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What the Papers Say

22 April 2013

The club's community programme is a force for good in a deprived area

Writing in the Independent on Sunday, Michael Calvin has produced the following considered piece:

The Last Word: Millwall fans fight – to change the club's image through charity work 
The club's community programme is a force for good in a deprived area

Food parcels containing such necessities as bread, pasta, sugar and soup were collected for a local charity. Ambassadors visited schools to remind children of the perils of drug abuse and the evils of knife crime. Young offenders were trained as coaches, so they could acquire a skill and a purpose.

The initiatives were beyond a cash-strapped local authority and too low-key to merit the photo-opportunity national politicians crave. The identity of the institution which sustained such a focus on the common good in daunting circumstances will doubtlessly surprise you.

Here's a clue: their supporters are portrayed as cocaine-snorting, drink-sodden scum. They are associated with wanton violence, reflexive racism and anti-social behaviour. Yet Millwall Football Club tried hard last week to continue business as usual.

Players, staff and fans have, for the past year, been contributing to a food bank in Peckham which distributes to local families enmeshed in the poverty trap. Donations were ferried from a bus in the car park at The Den after Tuesday's home win over Watford, as they are after every home game.

The club's community programme is acknowledged as a force for good in an area of London where deprivation and gentrification exist streets apart. The complexity of the outreach work done, in a borough where 31 per cent of pupils qualify for free school meals, is summed up by the junior school closest to the Den. No fewer than 46 languages or dialects are spoken there.

I expect to be accused of attempting to defend the indefensible, but I am no apologist for the bunch of invertebrates who fought among themselves before turning on the police at Wembley last weekend. They have already cost the club one major sponsorship deal, and compromised a Community Day planned around next Tuesday's home game against Blackburn.

It would have been simpler to surrender to the stereotypes, and wait for the storm to pass. But when good people are on the verge of tears as they attempt to express their frustration, concerns about being perceived to be too close to the story are an unwarranted indulgence.

Blindly apportioning blame is easy. Defining football's relationship with uncomfortable cultural, political and economic issues is disturbingly difficult. Solutions will require a degree of realism about social alienation and the fractured nature of modern Britain.

Millwall, a club I have got to know intimately over the past four years, are prisoners of their past, but could do more to challenge their outlaw mentality. Their supporters don't match the happy-smiley Premier League demographic. They are ageing, demanding and unashamedly working-class. Their football isn't mere content to be consumed. Their club are not a brand to be butchered and bartered.

The club are a lightning conductor. If nothing else, the so-called Millwall "riot" exposed the inability of the modern Wembley to cope with combustible occasions. If the mistakes of that FA Cup semi-final are repeated in forthcoming England internationals against Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, the spectre of the Eighties will be invoked. Policing was palsied, and lacked sufficient support from stewards trained by the Security Industry Authority, who form snatch squads at such clubs as Millwall.

The Football Association immediately sacrificed any semblance of moral authority with their patronising disregard for the interests of fans attending the FA Cup final. Their business plan obliges them to be glorified booking agents for Wembley and cheerleaders for the drinks industry. Their grovelling to the TV schedulers does not make them unique in sport, but for David Bernstein, the FA chairman, to speak of supporters as "the lifeblood of the game" is blatant hypocrisy.

The FA's outstanding debt of £289 million on the ill-conceived national stadium will not be repaid until 2023 at the earliest. True fans are fated to be caricature consumers, TV extras whose only value lies in the provision of match-day income and atmosphere. No one likes them – and we should care.

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