsay; Through The Turnstiles..Again – Brian Tabner
Millwall, Lions Of The South – James Murray The Rise & Fall Of Millwall – Paul Casella
The Early Years 1885-1909.
From my understanding, accurate attendance figures are not available prior to 1925. Early attendance figures were often based on estimates typically recorded by newspaper reporters. Our early attendance figures meticulously researched and recorded by Richard Lindsay were often rounded to the nearest 1000. As one would imagine with a new club starting from scratch, support started out small. For example, a game against Royal Arsenal (on our Second ground behind the Lord Nelson public house) in Feb 1887 attracted a crowd of only 600 people. In 1889, a FACup qualifying game (vs. Schorne College) was supposedly attended by a crowd of around 1,500 and from the records that exist today, this was probably one of the largest crowds to attend a Millwall game in those early beginnings.
In the summer of 1890, Millwall moved to their third ground, a swampland that was part of the old mud-chute trawled from The Thames. Although attendance figures for our first season at East Ferry Road were often missing, Millwall managed to arrange and play two prestigious friendlies. In March 1891, Millwall hosted the “Invincibles”, Preston North End, who were the current Football League Champions. According to Richard Lindsay, a crowd of around 4000 assembled at East Ferry road to see the Football League Champions run out 3-0 winners. North Greenwich Railway laid on extra trains and such was the demand at that time, local factories closed down early to allow people to attend. After the success of arranging a friendly against a strong team from the Football League, Millwall invited Sunderland to the Island. This game attracted a huge crowd of 14,000 to their new ground, easily the largest attendance that had so far attended a Millwall home game.
Football in England was still a reasonably new experience for many. Crowds in the newly formed Football League were still on the increase. Examining the average crowds for the Football League 1890- 1891 season, showed that Preston averaged 6,800 and Sunderland 5,900 supporters. When you consider that Preston were the current Football League champions and Sunderland would soon take their crown, Millwall had proved that there was enough local interest for the club to able to attract big crowds, when good quality opposition could be arranged.
The record books show that as Millwall journeyed through the early 1890’s, their attendances gradually increased to between 2,000 and 5,000. In 1894, Millwall became founder members of the Southern League and opened their campaigne with a home game against Swindon. Although the initial crowds were poor, around 2,000 to 4,000; by the time the championship was safe, a crowd of 14,000 attended the last home game of the season against Chatham. The following season saw Tottenham join the Southern League and Millwall add the United League to their fixture list, where they would play Woolwich Arsenal. Crowds continued to show some improvement, especially against their local London Rivals.
The biggest game of the 1896-97 season was in the FACup 4th qualifying round, when Millwall drew their South East London rivals Woolwich Arsenal. Woolwich Arsenal had decided to join the Second Division of the expanding Football League, rather than join the Southern League (which as we learnt, turned out to be a good decision). There is a wonderful account of this game in James Murray’s book (pages 32-33) written by a newspaper reporter. The attendance quoted for that game taken from newspaper reports was around 20,000, a remarkable number, for at that time, the East Ferry road ground had an estimated capacity of around 15,000. The graphic account of this game went into detail about the abject danger of traveling to, entering and watching the game once in the ground. An excerpt follows;
“Walking into the dock over rail lines, round timber and other storages, across bridges that only allowed single file in order to reach the ground. The road, 15 yards wide led to 3 turnstiles…. I was swallowed up in a throbbing mass. A youth in front of me, crushed and stifled, fainted. He had friends around who tried to beat a retreat. It was useless. The inert form had to be carried forward. Boys screamed, men struggled, but it was all useless. The men went forward and at last the gates were burst and the crowd entered as they like”.
The reason this article is of interest, is the indirect reference to poor location and access of the ground and the hardships that the supporters endured just to see their team. The problems of going to see Millwall at East Ferry Road was thought to be a key contributor to the small crowds. One other notable crowd was the 20,000 that crammed into the East Ferry Road ground on Feb 24th 1900, to witness Millwall’s march to the FACup Semi-Final. This tie against Aston Villa in the 3rd rd of the competition was eventually won by the Lions after two replays. Aston Villa was at that time the best supported team in the Football League and would average 19,825 for the 1899-1900 season. The Lions crowd for this 3rd rd game was on par with the Aston Villa season average, suggesting that Millwall could attract considerable local support, if they had been more progressive and joined the Football League, rather than feeding their supporters on a diet of Southern league, United League and assorted friendlies.
