Goal that means even more to Millwall than Wembley
By Jack Pitt-Brooke
Even with Millwall competing for the right to play at Wembley, there will be more important matters in mind at The Den on Sunday. Crucial parts of Lewisham Hospital are at risk of closure and the club, taking its responsibilities to the local community very seriously, are joining the fight.
So Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final against Blackburn Rovers is even more than that; it is a day dedicated to Millwall's wholehearted support for the "Save Lewisham Hospital" campaign. The players will warm up in "Save Lewisham Hospital" T-shirts, like they have done before this season.
Just before kick-off rapper Question Musiq, a Millwall fan who was born in the hospital and later had his life saved there, will take to the pitch. He will perform his song "Save Lewisham A&E" along with the Lewisham NHS Healthcare Trust Choir, with all the proceeds from the song's sale going to the campaign's legal challenge.
The story of Millwall and Lewisham Hospital is one of a club fully realising its duties to its local area. Football is meant to be about community and clubs have vital social roles, which mean obligations to publicise and contest issues that matter. This is a duty Millwall take very seriously.
"Millwall could not have been more helpful", Jos Bell, spokesperson for "Save Lewisham Hospital" told The Independent. "The club has completely put itself behind the campaign, which is wonderful."
The support dates back before this weekend. It has always been the team's local hospital that they use and the players have traditionally visited it before Christmas. One club official described their active support as a "no-brainer" – "this is our hospital, for our fans and our families".
The campaign has been regularly leafleting at home games and members of Millwall staff attended the famous Mountfield Park rally on 26 January which 25,000 people attended. Millwall's mascot, Zampa the Lion, was there as was their blue bus. For the home game against Burnley, one week before, players warming up wore "Save Lewisham A&E" T-shirts.
There will be club representation again at the next event, "Born in Lewisham", a human chain being formed around Lewisham Hospital's under-threat maternity unit next Saturday afternoon, with Millwall playing at Charlton Athletic at lunch-time, enabling the fans to attend.
Question Musiq owes everything to the hospital. "When I was 13, Lewisham Hospital miraculously saved my life," the rapper said. "My appendix burst, I was rushed to hospital immediately and operated on. I had only had 25 minutes left to live, that would have been it."
So Question, working with record producer Charles Bailey, wrote a song about the hospital and got in touch with the campaign.
It means just as much to the players too. John Marquis is from the same corner of south-east London. "I was born at Lewisham Hospital, my sister was born there, I've been there a couple of times with bumps and bruises," Marquis said. "I broke my wrist in a training ground game and I went there too. But that it's come to this – it's a bit sad."
Sunday afternoon could raise spirits in a more traditional sporting sense as well. Despite the thrill of a Cup quarter-final, recent months at The Den have been fairly dispiriting. Millwall were as high as fifth in the Championship in late November but results have turned drastically, with top scorers Chris Wood and Darius Henderson departing for Leicester City and Nottingham Forest respectively in January. Millwall, now devoid of firepower, have won three of their last 16 in the Championship and have lost seven of the last eight.
"I have been disappointed with the recent run of form in league and falling way down the table," manager Kenny Jackett admitted. "It's a horrible run of form we've been in. There were two good performances at Middlesbrough and Leeds, but our last two at home, Peterborough and then Wolves on Tuesday – were really below par. We have to identify where we're going wrong because this is a one-off game and big chance."
That one-off nature, a rare shot at a Wembley ticket, at home against another Championship side, is why Jackett hopes his players will forget their recent woes on Sunday: "This is a different competition, big chance and an opportunity on a one-off, we have got to attack it and enjoy it."
Jackett conceded that he is not sure of his best team, and that there is a "temptation" to make changes to the team on Sunday, after Tuesday's dismal home defeat to struggling Wolverhampton Wanderers. Striker Rob Hulse will undergo a late fitness test, but Benik Afobe and James Henry are injured.
They are some way away from Blackburn's well-stocked side. "Their squad is packed with big names and quality," Jackett recognised, "and players with experience of playing in upper echelons of the league. Their set of problems is very different from ourselves."
This mixed season for Millwall could end on a high. Jackett understands his club's local duty, and hopes the campaign and the Cup will deliver a perfect Sunday afternoon atmosphere. "We work hard at trying to back local community and all of us sticking together," Jackett said. "This is something that we do. Our physio Bobby Bacic believes in it, our medical team have been at the forefront of it, and we back them up."
"It's a great opportunity, we've got to take it. There will be a great atmosphere there, the supporters will take the roof off."