Saturday, 26 January 2013

Millwall 2 Aston Villa 1

Typically on a Friday evening, you might like to meet up with a few good friends, find a nice cosy pub with a roaring fireplace, comfortable armchairs and a few nice ales on tap, and chat and laugh in the weekend.

Failing that, you might round up a few people and go to the cinema or something. Or, if the weather’s crap or it’s been an especially tough week, you will at least crack open a cool lager and mark the end of the working week by watching some TV or by listening to some good music. 

Alternatively, if you’ve got some pent-up rage to vent, you might go to an illegal cock-fight, punk rock concert or have a night down at The Den watching Millwall. Yeah, this was one of THOSE Fridays. 

Ten minutes after half-time, shortly after we’d returned to our seats, play suddenly stopped. The linesman Mark Scholes gave a foul against Millwall, a straightforward, correct decision that would have no impact on the match’s outcome whatsoever.

He would regret it. A bottle of beer was flung from the upper tier of the Dockers Stand over to our right, spouting its frothy liquid contents over the those below like a garden sprinkler and whistling past his ear before crashing onto the field. 

Scholes jumped in shock and turned around to look at a bank of hate-filled faces, spouting unrepeatables. A bombardment of bottles were heading in his direction, each intended to maim. At the very least, he’d stink of cheap lager. 

His futile gesticulations and complaints were drowned out by another crescendo of that tinnitus-inducing drone of intimidation that echoes around the ground about once every five minutes. 

Scholes would have felt pretty damn insignificant at that moment - like a baby mouse lost in a Doc Martens testing lab. It took a good five minutes for the assistant, armed only with his flag for protection, to return to his station, behind him a reluctant human shield of stewards and coppers. 

This wasn’t The Den at maximum hatred - in fact, it was probably only about a six or seven on the scale - but if you came down expecting the quaint romance of the Cup, it wasn’t your night. 

This was as spontaneous as it gets. Normally, my football trips are planned with a precision seldom found outside of Switzerland - train timetables are scrutinised, maps are printed off, Tube closures are scrupulously checked, weather reports are scanned for the merest hint of a cancellation. 

On Friday, it went like this. My boss remembered his wife was going out and, not wanting to be stuck at home watching Graham Norton and Celebrity Big Brother, proposed to the desk that we should all go to Millwall’s match with Aston Villa. There wasn’t an overly enthusiastic response. Colleagues hid behind their monitors and scrambled for excuses. 

Me and Rik were the only ones to volunteer to keep Mike company and then, in a very mental show of commitment, Mr BUFC, Craig Singleton, also a Villa fan, decided to come down from a snowy Lincolnshire to watch it with us. 

I must admit there were a few nervous looks and apprehensive comments as we hot-footed it down platform 15 at London Bridge trying to find a carriage on the train to South Bermondsey that wasn’t a Millwall mosh pit. That bloody drone reverberated through the station like a chilling echo. 

We bought tickets in the lower tier of the Cold Blow Lane Stand (an apt name) and joined 15,000 others in a large and highly-charged crowd. Outbreaks of singing would arise from all corners of the stadium as groups of blokes - invariably in Stone Island and flat caps, swaying from side to side - would raise their arms and bellow something or other, depositing volleys of phlegm over the row in front. 

We all feared for Paul Lambert’s young Villa side, forced to enter the Lion’s Den three nights after being humiliated by League Two Bradford in the other Cup competition. The once mighty side have fallen far and, looking at some of the awkward-looking rookies out there, you’d be mistaken in thinking they’d accidentally put out the second string. 

To their credit, they weren’t cowed by the hot reception and took the lead midway through a first-half that never lived up to expectations. Andreas Weimann saw his shot saved by David Forde but there was Darren Bent on the follow-up, somehow bundling the ball home in the clumsy manner that inexplicably impressed a succession of England managers.

The Championship side, who were infinitely more fired up than when I last saw them, came straight back and equalised by exposing Villa’s main frailty - the set piece. A corner was whipped in by James Henry and at the back stick was Danny Shittu, a man of such bulk it’s miraculous he can jump at all, to head home the equaliser. 

The second half was a non-event, the beer bottle hail aside, with few chances for either protagonist. Craig was treated to a glimpse of former Pilgrim Dany N’Guessan, who came on for Andy Keogh. He looked as uncoordinated as ever. 

But just as a most unattractive of replays looked inevitable, Millwall produced a winning moment that blew the roof off. Adam Smith crossed and John Marquis smacked a header against the crossbar before reading the rebound expertly and tucking away an 89th-minute decider. 

I can only imagine the celebrations. We didn’t see the goal, just heard it from the car park outside. We’d sneaked out a few moments earlier in what seemed a wise move. At least Craig was spared the torture of seeing it. At least we beat the rush and avoided the most ear-splitting hate drone of the evening. For a Friday night with a difference though, you can’t fault it...

Next Match: Putting Gainsborough in their place on Saturday.