I don't know what that places Paul, our esteemed guest poster, in the lovely metaphor; LaFontaine? Ott? John Scott? Craig Kanalley? We're at a loss for good options.
Anyway, the lad wrote about Millwall. You read that right. Millwall. Fuck if I know anything about this club beyond what I saw in Green Street Hooligans, but anyone who counts himself among supporters that basically tried to murder Elijah Wood and his family is alright by me. Also, fuck West Ham always and forever, Amen.
It's the Hope that Keeps Us Going
As a 36-year-old (almost 37) guy who’s lived in the 716 my entire life, minus one year in the dorms at the University of Virginia, I don’t need to tell you how many disappointing sports moments I’ve seen. I know of no other fan base that has put up with as many gut-wrenching moments then we have. I’m not going to rehash them here. You’ve all heard about them or lived them, and the only thing relevant to my point is that I have, and always will continue to support the Bills and Sabres no matter what. As Red Redding said in The Shawshank Redemption, hope is a dangerous thing, but it is also a very beautiful thing to have.
Unfortunately, my “Buffaloness,” for lack of a better term, has carried over into my soccer fandom. I was introduced to the game at a young age, and became interested in the professional game when the USMNT finally qualified for the 1990 World Cup following a 40-year absence, and the subsequent 1994 World Cup held in the U.S. When satellite television and the Internet made it much easier to follow leagues overseas, I felt obligated to pick a team. English football was the optimal league for me, as I fell for the much-marketed “best league in the world” gimmick. I tried the EPL for a bit, but quickly lost interest when it became a race to sign the world’s best players for huge transfer fees. As a Buffalo fan, I couldn’t get behind that. I may be a Yankees fan, but I’ve also criticized them for overspending on free agents (i.e. Kevin Brown, Carlos Beltran, et al.).
Therefore, I tried my luck with the Championship, the second level of English football some time ago and loved it. Every team had more of a chance to win it, and the lack of huge transfer budgets made it a much more pure game to me. The next step was, of course, to pick a side. While reading up on the different teams, one immediately stuck out at me, Millwall. There were several reasons for this. First, Kasey Keller and Bruce Murray, two of my favorite USMNTers of all-time, played there in the 1990s. When I began to follow them closely, American John Berylson had already taken over as chairman, and fellow American Zak Whitbred was on the roster. Secondly, the fans of Millwall share many similarities with Buffalo’s, and I felt a kinship with them. As I’m sure you all know, we Buffalonians have an “us vs. them” attitude when it comes to sports. We may be uncouth, to say the least, at times, but no one can fault us for not being passionate. We care. A lot. It means the world to us. Just as we can be heard cheering on our boys at the Ralph or the FNC, Millwall fans can be heard singing “no one likes us, we don’t care” at The Den as well. It means the world to them too. We know they’re going to lose as much as they win, if not more so, but we can’t help ourselves. Those who have played for the Bills, Sabres, or Millwall, even if only for a short while, always rave about the passion and dedication of the fans. I can take solace in that. No one can call us fair-weather fans. And thus my journey as a Millwall fan began.
As I write these words, Millwall is, unfortunately, going in the seemingly opposite direction of the Bills and Sabres. While the Bills and Sabres have hopefully entered a new era under Terry Pegula with his passion and deep pockets, Millwall has just officially been relegated to League One, the third tier of English football. The seeds of this relegation were planted several years back. It was a slow, steady process, like watching a snake slowly devour a mouse right before your very eyes. Millwall used to be managed by a fine man named Kenny Jackett, appointed in 2007 after having seen nine men precede him during the two previous years. Millwall were in League One at the time of his appointment, but quickly turned it around under his leadership. In the 2008-2009 season, they finished fourth in League One, but suffered a heartbreaking loss in the playoff final to earn promotion to the Championship at the hands of Scunthorpe United. Lesser teams may have folded, but after missing out on automatic promotion by one point on the final day to Leeds United, Millwall won the playoffs via a 1-0 win over Swindon Town to earn promotion. Things were good then. Jackett had total control over the team and the roster, and did a phenomenal job. It was like June 30, 2007 in Buffalo Sabres history, and the fall was just as slow and gutting.
Millwall did finish ninth in the Championship table the next season, but slipped to just barely survive relegation in each of the next two seasons. An FA Cup semifinal appearance in 2013 was exciting, but also merely papered over the cracks temporarily. Jackett left after that season for greener pastures and disagreements with the board.
As fans, we knew hiring the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho was out of the question, but we did want a manager with Championship experience. What did we get? Steve Lomas, former captain of Millwall’s greatest rival, West Ham United. For me, it was like hearing that Zdeno Chara was going to coach the Sabres, or Bryan Cox was going to coach the Bills. WTF?!?!? Needless to say, things didn’t go well, and Lomas was sacked after winning just 6 of 24 games. Eventually, Jackett recommended his good friend Ian Holloway to manage. Holloway did manage to narrowly escape relegation again last season, and had a hot start to this season. But the signs were there. The board had made the mistake of thinking both Lomas and Holloway were capable of running the squad from top to bottom, which they were not. So it’s now back to League One.
Though it’s certainly depressing, Millwall does have some bright spots to talk about. After a brutal stretch when the team lacked commitment as well as talent, Holloway was finally let go. Youth team manager and former player Neil Harris was given the interim job, and immediately put his stamp on the team. Players on loan were left out of the side, and several younger players were given a chance to play. As a former player, Harris knows what Millwall means to the fans, and instilled this attitude in the players. They were much better during the last spell of the season, but still lacked the talent to stay up following years of mismanagement and poor transfer decisions. While being relegated is never fun, I hope Harris is given the job full-time (and have no reason to believe he won’t at this point given the squad’s improvement). He has much talked about having a young side that is hungry to win next season and the seeds of that have already been seen at the end of this season. Also, the board appeared to have learned its lesson, and are now seeking to help Harris out by appointing a director of recruitment so he can just concentrate on managing as he’s still young and relatively inexperienced. So here we are. Like the Sabres, and Bills it’s a fresh start with new players and a new coach. I’m excited for the future despite Millwall’s relegation and the utter horror that was the last two seasons of Buffalo Sabres hockey.
You see, while hope can inevitably lead to disappointment, it can also lead to sheer euphoria when things go well. Having something to be proud of means more when you’ve witnessed the valleys that came before the peaks. I was tickled to death while listening to the Achtung Millwall! podcast the other day and hearing that fans “expect the worst and hope for the best.” That sums up being both a Millwall fan and Buffalo sports fans up perfectly for me. We brace ourselves for the inevitable disappointment, but are always there to support our team. No matter what happens next season for the Bills, Sabres, and Millwall, I’ll be there cheering every step of the way. And until next season, go Red Bulls!