In 1901, Millwall moved to their fourth ground, at North Greenwich. Millwall indicated that their new capacity would be around 20,000, with planned improvements such as terracing to extend this to 32,000. The opening game was a friendly against Aston Villa, won by the lions 2-0, but played in front of a disappointing crowd of 5,000. Through the next few seasons, Millwall would still attract anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 for a League fixture not to dissimilar to the average crowds that watched them at East Ferry Road. On occasions, noticeably higher attendances were recorded against some of their more local opponents, Tottenham, Reading and Southampton. Another fantastic cup run in 1903 brought Preston (12,000) and Everton (14,000) to North Greenwich. Interestingly, Everton’s average attendance in the Football League for 1902-03 was around 14,000, showing yet again, that Millwall had the ability to match “Football League size crowds” when the opposition was of good quality.
Throughout the remaining years at North Greenwich, Millwall continued to be followed by a loyal crowd that rarely exceeded 10,000. In fact, according to the record books, Millwall never managed a crowd approaching 20,000 (the estimated record attendance at East Ferry Road) in any of their fixtures at North Greenwich. The biggest crowds recorded were for Tottenham, west ham, Sheffield Wednesday and Woolwich Arsenal, around 15,000 to 16,000 supporters.
1910 – 1939 The Den & War Years
It is well known by all Millwall supporters that the club moved across the river to New Cross in 1910, to their new home “The Den”. It was reported at the time that for Millwall to expand and generate revenue so that they could entice better players to the club, they needed an average attendance of around 12,000, some 4,000 to 6,000 more than they were able to attract to their North Greenwich ground on the Island. There was some relief then, when on Oct 22nd 1910, Millwall played their first game at The Den against Brighton & HA in front of 20,000 paying guests. However, as the season wore on, the support started to dwindle due mainly to a run of poor performances. As the Lions moved through the second decade of the twentieth century, their attendances gradually improved with the move across the river starting to pay at the turnstile. Crowds of 25,000 vs west ham in (March 1912), 28,000 vs Swindon (Nov 1912) and 30,000 vs west ham (Apr 1913) showed that the Lions could attract huge crowds to their new home. Also gate receipts for the 1912-13 season was more than double the last season at East Ferry Road, providing Millwall with money to spend in the transfer market; although due to the outbreak of War in 1914 Millwall’s progress as a team, was put on hold.
After World War I, the Southern League First Division became associate members of the Football League, forming the Third Division. Millwall’s first home game against Bristol Rovers attracted a big crowd of 25,000 to New Cross to see Millwall play their first Football League fixture, resulting in a 2-0 win. For that first season in Division Three, the Lions were watched by an average attendance of 18,950, a far cry from the average crowds of 5,000 that had watched them in their early Southern League days on the Island. In fact that season, Millwall was the “best” supported team in the English Third Division. In addition, that average of close to 19,000 was higher than average attendances at First Division Bradford and Derby Co. As the Millwall team strengthened during the 1920’s, so did their level of support. Eventually, Millwall won the Division Three South Championship in season 1927-28, moving up to the Second Division. During their eight season stint in the Third Division South, Millwall were the best supported team in their Division on five separate occasions. It was no surprise then, that for their first season in Division Two, the Lions posted a season average attendance of over 20,000. Their final average of 20,308 found them to be the 16th best supported team in England, with only Chelsea and Tottenham in Division Two recording higher averages.
