Friday, 16 September 2011

West Ham v Millwall Rivalry History

It is difficult to imagine two sets of football fans predisposed to go at each other with a more elemental fury than West Ham and Millwall.Most West Ham home games have at least one round of "If you hate Millwall, stand up." despite not playing them since on that infamous night in 2009.
West Ham and Millwall are not especially close geographically, and on opposite sides of the Thames. 

Surely if Millwall are to loathe anyone, they would be better off picking on Crystal Palace, their only South London adversaries of note?

But no, such are the quirks of English tribalism that Palace resort to an age-old feud with Brighton, while Millwall store up all their hostile energies for a trip across the river.

The feeling is mutual: West Ham fans regard Millwall's territory of south Bermondsey as a wasteland; Indian country, if you like. Seldom can Tower Bridge have formed so stark a demarcation.
The roots of such sentiment reside in events of 85 years ago, when an antipathy developed between two shipyards on either side of the Thames.
To the north you had the workforce of the Royal docks (drenched in the claret-and-blue of West Ham) and to the south, the Millwall, London and Surrey docks (Millwall 'til they died). When the Millwall shipyard broke the 1926 dockers' strike, the outrage over the water raised tensions to tipping point.
The significance of the strike, while often invoked, can be overstated. The decline of the docks, coupled with the divergence in league positions of West Ham and Millwall, meant that the two clubs hardly bothered one another in the Thirties and Forties.
Of more recent relevance was the glorification in London of gang warfare, between the Krays in the East End and the Richardsons in the south-east.
Lurid tales abounded of what Reggie Kray did with a carving knife, or what Charlie Richardson was capable of with a bolt cutter.
Inevitably, one offshoot of this was a Sixties culture of bragadoccio on the terraces of the Den and Upton Park, a competition to see who was the better fighter.
Fighting proved to be the order of the day. At the 1972 testimonial in honour of Harry Cripps - renowned Millwall hard man, with a name straight out of a crime novel - there were police horses on the pitch.
An even bleaker turn came in 1976, when Millwall fan Ian Pratt died in a skirmish with West Ham fans at New Cross station that led to his fall under a train.
Leaflets were later handed out in the Den's Cold Blow Lane end with a grainy picture of Pratt and a declaration in capital letters: "A West Ham fan must die next week to avenge him."
And yet to establish a historical rationale for this rivalry seems to confer a dignity upon it that it does not deserve.

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