The travels of Phil no. 12: Into the Lions’ den

And so it came to pass that on the 23rd day of the month of January, in the year 2008, I entered the Lions’ den. Or, to be a little more precise, I went to south London to see Nottingham Forest take on Millwall at the New Den. However, I did not travel alone. I was accompanied by Tom, Shane, Roy and Shane’s brother, Tim.

It was decided that Headcorn was the most mutually convenient departure point, and so we caught the 1754 train to London Bridge, and after a brief pause to acquire some burgers, we all caught another train for the short journey to South Bermondsey station.

When we arrived on the station, we descended the stairs, and turned into a section of the path which was signposted with "VISITING SUPPORTERS ONLY". This was a track, about 300 yards long, with eight-foot metal fencing on both sides, and at times there was a wire mesh roof over our heads too – a reminder of Millwall’s fans’ fearsome reputation as the ultimate in British hooliganism. There were also a handful of policemen along the route, in groups of three or four, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.

We got into the ground, and made our way out into the stand, and discovered that, despite the fact that our seats were assigned a row and a number, we could sit anywhere. I think this is perhaps a cunning ploy on the part of Millwall, because when given the option of sitting anywhere, people revert to their everyday, reclusive selves, and sit in groups away from strangers, so as not to invade their ‘personal space’. I think this prevents the crowd from coming together in the way it does when everyone is forced to sit in a particular place regardless of who’s next to them, and so it slightly affects the support that their team receives. Anyway, I digress. Tom, who had led us out into the stands, chose a row of five seats, and we sat down, and browsed through the programme as the teams finished their warm-ups. We were sitting behind one goal, slightly to the left (we were almost directly behind the edge of the six-yard box), and were near the front of the upper tier. Shane informed us on the train to the game that Millwall always put the way fans in this quarter of the stand to make it almost impossible for the home fans to get to them.

Before long, the teams came out onto the pitch, and lined up ready for the kick-off. Forest were playing an unusual 4-1-3-2 formation, with Nathan Tyson making a welcome return up front alongside Grant Holt, Chris Cohen on the left of a narrow midfield, James Perch on the right, Lewis McGugan in the middle, with Sammy Clingan filling the holding role just behind them. The back four was comprised of Julian Bennett, Kelvin Wilson, Wes Morgan and Luke Chambers (from left to right), with Paul Smith in goal behind them. Club captain Ian Breckin, wingers Kris Commons and Arron Davies, reserve goalkeeper Dale Roberts and young midfielder Matt Thornhill were on the bench.

The match started encouragingly. Forest were well on top, and had Millwall pinned back in their own half. However, they didn’t manage to create many clear-cut chances, and after 27 minutes, Millwall made a rare foray into Forest’s half, James Perch made a very rash challenge in the ‘D’, and conceded a free-kick which ex-Forest striker Neil Harris curled past the outstretched hand of Paul Smith and into the top corner.

This blow clearly affected Forest slightly, and the game went a bit flat until just before half time, when Grant Holt picked up a yellow card for a wild lunge which could easily have been a red card offence on another day.

After half time, Forest’s play had deteriorated even further, as if they felt the need for urgency even more keenly now. Only eight minutes into the second half, this feeling must have increased, as Millwall stretched their lead, scoring a soft goal as Forest failed to clear a corner properly. The ball fell to Jay Simpson, and he sidestepped Wes Morgan and curled a tame shot past Paul Smith and into the bottom corner.

Forest huffed and puffed, but made little progress in their attempts to reduce the deficit. Once or twice they seemed to be making progress, but after some good work from Nathan Tyson, Millwall’s Andy Frampton cleared the ball with Grant Holt closing in.

As the half wore on, the Forest fans were getting restless, with many frustrated by the uninspired, one-dimensional football they were watching. The lack of changes was also causing a substantial amount of irritation, and it took until the 78th minute for Colin Calderwood to bring on Kris Commons and Arron Davies to provide a greater attacking threat. Despite this, the team was reshuffled in a bizarre manner, with Forest changing to a 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid with Clingan, Cohen and Commons in midfield, Grant Holt on the right wing, Arron Davies wide on the left and Nathan Tyson through the middle. Shortly afterwards, the players seemed to sort things out for themselves, and Holt went back up front, though Commons and Davies were still on the ‘wrong’ wings.

At this point, Shane turned to the rest of us, and suggested that, if the score stayed the same, we should make a move after about 85 minutes. Hardly had he finished saying that, than Forest finally put together a decent move, and Chris Cohen slotted home Grant Holt’s knockdown from Kris Commons’ cross.

The same combination provided a chance for Nathan Tyson, and he poked home the equaliser with only two minutes to go, and this sparked wild celebrations from all with Forest affiliations, including myself. Apparently Shane and Tom saw a whole new side of me – probably the mental/psycho side. I seem to remember screaming unintelligible noises of general approval for a good minute or two whilst punching the air madly.

The journey home was pretty straightforward, though we had to run between platforms in London Bridge as there was only four minutes between our trains, but being a group of finely honed athletes, we made it with time to spare.


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