The Den, Bermondsey, London, 3 March 1979
Having witnessed by firat Sunderland AFC game in October 1971, a 2 v 2 draw with Luton Town, my first away game with The Lads was towards the end of 1976 and a trip to Middlesbrough. Undoubtedly though in all of the years following the club the most eventful away game ever was at Millwall in 1979. The tale of that day lives forever. There is a bit of scene setting required before we tell that story.
In 1974 SAFC had gone to The Den on the first game of the 1974/75 season, a one in which Manchester United played Sunderland in two never to be forgotten games, the first of which was watched by 60k and would be voted Match Of The Season by MOTD viewers. Sunderland would end an agonising 4rth, missing out on promotion by just 2 points, from Norwich City in third place.
Millwall was a place that although tarnished with crowd trouble through the years, hadnt really been on anyone’s radar and so the Roker faithful travelled down, bedecked in the red and white to hopefully witness a win for The Black Cats. That we duly did, 4 v 1, wasnt really the talking point from the trip; what has subsequently been retold over and over again was the off the field incidents that left Sunderland fans nursing wounds, inflicted by the Millwall fans. One of my mates (who are mostly older than me) went down, dressed like a “Xmas Tree” and subsequently left at half time…it was that bad.
Around about 1978 Millwall had been the focus of a Panorama programme where their notoriety was the focus for attention – The Halfway Liners, Treatment and F Troop were the main groups. You progressed from one to the other with F Troop (led by the now deceased but infamous Harry the Dog) being the bees knees.
This away game at Millwall in 1979 ended a hectic period for Sunderland fans, crowd trouble wise. This was a third consecutive league away game, with the others in this series being West Ham United (a story for another day) and a 4 v 1 win at Newcastle United, where the now infamous Battle Of Bath Lane took place.
The late 70’s socially and politically was a bad time for England. By 1979 all the main parties had changed leader, the UK had voted to remain in the Common Market in a referendum and had undergone a series of economic crises – leading to the nation’s humiliating bailout by the International Monetary Fund in 1976 – as well as the now notorious Winter of Discontent of 1978-1979. I remember staring work at Chester le Street District Council as a 16 year old in September 1977 and within months the lights would go out in the office at 3pm, 4pm or whatever time the blackout was called and Dickensian like we got on with our work via candlelight. This in late 20th century England. It was the era of punk rock, a rebellion against the establishment and a raw movement that typified the times. The Toy Dolls was formed in Sunderland and the Cockney Rejects in a decaying London. The Sex Pistols were into their 4rth year and their never to be forgotten album “Never Mind The Bollocks” had been released in 1977, to a storm of protest.
The Tories, under Margaret Thatcher would be voted in; by a landslide, and England would never be the same again.
It was in this context and background that the Sunderland fans followed the team all over the country, in large numbers, a hostile uninviting England where football hooliganism was rife, at even the most surprising of places eg Bristol Rovers. The stories that subsequently became legend were not embellished; this was how it was. Anyway we booked up with the Travel Club and travelled down to London for our game at The Den. We always parked at Midland Road which was just behind St Pancras (SP), the road now long subsumed into the redevelopment that took place there. Many will remember loads of trouble around that area, with Chelsea being prominent in their meetings with SAFC fans there.
The bus had gone down with just 22 occupants. there were lads from Chester le Street and Ferryhill as well as others, such as Jean, who now works with the SAFC SA. The CLS and Ferryhill lads got off the bus, went into Kings Cross and we were met by Nicers from Chester le Street who told us that all of the SAFC fans were in The Euston Tavern (TET), over the road from St Pancras, and that we were all going to travel by tube to the match together.
We walked the hundred yards or so to The Euston Tavern, opened the doors and inside it was chocker block with red and whites. It was like the Cantina scene from Star Wars. Every man and his dog, including Vauxies, had come down from Sunderland and it looked as though Durham Jail had emptied.
At about 2.15pm or so the lads who were organising the whole thing decided that we would leave the pub and get the tube to Millwall. We walked down and on the tube and away we went. There were probably 300 in this group.
As we got closer to Millwall we travelled through all sorts of dodgy tube stations like Shadwell and Rotherhithe and as the doors would open the straggling Millwall lads, who would be late for kick off (like us) would try and get on. The SAFC lads who stood at the doors would kick them off, and so this went on until we got to New Cross Gate. By now the tube windows were out, the buckets of sand used as a fire repellant had been used as ammunition and they were gone, it was after 3pm and a couple of the younger lads were told to go upstairs and find out if anyone was waiting for us. The report that came back was “all clear”.