As is the case with Millwall history, a relatively successful period is usually followed by some pain. Six seasons in the Second Division eventually ended in relegation back to the Third Division South in 1934. That famous 2-0 home defeat by Manchester Utd in front of 35,000 made sure that Millwall would need to rebuild in order to regain Second Division status. The following two seasons back in the Third Division South were poor and consequently Millwall’s average crowd dropped to their lowest levels since joining the Football League. Millwall brought in Charles Hewitt from Chester and so began the start of a new era. Hewitt’s first season in charge was made famous due to the cup run of 1937. In the league Millwall had to settle for a disappointing 8th position, however average league attendances had risen by more than 8,000 in support of Hewitt’s team building. Millwall’s best form though was reserved for the FACup, where Millwall defied all odds to become the first team outside the top two divisions to reach a FACup Semi-final. On the way Millwall recorded their highest attendance at The Den, when some 48,762 watched Millwall’s 5th round victory over Derby County.
When looking through Millwall’s attendance records you start to notice that FACup ties generally attracted higher crowds than the more mundane league fixtures. The following table (1) shows how Millwall’s “record” FA Cup attendances increased in size, up to that record breaking crowd against Derby County.
Record Breaking "Cup" Attendance at The Den (Table 1)
The season following that amazing cup run saw Millwall win the Third Division South Championship for the second time. Attendances at The Den continued to improve and for their Championship winning season, Millwall posted a record average crowd of nearly 23,000. While the first season back in Division Two was one of consolidation, more and more fans continued to travel to The Den. For this first season back in Division Two, Millwall averaged a staggering 27,387 fans per home game with five homes games attracting around 35,000 supporters. For this 1938-39 season, Millwall were the 11th best supported team in the land. When considering our average attendances over the past forty years or so, it’s hard for us to comprehend the shear size of the local dockland and surrounding London support following the Lions. The fact that they were the 11th best supported team also meant that Millwall had a larger seasonal average fan base than 15 first Division teams. This record average attendance has never been beaten.
In James Murray’s wonderful book “The Lions Of The South”, he postulated that Millwall were poised to make a strong challenge for the First Division. Certainly they had the support to back such a challenge and a team that was thought to have the required ability, however, as we know the progress of Charlie Hewitt’s Millwall was thawted by the outbreak of war. The start of the 1939-40 season saw Newcastle Utd travel to New Cross. Millwall thumped them 3-0 in front of 33,000 fans, convinced that this was Millwall’s year. Two games later, the Football League cancelled all competitions and Millwall could only think of what might have been.
The war years proved tough on Millwall, what with air raids, bomb damage and an ever changing line-up; the Lions like many of their Southern counterparts managed to struggle on. Out of adversity, came Millwall’s biggest game of their history to date; a Wembley Final. After defeating arsenal 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in the semi-final of the Football League South Cup, the Lions met Chelsea at Wembley. An estimated crowd of around 90,000 watched as the team was introduced to King George VI, then watched a typical “Millwall big match performance” which saw the Lions beaten 2-0.
The Miserable 1950’s and 1960’s Rebirth
After the war, Millwall struggled to find the form they had shown back in 1939. Many of their key players were no longer at the club and those that returned after the war were past their prime. Two seasons later in 1947-48, Millwall recorded a massive home crowd of over 42,000 against Tottenham H. However, a poor home record in which the Lions would record only 7 victories, put paid to their Division Two status. The last home league game against Watford, drew their smallest crowd of the season to watch the Lions forlornly drop back into the Third Division South.
For Millwall, the coming decade would see a period of gradual decline, both in Millwall’s performances and their gates. Initially, Millwall continued to pull strong support in their effort to regain Second Division status. One memorial game against Notts County and Tommy Lawton attracted a crowd of 45,642 to The Den to see Millwall beat the Nottinghamshire team 3-2. Depending on what record books you read, this has been reported to be Millwall’s record home league attendance.
The following table (2) shows how Millwall’s record League attendances at The Den, increased through the period 1910 to 1948. Some of the early figures were estimates that were rounded to the nearest thousand.
Record Breaking "League" Attendance at The Den (Table 2)
Footnote to the Notts County Game – 45,642 is quoted in “Millwall A Complete Record” and 44,627 is quoted in “Through The Turnstiles”. There is also a 46,000 crowd vs West Bromwich in1947(Div Two) quoted in “Millwall A Complete Record” that I cannot find any other corroboration for – so I placed doubt on this crowd size and did not use this number in the above table. The book “Through The Turnstiles” quotes the Notts Co. game as Millwall’s home league attendance record.
