On a night when yet another racism storm came a-brewing, this time in Paris involving alleged racist comments from of all people, a fourth official, English second-tier club Millwall breathed a huge sigh of relief.
On Saturday during their home Championship meeting with Wayne Rooney’s Derby County, fans booed the players as they took the knee in football’s continued protest against racism.
The past weekend was supposed to be a good news story with fans being allowed into league grounds across England for the first time in nine long months and The Den, Millwall’s stadium was one of 35 arenas permitted attendances of 2,000.
But it all turned sour as both sets of players staged the now customary protest prior to kick-off.
The event attracted widespread, negative reporting across British media and beyond, unhelpful for a club that tends to have to work harder than most to retain a positive image.
The Millwall club fell silent in the immediate aftermath, then a day later issued a statement detailing how ‘dismayed and saddened’ they were by the turn of events.
The concern then shifted to this evening, when again they were at home, this time against Queen’s Park Rangers. Another opportunity for the boo-boys beckoned.
But in a letter handed tonight to fans in attendance, Millwall FC stated somewhat bizarrely: “The eyes of the world are on this football club tonight - your club - and they want us to fail.
“Together as one, we will not let that happen.”
It seemed a strange way to address the issue, but the apparent siege mentality worked.
Before the kick-off, players from both clubs stood arm-in-arm behind a banner with the same ‘Inequality. United for change’ message displayed on the big screen at the stadium.
They were loudly clapped and cheered and it continued as some, mainly QPR players, chose to take the knee.
Millwall breathed a sigh of relief.
The decision to hold up the banner came after a meeting on Monday between both clubs, Kick It Out, Show Racism The Red Card, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the Football Association and the English Football League (EFL).
Many consider the Millwall crowd a belligerent lot. In fact that might be understating things, but they’ve carried a reputation for many years, coming from a less salubrious part of London, where life was hard. The origins of the club are indelibly linked with the dock-workers from the Isle of Dogs, and although the club has not played there since 1910, the connection is concretely maintained.
Societal, physical and psychological strands merged with the increase in English football hooliganism during the 60’s and 70’s, and to an extent, Millwall fans played on their link to the tough dockland, working environment. After all, they had West Ham with their Inter-City Firm and Chelsea’s Headhunters to contend with, and Millwall’s honour had to be defended.
To understand last Saturday’s booing of the kneeling players of Millwall and Derby County football clubs is to understand the background of those who watch league football in this south-east corner of London.
Millwall are not averse to having black players at all. In fact in five of the last ten seasons, their club player of the year was a black player. They have black players in the team currently and one, defender Mahlon Romeo, who said Saturday’s booing had “personally disrespected” and “offended” him, this evening led the team out in front of captain Alex Pearce.
After tonight’s match Romeo was applauded off the pitch as he held his shirt aloft. Millwall’s regular shirt sponsor had been replaced with the logo of anti-discrimination body Kick It Out.
Intentional racism was not necessarily behind the fans weekend booing session. And indeed some, such as former Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan (generally not someone endeared to Millwall’s support base) have supported the fans’ right to protest at the Black Lives Matter kneeling gesture.
Perhaps it depends how you position your stance on the initiative. Some see BLM as a brand and a form of political activism. Others see it as the players intended - an apolitical player-protest against racism in football and in society in general.
Many Millwall fans last Saturday clearly considered it the former and weren’t ‘over the moon’ about their home stadium being seen as a stage for promoting an issue they deem political. It may be simplistic, unthought-out posturing, but a viewpoint nonetheless.
Of the kneeling protest, Jordan speaking to Talksport today questions if people only think of anti-discrimination, inclusion and diversity, or for some is it a matter of seeing a political movement prone to the burning of flags and defacing of statues in England’s capital city and other towns.
He went on to explain other reasons why Millwall fans are not happy at supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
“You have got to remember that this is a club that I know very well. I grew up around the corner and we were big rivals. Don’t get me wrong, their fans are some of the most divisive sods I’ve ever come across, they gave me barrel loads of abuse.
“Their owner is a close friend of mine and is an immigrant himself, he knows the dynamic of the club and he does not believe that this fan base or this club is steeped in racism.
“Every club has an element of racist imbeciles in it. You have to have been very unlucky to have attracted the entire section of Millwall fans who attended that game being racist
“This is a push-back to some extent about people’s perception to what BLM represents and what football should have done better is translate the message more clearly so we do not have the ambiguity.
“You don’t know, I don’t know and neither does anybody who jumped on the bandwagon and instantly went [claimed] racism!”
Perhaps the events of Saturday, caused everyone to simply take a step back and think.
If it did, and this evening’s much-changed reception at the Den is a significant sign of greater understanding, then the pain felt by black players and the sadness and dismay expressed by the hard-working people of Millwall Football Club, after the weekend visit of Derby County, may all have been worth it.
Only time will tell.