Football fans and Bermondsey residents must unite to preserve a club that has done so much for the community, writes Oliver Rudgewick
Football League mainstays Millwall FC fear for their future after coming under increasing pressure from Lewisham Council.
The League One club are in a tense battle to keep the land surrounding The Den stadium, with the lease agreement expiring. The Labour-led council are keen to put compulsory purchase orders in place to secure the land for the redevelopment of New Bermondsey, with property developers Renewal linked to the sale.
Since the dark days of hooliganism, Millwall have been working hard for decades within the community around the ground in order to help turn youngsters away from violence and to help elderly residents nearby.
The Millwall Community Trust currently helps 5,000 people every year, with everything from coaching courses to health initiatives used to help a wide range of people. Millwall also built up an unprecedented partnership with Lewisham Hospital – the first of its kind in football – including a £5,000 donation to help to keep the hospital open.
Millwall have suffered a number of on the field setbacks since dropping out of the Championship with their average attendance dropping to less than 9,000 this season.
Millwall Fan Club committee member Stanley Godwin says that it is more of a financial issue than the lack of success at the club since their FA Cup final in 2004. He told Rising East: “It’s nothing to do with the footballing side, it’s all to do with money. Some people will argue that government money is being cut, and therefore they’ve got to find ways of making money.”
A petition was launched by Millwall Supporters Club trustee, Peter Garston in early February to prevent the orders from going into place. The petition has a target of 25,000 signatures and currently has over 18,000. As over 10,000 people have signed it, a response has to be given by the government. At the time of writing, the club are yet to hold formal talks with the council or Renewal.
Understandably, Millwall are disappointed by the recent turn of events, with Chairman John Berylson writing an open letter to the council outlining the ramifications for not just the club but the surrounding area.
Berylson called the legitimacy of the Renewal into question. He stated: “Renewal has no track record in carrying out a major development project. Two of its directors are former teachers with apparently no experience of housing or regeneration.” He also suggested that Renewal are keen to sell on the land that Lewisham Council help them secure to outside developers for a larger windfall, which Renewal have denied.
Just to frustrate the club more, their own plan to build 400 new homes and give improved accommodation to businesses under the lease agreement was rejected in favour of the proposal from Renewal to build 2400 new homes, a new sports centre and a new overground station.
‘Knife in the back’
Godwin said that the club felt a little betrayed by the council after all the hard work the club has done, to announce out of the blue that the land was going to be moved on to Renewal. He said: “All of a sudden they’ve just turned their back on us for no apparent reason.
“What Millwall fans never forget, you put the knife in the back once and we never forget that. As far as we’re concerned they’ll never get the chance to do it again.” Godwin also explained that up to this point the council also had a very good relationship with the club: “They always supported the club and the community work that the Millwall Community Project do. A lot of that work in some respects which benefits not only Lewisham but Southwark, too.”
If the land sale is to go ahead, this could have severe ramifications for the club. Firstly, they would be strangled in their attempts to provide the excellent community work which has been praised by many. Most importantly, the club could potentially be forced out of the ground they have played in for almost 25 years. Godwin helps to explain this by saying: “I think they will go to the council and say to them, can’t we get Millwall out of there, we spent all this money developing and we can’t get rid of it.” He also calls the rumours about the potential end of the club “no idle statement”.
Only time will tell if Millwall end up being a major casualty of Bermondsey’s regeneration, but every football fan, no matter how cynical, will be supporting the Lions in their battle for survival.