The decline in the team’s performance wore on through the 1949-50 season, a season that was to end in desperation, with Millwall finding themselves in an embarrassing position of applying to the Football League for re-election for the first time in their history. The 1950’s were very much a decade of two halves. Millwall would play most of the decade as members of Division Three South before facing the ignominy of landing in the newly formed Fourth Division in 1958. Along the way there were good seasons such as 1951-52, when the Lions finished fourth and in the subsequent season when they missed out on promotion by just two points, finishing runners up to Bristol Rovers. Attendances during the early 1950’s were still well above the Third Division South average. For the four seasons 1949-1950 through 1952-53, Millwall’s season average attendance varied between 19,000 and 21,000 on par with attendances in the early to mid 1930’s.
The Second half of the 1950’s however, was a torrid time for Millwall, with finishes of 22nd in 1955-56 (3rd bottom in the league), 17th in 1956-57 and 23rd in 1957-58 (again seeking re-election to the league), dumped them well and truly into the newly formed Fourth Division. As James Murray said in his book, “down amongst the dead men”. For the first time in Millwall’s long history, attendances were very much in decline. By the time Millwall reached the Fourth Division in 1958, their season average attendance had eroded to around 12,000.
Even though Millwall were regularly becoming one of the poorer performing teams in the Football League, they managed to pull of a FACup 4th rd shock against First Division Newcastle Utd in January 1957. In front of a packed Den crowd of 45,646, the Lions won 2-1 to set up a 5th rd home tie with First Division Birmingham. Due to some problems with crowd congestion against Newcastle (over 50 people were reported to have fainted), Millwall restricted the crowd size for the 5th rd game. A slightly reduced home crowd of 42,000 watched the Lions knocked out of the cup by 4-1.
Whereas the 1950’s had seen some of the worse results and final league positions for the Lions since joining the Football League in 1920, the 1960’s turned out to be one of growth and rebuilding. One thing was clear, gradual erosion of the Lions home support had dropped gates to around 10,000. The rebirth of the team started in 1959 and promotion as Champions of Division Four was achieved in 1961-62. This season saw a gradual return of support, swelling the seasons average attendance to 11,762. Although considerably smaller than the crowds around the war years, Millwall ended the season as the best supported team in the Fourth Division.
After a brief set back and relegation back to Division Four in 1964, two back to back promotion winning seasons saw the Lions claw their way back to the Second Division. Their promotion winning season from Division Three had seen average crowds increase to a much healthier 14,000. Returning to the Second Division after an absence of eighteen years saw the supporters flock back to The Den. Of course Millwall were now playing better opposition, but also, the Lions were chasing the record for the longest sequence of unbeaten home games. Millwall equaled Reading’s record of 55 unbeaten home games against Ipswich Town in front of 19,903 and then broke the record two weeks later against Carlisle United, watched by another useful crowd of 15,895. Millwall would eventually stretch the new record to 59 games.
Although the unbeaten home sequence came to a “violent” end at home to Plymouth Argyle in January 1967, the Millwall fans had a wonderful FACup Third round game against Spurs to look forward to. A massive 41,260 supporters crammed into The Den to watch an entertaining 0-0 draw with Spurs. This was the biggest crowd to attend The Den, since the Cup tie with Birmingham City in 1957; also this game saw Millwall make their debut on “Match Of The Day” with the camera tower placed behind the stand rather than on the packed North terrace (a position where future TV towers would stand).
The 1970’s To Present Day
For Millwall, the period under Benny Fenton, 1966-1974, became one of the most stable in the clubs history. Through this period they maintained Second Division status and on occasions, looked like they might break through to Division One. Of course 1971-72 stands out as the season when we should have made it all the way to the First Division, but some poor away performances towards the end of the season and one too many home draws, eventually saw the Lions finish third, one point behind the runners-up Birmingham. For this season, Millwall drew an average crowd of 16,262 through The Den turnstiles. This was the biggest average home crowd since 1952-53 a gap of some nineteen years. For me though, the most remarkable fact about this season is that this average attendance has not been beaten since! Not even our flirt with Division One football in 1988-89 would exceed the average home crowd of 1971-72.