As we went into daylight and turned the corner we were met by about 20 Police Officer (The Feds), Dogs, Meat Wagons, Horses the lot…all to escort us safely into the ground. We had got about 50 yards towards the ground when 3 Millwall lads “charged us”. There was a house being renovated with bricks and sand outside. They just picked whatever they could up, started throwing it and got stuck in. They got pezzled of course by sheer weight of numbers but the sheer brazenness was unnerving (I was 17 at the time). I remember that as we walked towards the ground I spied the signs for a hospital not far from there. It was a pleasing site. At least I knew I had a chance of not bleeding to death!
The turnstiles were shut when we got to the ground, it must have been 3.20pm by now and they had to be specially opened up for us. As we entered the ground there was a huge roar went up as the Millwall lads caught sight of our main group coming in. Sunderland at this time normally took to the field in their quite superb “Jubilee Strip”, nicknamed that by the club itself it was in recognition of the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977. However of course it was red and whites tripes for this game with Millwall playing in their famous blue home kit.
The above print is available to buy on ebay; search term – “Football Art Print – Sunderland AFC Team Image 1978/79 Colour”
Half time and it kicked off.
I distinctly remember that there was a canny drop from our end down to the main paddock of theirs and they all came wandering over, with young bairns on their shoulders, to throw abuse with one or two indicating that if at all possible they were up for slitting our throats. Over the other side of the stand there was a metal railing with spikes on the top. It separated our end from the main stand. I remember a Millwall lad climbing on top of it to try and get over the fence and one of our lads trundling over and meeting him with a flying head butt . The Millwall kid was out like a light and landed about 3 feet from the fence…out for the count…completely sparked out.
The match at this point was 0 v 0. A fairly even and not very momentous football match that no side seemed keen on winning. Seven minutes into the second half that all changed with Wayne Entwhistle (see image above) slotting home. It remained that way at 90 minutes. We had won, although to be frank, that wasnt really my main consideration, which was what would happen next!
At the end of the game the SAFC lads promptly sat down on the terraces. We wouldn’t budge. About 30 seconds later I realised why; bricks and bottles began to stott off the corrugated iron fencing at the back. We were kept in for a good hour. We could hear the Feds outside battling with the Millwall lads but after what seemed like an eternity we were allowed along the back of the main stand and down onto Cold Blow Lane.
At the bottom of CBL there was a bridge. A mini van full of Millwall kids stood leaning against it and as we walked past they just glared. Mind some of our lads had to be held back by the Feds and trouble once again brewed. As we headed towards New Cross tube station the Feds stopped us all. About half a dozen of them trotted towards the high rise flats near the ground, with dogs and we all wondered what the fuck was going on. We found out. They must have flushed about 200 Millwall fans who were waiting for us underneath a block of flats. A lovely ambush was all set up for us. At New Cross Tube Station the police left and we were left to deal with whatever we encountered. It was an eerie wait on the platform for the tube back to Kings Cross.
By the time we got back to Kings X the Travel club coach had gone and having next to no money on us we had to go and get travel warrants from the police at Kings X Police station which was in the middle of the red light district. The police station was like the Bronx and I distinctly remember an 80 year old lady asking for the youngest, and handsomest, police officer to take her home as she lived in fear of being attacked. The duty Sergeant found the handsomest police officer they could find and he got the short straw of taking her home. England were at home to France in what would become the Five Nations and a few French supporters, England’s opponents that day, milled about the police station for reasons that werent obvious to me.
I remember the Feds ringing up my Father, who had to go to Chester le Street Police station to pay my fare home. I said to the Fed…”make it sound as though everything is ok”. “No problem” he said…”I’m experienced at this”, just as he announced, “hello, its Kings X police here…we have your son” – cheers mate! We duly got our travel warrants and exchanged them for tickets at Kings Cross Station. We eventually caught the mail train home at 10pm; it took us 8 hours to get back, arriving back into Durham at 6am. Eleven out of the 22 on the Travel Club Bus got left behind. We subsequently complained to SAFC about being left behind and were invited into a meeting with Corny O’Donnell, who was in charge of all things supporter wise at the time and our recompense was that we got a free trip to Eastville out of it, Bristol Rovers old ground. That is another story as well.
In summing this day up what could I say? I could say that this is a glorification of nothing. This is the type of trip that Sunderland fans had many times during this era. This is simply how it was, particularly in London. It is also interesting that the politics of the day influenced a hostile and punishing England. It spawned punk rock, a revival of the skinhead movement, Ska, The Jam, Gary Numan, New Romantics and a host of cultural icons; all a product of that time. We seem to be going back to that time, politically, with England changing in front of our eyes. What happens next will be interesting to witness.
On Tour With The Lads; Millwall 1979, is the first in an occasional series of reminisces of supporting Sunderland AFC; a lifetime commitment and a one that I wouldn’t have swapped for the world.