They wait and watch. That’s what they do. About three hundred or so of them on either side of you. The older ones seem to be to the right of you, with the younger ones on the left. Watching football in the away end at Millwall is a strange, surreal experience. It starts at South Bermondsey railway station, where you’re funneled away from the home supporters and down a long walkway with metal fencing on each side. Once inside the ground, we walked through and into the bottom tier of the stand, where there were already no seats available. We might have been expecting stewards to rush over and berate us for standing in a gangway, but none came. We were still there an hour and three quarters later.
Then, of course, there was the staring. It’s part unsettling and part amusing, the knowledge that there are a good number of people not even watching the match and are watching you instead. They can’t, you rationalise, get anywhere near you (the four stands at The Den are completely separate structures with no way of getting between any two and for this match the lower tier of the two sides of the ground were closed) and they won’t see you immediately outside the ground, but they may catch up with you at some point and the fact that there are so many junctions at which they could meet up away from the ground throws the propensity for trouble away from the ground into sharp focus. You can see how it could or might happen, but last night it didn’t.
For all the spiky metal that surrounds it, though, The Den itself is a perfectly good facility and, considering that it is now approaching twenty years old, it has worn its age better than many of the other first rash of new grounds that started to spring up at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s. Wimbledon had some cause to be worried by this fixture. For all that has happened over the last twelve months they were outplayed by a Wycombe Wanderers team that was inferior to this Millwall team at the same stage of the FA Cup last season. A win may have been too much to expect, a creditable performance probably not.
They got one. A tight first half saw Millwall dominate possession for long periods without being able to turn this into anything tangible in front of goal, and Wimbledon broke effectively and fluidly when they did get possession of the ball. Indeed the only clear cut chance of the first forty-five minutes fell to the visitors shortly before half-time, when a smart ball in from the right hand side found DannyKedwell unmarked and twelve yards out, but his shot rolled just wide and the chance was gone. Had he converted it, the second half might have been a very different proposition – even so, half-time came with the scores level and not a great deal to choose between the two sides.
Three minutes into the second half, Millwall struck. Neil Harris, who seems to have been at Millwall since the dawn of time (even though he spent a couple of seasons failing to completely fit in), found the corner with the sort of clinical finishing that turned out to be the main difference between the two sides. The second half soon became an even contest in a similar vein to the first, with both sides jabbing at each other. Wimbledon goalkeeper James Pullen made two outstanding saves at one end while, at the other, Elliott Godfrey poked the ball wide from a good position while Paul Lorraine headed narrowly over.
When Jason Price swept in a second goal for Millwall with just under twenty minutes to play it should have finished the game as a contest, but Wimbledon came back and, with nine minutes to play, Danny Kedwell’s smart backheel teed up Lewis Taylor to roll the ball in. For a short while, it looked as if the comeback could be on as Wimbledon threw themselves forward in search of an equaliser, but this left them exposed defensively and five minutes later Danny Schofield curled the ball into the top corner from twenty yards out to reinstate the two goal advantage. In the closing minutes, Price added a fourth goal to finish the contest.
Unlike last season, Wimbledon weren’t outplayed by their Football League opposition this time around and the final margin of Millwall’s win was certainly somewhat flattering. Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was in the finishing. When the professionals of Millwall had their chances, they took them. When the part-timers of Wimbledon had theirs, they didn’t. This, however, only tells part of the story of last night. We got a train back to London Victoria that was pleasingly incident-free. A travelling support of almost 3,500 had come to The Den and it is unlikely that Millwall will see a bigger, louder away support all season, yet the match passed off without incident. They watched and they waited but last night that was all that they did, and their hospitality was welcome. Next time they meet, it might just come as equals.