Millwall’s support gradually dwindled from around 10,000 in the mid 1970’s to extremely low averages of around 4,000 in the early 1980’s. Everyone has their own opinions as to why the Millwall support fell away so shockingly. People moving out of the area, poor results, poor performances and the threat of crowd trouble were certainly key contributors. James Murray writes
“The Lions were still fighting to bring their supporters back to Cold Blow Lane, with any match against a non-local club struggling to attract a gate of 10,000…..During this period Millwall’s indigenous supporters were being moved from the area. Large chunks of Victorian property in New Cross, Deptford and the surrounding areas were being pulled down, no longer fit for human inhabitation. Millwall fans in their hundreds and thousands were being moved outside London to New Towns and “London overspill” estates in old ones…”
I myself watched most of the home games through the seventies and eighties and often wondered why I bothered. In 1977-78 and 1978-79, Millwall had the unenviable distinction of recording the “lowest” Second Division crowd. The game in 1977-78 against Bristol Rovers was not played at The Den, but down on the South coast at Portsmouth, following a “two match home ban” after the infamous Ipswich Town cup encounter. A crowd of 3,322 was made up of Millwall, Bristol Rovers and (bizarre as it was that day) Portsmouth fans. The next season saw Millwall set (at that time) a record low crowd of 2,830 at The Den to see Millwall’s final game of the season against Preston, and complete a miserable season which ended in relegation. I managed to attend both of these games and like some other Millwall supporters share this unwanted record. However, after hearing the bleak echoes of supporters talking to each other and sitting on the terracing at The Den against Preston, there was still optimism in the air. Only forty eight hours later, I returned to The Den, to join 6,000 supporters as we watched the youth team win the FA Youth Cup for the first time in Millwall’s history.
As Millwall toiled through the early eighties, they set a number of all time low attendance figures. Over the course of a few seasons, Millwall’s average crowd dropped to numbers that were last seen one hundred years previous (1880’s-1890’s). The early eighties are simply best forgotten, that is until a certain George Graham took the reins and finally the Millwall fans had a team playing purposeful attractive football that was worthwhile supporting. It’s sad to note and rather an apt appraisal of the kind of football served up by the Lions during the early eighties, that a crowd of 7,940 against Sheffield Wednesday in Sept 1979 (under Petchey’s spell) was one of the highest recorded over the next four years. The sad fact was that Millwall did not manage to attract a crowd higher than 9,000, until the end of George Graham’s first “miracle” season when in April 1983, 9,097 supporters watched the Lions beat Brentford 1-0 to maintain the Lions’ late push to avoid relegation to the fourth Division.
The following table (3) shows anumber of games played at The Den, which failed to attract a crowd of 3,000.The majority cover the dark days under Petchey and Anderson who left us deep inthe sticky stuff.
Record Low Attendances at The Den (Table 3)
Life for the Lions continued to look up under the stern leadership of George Graham. Promotion back to Division Two in 1985 was achieved with considerable confidence, and a major tonic for the club and supporters. However, even this achievement was to be totally eclipsed three years later when the Lions finally clawed their way into the First Division. Between these two promotion years the club was rocked by a number of major events that were to have a major impact on our support. Firstly the GLC had provided a long list of demands that Millwall needed to meet in order to bring The Den up to the safety levels mandated following the tragic Bradford fire. The attendance limit was slashed to around 16,000. Then after crowd trouble during the November 1985 home game against Leeds Utd., the FA imposed an all-ticket ruling on the club. This had a drastic effect on Millwall’s gate. With no tickets being available on the day, Millwall saw an immediate 50% reduction in their home crowds. For their last three home games of 1985, only 3,000 - 4,000 fans could be bothered to turn up for the visits of Middlesborough, Huddersfield and Hull City. The crippling effect of reduced gate revenues was just the tip of the iceberg. At the end of the 1985-1986 season, Millwall published the club’s accounts showing a debt of around $3M. The club was thought by many to be on the brink of going under, until a three man consortium of Reg Burr, Jeff Burnige and Brian Mitchell stepped forward to relieve Alan Thorne of his duties.
