The accidental alchemy of the FA Cup rarely disappoints. Sunday’s televised visit of Watford to Millwall at the 1990s relic still officially known as the New Den may be billed as a fourth-round fixture, but even those unversed in football lore will understand it is more of a morality play than a Cup tie.
Let’s call it Our Friends in the South, a dramatic portrayal of social, financial and political pressure linking two clubs and two communities. It will be a collision of idealism and cynicism, enacted by fundamentally different teams and sets of supporters.
Since the BBC’s Jacqui Oatley has dubbed the tie “the Calvin derby”, I had better explain. This game pits the clubs against each other that mean the most to me, personally and professionally, and raises the spectre of a cardinal sin.
I spent a year embedded at Millwall for my 2012 book Family: Life, Death and Football. It was an educational, emotionally driven experience that enabled me to give an insight into the insecurity, intimacy and idiosyncrasy of a much-misunderstood institution.
The team whose promotion to the Championship I charted was managed by Kenny Jackett, a childhood friend from our council estate in Watford, where he was the epitome of the local boy made good – the sort of one-club footballer guaranteed to make the modern agent projectile-vomit their latte.
Jackett played for Watford in the 1984 FA Cup final, a 2–0 defeat to Everton defined by Elton John’s tears and Andy Gray’s assault on Watford goalie Steve Sherwood for the decisive second goal. Watford’s young manager, Graham Taylor, had galvanised a moribund club and a mild-mannered fanbase by sending his players into schools and supper clubs to spread the gospel.
As a ballboy at Watford’s Vicarage Road, I’d seen Barry Endean defeat Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 1–0 in the 1970 FA Cup quarter-finals with a classic centre forward’s header. We were on Match of the Day, as rare a sighting as Halley’s Comet. Yet somewhere along the line, “we” became “they”.
I was criticised for the ultimate heresy, switching allegiance to Millwall after Taylor’s traditions were sold down the river. The Pozzo family who bought Watford FC in 2012 – to become the first family to own clubs in the top flights of England, Spain and Italy – implanted an alien, acquisitive culture through a brilliantly executed business plan. They have developed a bright, modern ground and secured Premier League football with a permanently transitional team.
Watford fans still pass a giant flag, featuring a stylised image of the owner, Gino Pozzo, across their heads in the Rookery End. If they tried something similar at Millwall in honour of their chairman, former US Marine John Berylson, the chaps in the Cold Blow Lane End would put their Zippo lighters to good use. Ah, those fans. They are the reason this week’s FA Cup match is such a study in contrasts.
While Watford supporters tap their metaphorical tambourines to the tune of Kumbaya, Millwall fans will be coaxing a version of “No One Likes Us” from sandpaper-scoured vocal cords.
But the strange thing is, people suddenly do like them, because of their new cause. Millwall are threatened by enforced relocation from south London to north Kent because of controversial land regeneration plans.
The effective guerrilla campaign against Lewisham Council – who have yet to approve the plan – is driven by supporters. Sunday’s tie will be a brief respite from the reality that all clubs are investment opportunities; those on development land in urban areas are doubly vulnerable.
Millwall, now managed by Neil Harris, who survived testicular cancer to become a club goalscoring legend, have a putative giant-killing hero in Ben Thompson. He is a young, oldschool midfielder, and when he flies into a tackle, prepare for the famous, endlessly drawn out monk’s chant: “Miiiiiiiiiiiiiillllllllllllllllllllllll…”
FA Cup Match of the Day Live is Sunday 11:50am (k/o 12 noon) BBC1