Millwall FC: Club Without Content
The other day, I went to see one of my adoptive teams, Middlebrough, play at my most recent adoptive team, Millwall. The game was decent, a 3-1 win to the visitors. What really struck me, however, was not the game itself, but rather the uncanny nature of Millwall FC as an entity. For a club constantly stigmatised by all those outside it– “a convenient coat peg for football to hang its social ills on,” in the words of a former chairman– Millwall are utterly lacking in identity. There is quite literally nothing to them. I mean this not in a perjorative sense; rather, like a coat peg, they are radically incomplete, empty of meaning, until outside forces provide one.
This starts with the name of the club itself. Millwall, as many of you will already know, is located in the Isle of Dogs, south of what is now Canary Wharf: a considerable distance, mentally and geographically, from the spot between Bermondsey and New Cross where the club that bears the name of ‘Millwall’ has been based for just over a hundred years. The sense of being exiles: not only from this relocation, but also in the sense of being an overwhelmingly white club in an overwhelmingly black area (although, happily, I did see a decent number of black guys in the crowd) surely feeds into their supporters’ not-entirely-erroneous reputation for evil. Their name is empty, then: while Arsenal’s relocation is remebered proudly in their crest, Millwall’s is barely commented upon, a deleted history, a silence at the heart of the club.
The famous rivalry with fellow East-Enders West Ham United also adds to this strange atmosphere around the club. A derby would normally give meaning to a club, establishing some kind of Saussurian difference at the heart of the team: ‘we are x because we are not y.” In the popularly-cited origin myth of the rivalry between these two teams, however, no such difference is possible. Two clubs of dockers, during the 1926 General Strike, Millwall-supporting scabs refused to walk out, to the outrage of the proud proletarians of West Ham. Or, West Ham-supporting scabs refused to walk out, to the outrage of the proud proletarians of Millwall. It depends who you talk to. The difference between these two rivals is nonexistent: they are each both scabs and strikers, good and bad, x and y at the same time. The derby brings Millwall FC no closer to possessing a true centre.
The club’s owners have not clarified affairs. Known until 1900 as ‘the Dockers’, the club’s nickname was changed by the board to ‘the Lions’. Ah, the Lions! That most unique of symbols. The fact that both England and Scotland have been defining themselves unsuccessfully as Lion nations for centuries is indication enough that the animal is an utterly empty symbol, a universal signifier of very little. Only recently has the club introduced ways of reaccomodating its supporters’ stevedore heritage, with a stand at the Den being renamed ‘the Dockers”. The team crest, similarly, has been switched so often in recent years that supporters, such as the bloke on the left in the above photo, have generally opted for both designs.
His t-shirt would seem to present a veritable smörgåsbord of empty icons: the badges, the name, even the colour has changed frequently in recent years. Perhaps this is what makes Millwall FC such a frightening prospect for football authorities: a club proud to be nothing, to have no twee founding myth, to be utterly debauched for no reason. No ground is as anonymous as the Den, and yet is that not a kind of identity? Could we say that being a club without content the most authentic content there is?