After George Graham resigned to take the arsenal job, Millwall appointed John Docherty as manager. After a difficult first season (1986-87) the supporters witnessed one of the biggest close season spending sprees in the clubs history. Millwall spent over half a million pounds to complete the strengthening of a Millwall team that would emerge as Second Division Champions the following May. Crowds started to gradually come back to The Den during 1987-88 to support this “new” Millwall team. The first home game of the season against Barnsley attracted a mere 6,017 and it was not until our eleventh home game against Manchester City in December that the Lions managed to pull a crowd in excess of 10,000. As a play-off place seemed possible, Millwall continued to attract back older supporters who had sometime in the recent past given up on the Lions, together with a number of new supporters. By the time automatic promotion was a distinct possibility, gates were regularly up above 10,000, with the last six games averaging 11,976.
There was one other game worth mentioning that season, that had an uncanny connection with our past history. Our FACup Third round game against arsenal at Highbury attracted a huge crowd of over 42,000. Some reports after the game indicated that some 12,000 Millwall supporters were crammed in at the “clock end”, on terracing that was meant to hold around 8,000 supporters. I am not sure of the correct facts here, but I do remember being in the crowd that day with my brother, uncle and friends and feeling very concerned about our safety (as were many fans around me). I still have visions of people down the front of the terracing, jumping out onto the running track because they were getting squashed, only for the men in blue to throw them back in again. Sounds rather like Luton Town away, back in 1985. Earlier in this article I referenced a game against Woolwich Arsenal back in 1896-97, when some 20,000 were reported to have attended the FACup Fourth round game at our old East ferry Road ground (with a reported 15,000 capacity!). Safety was an issue in 1897 and surprise, surprise; it was still an issue in 1988! The short cuts that greedy clubs will take in order to make an extra penny...
In the First Division for the first time in our history, Millwall continued to show considerable improvements in attendance. Crowds of over 20,000 came to see Millwall play west ham, arsenal and Liverpool (twice, once in the FACup 4th rd). In a way this was pretty remarkable. True the Lions were playing top flight Football against the so called “Top Five” teams, but it had only been a few years from the time that the Lions had struggled to attract a crowd of more than 5,000. The final average crowd for this historic first year in Division one was 15,416, the third best average attendance during the past forty years.
The following season (a little like the morning after the Lord Mayors show) saw that higher level of support fall some, due mainly to poorer performances coupled with a little early season bad luck against Norwich (H), crystal palace (A) and Everton (A). Back in the Second Division again after relegation in 1990, Millwall managed to hold onto a reasonable amount of its expanded supporter base. The first home game of the 1990-91 season was against Barnsley, ironically the same opponents we played at home at the start of our last season in this Division. Whereas in 1987 (under Docherty) a crowd of 6,000 came out to see the Lions, Millwall started this new campaign (under Rioch) with a more healthy 10,114.
Much as been written about the early 1990’s, especially Millwall leaving The Den to move a short distance to Senegal Fields and the “New Den”. Due to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, the Taylor report published in January 1990 had some 76 recommendations aimed at improving spectator safety and ground facilities. By far, the most significant recommendation was that by 1994-95 all First and Second Division clubs must have all-seater stadia. Millwall decided that the only way forward was to build a new ground rather than try and renovate The Den. Millwall’s new ground was the first to be built as a result of the Taylor report. The first game at the “New Den” in August 1993 (as it was called) against Sporting Lisbon, attracted a reasonable size crowd who were probably more interested in seeing the new stadium than McCarrthy’s Lions. The ground itself is rather basic, yet offers good viewing and on days when Millwall can attract a big crowd, a great atmosphere. The new stadium capacity was set at just over 20,000 and was almost sold out for the FACup third round game against arsenal in January 1994, when 20,093 set a record attendance at the New Den.
