It’s barely three minutes into an evening midweek Championship clash at the Den, the southeast London home of Millwall Football Club. The Lions are facing mid-table side Blackburn, and left back Joe Bryan whips a looping free kick towards the penalty area. After a brief back and forth with some head tennis, the ball drops neatly onto the forehead of Wes Harding, and the Millwall centre back nods it below Blackburn’s sprawling goalkeeper and into the net. As it crosses the line, the roughly 15,000 home fans jump to their feet and collectively break into chorus: “No one likes us, we don’t care/We are Millwall, super Millwall/We are Millwall from the Den.”
The chant is one of the stadium’s most popular – a subversive wink to the fanbase’s reputation. A legacy of the peak of English football’s hooliganism era, Millwall has long been a club associated with the most violent aspects of the sport’s fandom and culture. Across the 70s and 80s, fighting among club ‘firms’ became synonymous with English football, and that image was particularly exacerbated by its portrayal from sections of the media. Millwall, led particularly by its F-Troop firm, became infamous for violence, with a BBC Panorama episode from 1977 that portrayed hooliganism as endemic in the club helping to cement its image to the British public.
“The ungenerous view would be they’ve got a chip on their shoulder,” says Harry Lawson, the creator of new film Millwall on the Screen. “The more generous view would be that they think the folklore around Millwall is funny and they tap into it.”
Currently being shown on loop at the Chemist Gallery in Lewisham, southeast London, Millwall on the Screen is a 52-minute-long part-documentary, part experimental art film exploring the wider community of Millwall at the heart of London’s historically working-class, dockland area.
From the lesbian couple who manage Millwall’s community food bank, to its passionate stewards, families, and LGBTQ+ team Millwall Romans – the film is a window into the diversity of the club’s fanbase in 2023, showcasing a different side to the club than what is usually captured in the popular imagination. A short, silent version (below) is played on the big screen in the northeast corner of the stadium at half time.
“Millwall [fans] weren’t more aggressive or [fought] in greater numbers than clubs like Manchester United, who now have a more sanitised global image,” Lawson explains of why the club has retained its reputation. ”Walking around the Den, it’s not graphic designed up to the eyeballs. Millwall don’t necessarily have the budget for these considerations, and never playing Premier League football, they’ve never had the TV necessity to clean that up per se.”
Yet that image of violence and thuggery belies much of the heartwarming acts of community and mutual support found around the club. For the film, Lawson spent a considerable amount of time in the Millwall Community Trust – a building next to the stadium that houses a food bank funded by Millwall FC. Within a cost of living crisis that is biting particularly hard in Bermondsey, as rapidly rising rents and gentrification is creating incredibly tough situations for those on low incomes – the food bank provides food relief, as well as a place for people to catch up with their friends over a cup of tea. Heading up the operation are Ellen and Kelly, a proudly lesbian couple who got married in the director’s box of the Den.
“Their commitment to the food bank is an amazing thing to witness,” he says. “Homophobia is a problem in football grounds, and Millwall is one of those clubs that have this reputation, and they are an openly lesbian couple wearing Millwall tracksuits. They wouldn’t think of it in such grandiose terms but in my mind they are rewriting what you’re allowed to look like as a Millwall fan.”
The film is the culmination of nearly two years of work, and an insight to the deep meaning that football holds to its fans, beyond the 90 minutes on the pitch. “One of my rules going into the shoot was that there wouldn’t be a football in the film – like a spherical football,” Lawson explains of his process. “So for a long time I didn’t shoot any gameplay. There are three or four instances where you see someone whack the ball and then it cuts back to the fans, but the fans are the action – it’s about people watching football.”
One scene in the film focuses on a pair of six-year-old twins, both donning grey flat caps and puffer jackets as they cheer on the boys in blue. Their outfits are reminiscent of the hooligans of decades past, but the boys aren’t looking for a fight. “There’s an interesting thing that happens with the matchday uniform people adopt,” Lawson says. “So when you see a group of Millwall fans on the train, they do dress in a way that mimics a lot of the hooligan image, so they’ll be wearing a flat cap, Stone Island jacket, a particular model of Adidas trainers.
“But for a lot of these boys, it’s the last thing that remains – they’re not meeting up at a pub on a Friday to discuss where they’re going to be fighting, all they’re doing is wearing the uniform of a hooligan,” he continues. “So the two twin boys, that type of image is the strongest for a project like this because it speaks to all these cultural remnants – whether that’s hooliganism or this dockers’ aesthetic – but then diffuses it by being these angelic boys. And that’s what the project’s trying to do.”