No one likes them, they don’t care. That’s the message Millwall fans like to parade, a nod to the fact that – thanks to historic associations with hooliganism, racism and the far right – theirs is the football club with perhaps the worst reputation in the country. A siege mentality has long since descended on Bermondsey, their patch of south London. Fans wear the “Nobody likes us, we don’t care” slogan on T-shirts, badges and scarves. They even dress their kids in bobble hats that proudly proclaim it.
Harry Lawson’s art film Millwall on the Screen, currently showing at Chemist Gallery in Lewisham, utilises three screens to tell a more nuanced story of the community around the club. Each one flickers on and off with lingering shots of modern-day fans, anecdotes about the local area and old footage debating Millwall’s “image problem”. The multiple screens give the viewer the feeling of heading to a game, where ticket queues, police horses and noisy fans all vie for your attention. It also keeps you on your toes.
Millwall has long been a byword for everything ugly within the beautiful game. In the 1960s, a hand-grenade was lobbed on to the field (not a live one, it turned out). But is the reputation a fair reflection of the club and those who build their lives around it? Lawson’s film doesn’t disguise the fact that Millwall has had its problems. Old footage of confrontations with police or lairy fans pop up from time to time, as well as clips from the notorious 1977 Panorama documentary that helped cement the club’s pariah status.
But Lawson juxtaposes this with fresher stories. We hear from a pair of female artists who moved into a studio near the ground and have become “unexpected Millwall fans”. A lesbian couple who had their wedding reception at the ground talk about starting up a food bank, called the Lions Food Hub, through the club – and a mum teetering on the financial brink describes the sense of relief she feels knowing she can get a meal there.
One young supporter, Mohammed, talks about feeling a sense of togetherness when he’s at the game, one that perhaps he doesn’t experience in his local area when the football isn’t on. Gentrification has come to Bermondsey, but more slowly than in other areas of London – and one fan talks about how the club has helped make the changes less jarring: “There’s more of a collective spirit between individuals and businesses here.” Even if the community separate off into their own shops, cafes and pubs during the week, that all changes on match day.
Few people approach Millwall - or indeed a documentary about Millwall - without preconceptions. I know I did and Lawson plays with this. The film focuses heavily on the diversity of the fanbase: black fans, female stewards and the Millwall Romans – an LGBTQI+ team associated with the club. But clips on the various screens also pop up with footage of St George flags, shaven heads and intricate tattoos: one guy has the stadium’s intimidating Cold Blow Lane stand emblazoned on his back. The viewer is asked to consider their own prejudices. The guy with the back tattoo turns out to be a new father whose boy, at three weeks old, became possibly the youngest ever season ticket holder.
Changing the narrative around the club is laudable, although it would have been nice to see how this new generation of fans responded to moments such as the club’s first game back after the Covid lockdown, when a section of fans booed players for taking the knee in support of racial justice. Things may have changed but diversity and inclusion is still a work in progress at the Den.
Choosing your football club is rarely a choice, though. More often it’s something handed down from previous generations – as the three-week-old season ticket holder will one day grow to realise. The worst elements of a club don’t represent the vast majority. At one point we meet an elderly steward who has worked on the same turnstile for so long he considers those who sit in his block “more mates than fans … when they’ve come through the turnstiles for 12, 13 years, you know where they come from, all their problems.”
Towards the end of the film, he says: “They sing, ‘No one likes us, we don’t care.’ But they do care really. It’s a fallacy.” It might not catch on with the local tattooists, but maybe the truth Lawson uncovers is more along the lines of: nobody likes us – perhaps they should.
• Millwall on the Screen is showing at Chemist, London, until 3 December