After a couple of seasons under Mick McCarthy that promised more than they delivered, Millwall under the management of Jimmy Nichol, finished the 1995-96 season in the bottom three and relegated. It would be another five years before Millwall would regain their First Division status (the formation of the Premier League meant that the old Second Division to be renamed as the First Division). This five year period in Millwall’s history was not without drama. In January 1997, Millwall nearly went out of business. Trading of Millwall shares on the stock-market were suspended and administrators were called in to try and launch a rescue package. Eventually after what seemed like an eternity, a rescue plan was put in place and Theo Paphitis stepped up to become our new chairman.
It took a couple of seasons for Millwall to start to claw its way back. Relying on an excellent youth set up and a number of promising youngsters breaking through to the first team, Millwall finished a creditable tenth in 1998-99. That season was memorable for our appearance at Wembley in the final of the Auto windscreens Shield against Wigan Athletic. This was the first recognized “Major Final” that Millwall had qualified for and only the second occasion they got to play at Wembley (the first being the Football League South Cup in 1945). Millwall sold a remarkable 44,000 tickets for this game with fans traveling far and wide to see the Lions play on the hallowed Wembley turf, swelling the final attendance to 55,349. For many the result did not matter (actually a 0-1 defeat); it was just a long over due, great day out!
In 2000-01, Millwall under the guidance of Mark McGhee, with a team pretty much put together by his predecessors, took Millwall to the Division Two Championship and back to the second tier in the Football League. For the first time in a decade, Millwall recorded a season average attendance of over 10,000; the actual figure 11,442. Back in the second tier of the English game, Millwall’s young team continued to impress, eventually securing a play off place by finishing the season in fourth place. Towards the end of this season, Millwall were attracting crowds of around 17,000 to the New Den (now just called The Den), not only ensuring a tremendous atmosphere, but also proving that Millwall could regularly fill The Den to capacity should Premiership Football be attained. Unfortunately, Millwall lost in the playoffs to Birmingham City and what with the staged riot and a number of internal issues between the club chairman, manager and players, the following season was difficult in that it appeared that the club and chairman had rather lost the plot!
As a result of that “riot” on May 2nd, Millwall had to introduce a membership only rule at The Den. Like 1986, this placed restrictions on ticket purchases and generally made life difficult for the supporter. This also made it impossible for Millwall to attract the “floating” or “visiting” supporter that might only attend a few games each season, as they could not attend without a membership card. Certainly home crowds during 2002-03 were down considerably on the previous year, with the season average dropping some 4,500.
The following graphs (1&2) shows how Millwall’s home average attendances have varied over the past fifty or so years. The average attendance for our return to second tier football in 2001-02 of 13,253, was in fact the seventh best figure during the past forty years. In fact the graph clearly shows that during the past few years, Millwall have not only gained but held onto a much stronger average support compared to the dismal years in the late seventies, early eighties and late nineties. Since 1973, only one season, the first season in the “old” First Division (1988-89) recorded a higher average attendance than the season 2001-02. This shows without doubt that with the right manager and a team playing attractive, attacking football, Millwall can continue to increase their level of support and play in front of a practically full Den.
We all know that certain seasons throw up games or cup runs that will be forever remembered. Season 2003-04 was certainly up there in terms of excitement and the ultimate pleasure of seeing Millwall win through to a major cup final. The fact that it was the FA Cup final, against Manchester Utd., made it all the more amazing. That final saw a Millwall team watched by their second highest ever attendance of over 70,000, plus of course, millions of people worldwide.
More for completeness, the following table (4) captures some of the biggest crowds that Millwall have played to away from The Den, dating back to those historic cup semi-finals at the turn of the twentieth century up to our recent trips to Wembley. The majority of our highest crowds are associated with FA Cup ties. In fact there are only two occasions when the Lions have been watched by a crowd of more than 50,000 when playing a Football League fixture. At Tottenham in 1932-33 and Newcastle in 1946-47.
Record Breaking Crowds Watching Millwall Away From The Den
Finally, Millwall have had the pleasure of attracting record crowds to their opponents’ grounds on three occasions;
(1) Merthyr Town 1921 21,686 score 1-0
(2) Fulham Craven Cottage 1938 49,335 score 1-2
(3) Gillingham Priestfield Stadium 1950 20,126 score 3-4