Those who might have believed that switching the match – and an FA Cup match, of things – to a Friday night were, as things turned out, proved wrong. A crowd of 15,000 turned out at The New Den last night to see Millwall knock Aston Villa out of the FA Cup, a result which can hardly even be considered a major shock when we consider Villa’s dismal recent decent into some sort of mournful form in all competitions over the last few weeks. Indeed, if anything the biggest surprise of the evening might have been that it took Millwall until the eighty-ninth minute to score their winning goal, a header from John Marquis which seemed to demonstrate, yet again, that Aston Villa’s training sessions on defending set pieces most likely consist of getting colouring books out or, perhaps more likely even than this, nap time.
The Decline And Fall Of Aston Villa has been well documented over the course the last few weeks, of course, not least on these pages, where to write about them since the start of December has felt like having to write an obituary for somebody that hasn’t quite died yet. It doesn’t feel as if there is much more to say on the subjects of Paul Lambert, Randy Lerner, or the debasement of one of English football’s great institutions that hasn’t been said either here or elsewhere. Millwall Football Club, on the other hand, is a club that frequently seems to slip under the radar of the media in this country unless something happens which props up the hoary old stereotype of the club that has felt so familiar for so many years. There was something of that stereotype present at The New Den last night – a couple of brief showers of bottles apparently aimed at linesman Mark Scholes, which led to three arrests – but Millwall FC has been in the news for other reasons over the last couple of weeks, and it has been over a story which paints a very different picture of the club to the one that is frequently portrayed elsewhere in the media.
It has been suggested that 2013 will be the year in which anger levels at the extent of cuts in public services will start to significantly rise. One of the many parts of the country that will be affected by these cuts will be Millwall’s home patch of Lewisham, where the decision has been taken to close the Accident & Emergency and Maternity units at Lewisham Hospital. The current plans would see more than half of the site of the hospital being sold off, including not only the aforementioned but also the hospital’s children’s wards as well as a range of elderly care departments. If the plan goes through, it would would leave just one Accident & Emergency department serving three quarters of a million people in this part of South-East London. Anger has been particularly focused in this case because the closure of sections of Lewisham Hospital aren’t even as a result of this hospital having been badly run, but because of problems at a neighbouring healthcare trust, the South London Healthcare Trust, which has led some to opine that these cuts are being made for ideological rather than practical or financial reasons.
In a statement on its official website, the club has stated that, “Millwall Football Club, our players, staff and many thousands of fans have, over the years, had reason to be grateful for the resources, facilities and care we have received from our local hospital,” and the Millwall team warmed up for last weekend’s home match against Burnley wearing t-shirts with the slogan “Save Lewisham A&E” printed on them and, furthermore, the club also brought forward their FA Cup match against Aston Villa to the Friday night in order to not clash with the demonstration, gave permission for hospital staff and supporters to hand out leaflets at the match and also urging the club’s supporter to turn out at today’s demonstration, to which a good number of the club’s staff will be attending.Players have also attended the hospital themselves.
When we talk of football clubs being involved in their communities, out thoughts may naturally turn to youth teams being run and other football-related ephemera which, while they are obviously welcome work for a football club to carry out, fall within the comfort zone of neutrality for a club. The decision taken by Millwall FC to back this campaign and to throw itself into it so whole-heartedly is one which carried an element of gamble for the club, but this was not a political decision, rather it was one that was taken because these cuts are happening to their people, their supporters and their community. The “easy” option would have been to stand back and say, “Well, you know, we have to be seen to be being neutral on such matters,” but the club decided that this matters enough to offer the publicity that it can offer, and is surely to be commended for this.
With eighteen games of the season left and with the team in ninth place in the table, Millwall could yet make a surprise appearance in the Premier League next season, and beating a Premier League club in the FA Cup is a scalp which demonstrates the progress that manager Kenny Jackett has been making with his team over the last few months. Without outsiders walking in and pumping in millions of pounds – as has happened at several clubs in the Championship of late – Millwall face an uphill battle if they are to return to the top flight for the first time since 1990. These matters, however, are just one measure of the success of a football club. Millwall FC has demonstrated over the last couple of weeks that it is prepared to make a stand on behalf of its local community, and that it will speak out on principle when it could easily shy away from such a task. And that, we might propose, is a victory for the supporters of the club which matches what the players achieved on the pitch at The New Den last night.
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