Everybody knows us, we’re called Millwall
Driving around South Africa with a Millwall flag.
Even by our usual standards we’d arrived early. The Rustenburg match kicked off at 8.30 we expected traffic management to be a total disaster. We arrived so early that the security cordon was not yet operating. We arrived so early we had nine hours to kill before kick-off. A few minutes walk from the stadium is Lucky’s, the sort of rural shebeen that my brother’s friends in Joburg say you shouldn’t go near. But was was the nearest bar, and it might have been the only bar, so off we went.
Lucky is big and jovial, very happy to sell us some BIG bottles of Castle for 70p. He was even happier to see the flag rolled up under my arm. ‘Put it up outside’ he said, ‘then maybe some more English will come here.’ Fair enough, I thought, and we tied it up under a thatched roof structure in the front of the car park.
More England started drifting in, Lucky kept us supplied with free beers, everybody got a bit pissed. Quite a lot of people wanted a photograph standing next to the Millwall flag – most of them asked it it was OK and some of them bought us beers to. Along the bottom of my flag I’ve added the games that it has been to, from England games around the world to the big Millwall games at Old Trafford, Cardiff and Wembley. It gives it a powerful ju-ju.
Later on in the stadium I was talking with Brett, a friend of a friend of my brother’s. He’d lived in Mitcham for a couple of years and been to the Den a few times in the 2001-02 season. He reckoned that most of the Americans around us thought that Green Street was close to a documentary. A few minutes later he proved it. He was talking with a small bunch from New Jersey and introduced me to them. ‘This is Fester, he’s from London. He’s from Millwall.’ Whoosh, all gone. We tried it again and again just to make sure.
Some blokes from Delaware wanted to fight. Some more from California wanted to talk about the background to the film. They all seem to have watched it as part of their trip-planning.
The next day my brother was on his way back to the UK and I had his car for the long drive to Cape Town. I was to meet him five days later at the Waterfront and had plenty of time to drive the length of South Africa and get lost a few times on the way. Flag in the back window, and off I go.
My first stop in Krugersdorp involved conversations about the Boer War and the Voortrekkers that created the Orange Free State and much of central South Africa. Next day I headed for Norvals Pont, where it has been suggested I might find a bit of history. Eight hours later I arrived at the Glasgow Pont Hotel, and 1850’s built bar, trading post and hotel that had once been the only place to get a raft across the Orange River. It was also where the British built the first Concentration Camp during the Boer War, to detain the families of the guerillas that were attacking them.
Johhny Britz walked over before I’d got my bag out of the car. ‘Hey, English! You really a tough guy?’ He nodded his head at the flag I was taking out of the car. ‘You need some help with that?’ (No thanks) ‘These people don’t like you English much.’ (really?) ‘You’ll be OK though.’ (good) You in the bar later? (probably) You wanna know about this place (er… yes) I’m a tour guide sometimes (OK) I’ll see you later (er… OK).
He did come over to the bar later and he was quite right. One of the people staying at the hotel was just like the angry Scots you sometimes meet that make hating the English a way of life. He hated me for being English, he hated Johhny Britz for being the wrong colour, he hated the blokes that owned the hotel for being environmental liberals. He wasn’t a happy man.
I sat in the bar later with the environmental hippies and their wives, Johhny, a fat, happy woman called Corrine and talked Boer War, South African politics and English football. Louis the hippie hadn’t just seen Green Street but ‘Football Factory’ too. “Funny how its always your guys.’
The next morning was spent getting lost around the Gariep Dam and nature reserve and almost running out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, the a short drive to Beaufort West, which is as near to a wild west frontier town as you’re likely to find. The Oasis Hotel is a dump that was last decorated in 1962. It really was like stepping back into my childhood. It was bitterly cold, -10C later, with no central heating or fireplaces.
The only slightly warm room was the bar and as I walked in the other guest raised their glasses in chilly solidarity. One group was sitting with a Ghana flag across their shoulders trying to extract a little warmth from it.
‘Millwall’ said one of them. ‘Proper team, no nonsense. Saw your flag when you came in.’
Later we all got drunk on Castle and Amarula and watch a forgettable match on TV. The Ghana blokes knew more about lower league English football than I do, which might mean that there’s not much to do in downtown Accra.
Next day I headed into Cape Town. By late afternoon the hotels were all full so I ran down the coast to Hout Bay, a sort of Hampstead-on-sea for some of Cape Town’s very wealthy. I checked into a fabulous B&B overlooking the harbour as an antidote to the Oasis the night before.
In a fish restaurant overlooking the harbour a young bloke put a beer down for me and invited himself to sit down. He’d lived in the East End until last year and recognised the blue shirt. His punk band had some club nights coming up and he wanted to know if I thought the England support might turn up for night of punk/thrash. Half an hour later I realised he probably knows my daughter – he certainly knew quite a few of her friends. Small world again.
Next day in Cape Town I met up with David and I wandered off to the V&A Waterfront while he checked his email and got back to work. Outside Steers, South Africa’s version of Burger King, I got into conversation with three wine growers from Paarl. ‘That striker of yours. The one with the head bandage. He looks good.’ I thought he meant Stuart Pearce in Italy 20 years ago. ‘No, your boy.’ He pointed at my shirt. And suddenly I realised that they has seen Millwall on TV. He meant Steve Morison.
The play off semis and final were shown on TV. The semi at our place was voted the game of the week and was repeated several times. The wine growers kept on about the noise, the crowd and the commitment of the whole team. ‘Not like those poofs in the Premiership,’ as one of them put it.
The England match put a dampener on the rest of the day and the Waterfront was subdued when we got back there later. Someone saw my shirt and started a ‘Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’ in my direction but didn’t get close enough to speak with. David and I spent a couple of days doing not much and headed off towards Port Elizabeth. At an overnight in Knysna we split some beers with some Geordies who weren’t really looking forward to next season. One of them reckoned entertaining us and Leeds would be more fun than Liverpool and Arsenal, though apparently Stoke are still up for it.
Port Elizabeth is a bit crap. The city itself is ‘financially challenged’ and there aren’t enough hotel beds for a stadium-full of visitors. Summerstrand was full and even the backpackers hostels were charging £80 for a bedspace. Eventually we found rooms at a Conference Centre.
Next day was match day, so we did the Park and Walk thing and got to the stadium eight hours before kick-off. Again. We found a café in a garage and put the flag into an area that TV crews were using as a backdrop to their interviews. I hope the woman from Brazil didn’t catch a chill.
As usual, the flag attracted people, including some Leeds, a small crew from Portsmouth and Paul, the chairman of Cambridge United. Nice bloke, as it goes. Another mostly disappointing game and at full time the long drive back to Joburg; my flight was the following afternoon.
So what did I learn from the trip? I learnt that football-watching world have seen Green Street, and while appreciating that its a pile of poo they seem to think that our part is genuine enough. I learnt not to get pissed with people from Ghana unless you really want to feel like you’ve died and gone to hell. I learnt that Amarula might be made from elephant shit. I learnt that Millwall is respected as a proper football club, not just for our reputation.
And I learnt that wherever I go, people have heard of Millwall and despite what we sing, they seem to quite like us.
RIP Jes – a true friend to Millwall FC and everyone that knew him.