Welcome to the new series of articles from the Last Word on Football. This series looks at the grounds that are sadly no longer with us. Grounds that are famous not only in their particular country but also around the world. Grounds that will always hold a special place in the hearts of a particular team’s supporters and fans of football alike. Many will love them, some may hate them; however, they could never be forgotten.
Today we look at Millwall‘s former ground, The Den. A south London ground formerly situated on the famous Cold Blow Lane, New Cross. The Lions played here for 83 years and the notorious noise, intimidation and passion resembled the club’s close-knit identity until its closure in 1993.
Never to Be Forgotten Grounds: The Den
Despite being synonymous with south London, Millwall’s life started on the Isle of Dogs, east London. The original club, Millwall Rovers, formed out of JT Morton’s factory in 1885 when a group of Scottish factory workers set up a team. This link to those Scottish workers can still be seen today. A blue and white kit and Lion emblem, still donned by the Lions today, both a nod to their Scottish origins.
The club played their early games on the Isle of Dogs. Their first games took place at the Lord Nelson Ground, named after the pub of the same name which stood in front of the ground. However, the club’s stay here ended abruptly when the landlady supposedly received a better offer for the ground.
After three years at Lord Nelson, Millwall Rovers moved to the Athletics Grounds in 1889, still on the Isle of Dogs. With the move came another change of name to Millwall Athletic. The club only played here for a short while again. The Millwall Dock Company forced the team off the site and they moved to north Greenwich in 1901.
After nine more years on the Isle of Dogs, the club established a core set off supporters around the docks and factories on the island. But, the club decided to expand their fan-base and attendances. This led to the move across the river to New Cross, Lewisham, as a larger population existed where fans could be drawn from. Noticeably, much of the working population in these areas worked in the docks also, linking the club to its past self.
‘The Den’ was built here in 1910 and the Lions played their first game there on October 22, 1910. 20,000 fans watched a 1-0 defeat to Southern Division champions Brighton and Hove Albion.
The Den originally held fans on grass banks rather than concrete terraces with a capacity around 30,000 spectators. When the concrete standing was built, the capacity grew to an estimated 40,0000.
During their first ten years at the Den, Millwall still played in the regional leagues before entering the Football league in 1920. The Lions got off to a fine start to their first campaign in the 1920/21 Third Division. They beat Bristol Rovers 2-0. Coincidentally, Rovers faced Millwall for their last ever match at the Den.
Millwall soon settled into their new home in New Cross and set a number of records at the ground. In 1928, the Lions scored 87 home goals in their Third Division title-winning campaign. This record for the most home goals in the Football league still stands today. Between 1964-67, the Lions went on an unbeaten home run which lasted for 59 consecutive games – the club’s longest home run without a loss in their history.
On February 20, 1937, Millwall attracted their record crowd to the Den. Whilst enjoying a successful period in the top division of the Football league, the Lions also went on a good cup run this year. 48,672 fans crammed into the Den to watch Millwall beat Derby County 2-1 in the fifth round of the FA Cup. They went on the reach the semi-finals that season for the third time in their history.
Millwall 2-1 Newcastle United (1957)
Millwall made a terrible start to the 1956/57 season and battled relegation from the Third Division by January 1957.
However, their attentions turned to the FA Cup fourth round on January 26th 1957 as First Division side Newcastle United visited the Den. The Magpies came into the game as strong favourites over the Lions, having already knocked out cup holders Manchester City at Maine Road in the previous round. Millwall progressed by beating local rivals, Crystal Palace, 2-0.
The underdog status did not deter Millwall fans though as 45,646 fans crammed into the Den. The crowd climbed the floodlights and clambered on advertising hoardings to watch the match, expectant of an upset.
Millwall started the match brightly, hitting the bar and forcing a number of good saves from Newcastle goalkeeper, Ronnie Simpson.
But, the heroics of a full-back turned striker lifted the Den off their feet. Stan Anslow’s double either side of half time proved enough to earn a historic victory for the Lions. Alex Tait replied for Newcastle, but the Lions held as fans charged on to the pitch following the final whistle.
Millwall 1-0 Brentford (1983)
As the 1982/83 season came to a conclusion, Millwall faced relegation from the Third Division. They endured a poor season and stood in the bottom three in the final few games. George Graham took over as manager five months previous and turned Millwall’s fortunes around with a good run of results. But they still found themselves in the relegation zone with two games left.
Just one point from safety, the team knew a win against Brentford in their final home game of the season was essential. An attendance of 9,097 was the Lions’ largest for four years, but the noise for this fixture felt like thousands more watching on.
Millwall took an early lead in the 34th minute thanks to a powerful Kevin Bremner header. The Den lifted and the crowed roared Millwall on to scrape a narrow victory over a strong Brentford side, captained by Terry Hurlock.
A scrappy but well-fought victory gave the Millwall fans a huge lift and the crowd erupted as they held on to the final whistle. The win meant the south Londoners required one more win against already relegated Chesterfield the following weekend. Millwall won the fixture and maintained their place in Division Three for another season.
Millwall 1-0 Derby (1988)
After winning a historic promotion to the First Division, coming up from the Second Division as champions, Millwall played their first home match against Derby County in September 1988.
With season ticket sales up 700% and a crowd of 13,061 watching Millwall’s first home game in the top flight, expectations grew. After a number of good early chances, Millwall finally took the lead when a young Teddy Sheringham tapped in from point-blank range after just before half-time.
The Den went crazy and continued to dominate the game, roared on by the ecstatic home support. The club won their first-ever home win in the top-flight.
Sheringham later said of his goal: “The most memorable goal I ever scored at the Den was a tap-in from point-blank range – the fans would hang me if I’d missed it! What made it so special was that it was our first ever Division One [home] game, and it gave us our first ever [home] win in the top flight,” emphasising the do or die situation for players at the Den.
Discussions about a potential stadium expansion began as early as the 1970s. The Den needed desperate repair and structural work. As a result, the club proposed to build a ‘Super Den’ at Cold Blow Lane. The expansion wanted to increase the capacity of the Den to 30,000.
However, sufficient funds never raised for this expansion, leading to the abandonment of these original plans. By the 90s, the Den was still in a desperate condition and, following the release of the Taylor Report following the Hillsborough disaster, Millwall built the first all-seater stadium a short distance from The (Old) Den in Bermondsey, Southwark.
Millwall played their final match at the Den on May 8, 1993. The match was an anti-climax as the Lions lost 3-0 to Bristol Rovers on the final day of the 1992/93 season. Yet, Lions fans didn’t leave empty-handed as many ran on to the pitch to secure turf, pieces of advertising hoardings and goal-post as their leaving souvenirs following the final whistle.
Following their move, the Den was demolished and, like the fate of most spare land in London, was converted to a peaceful housing complex. The ultimate contrast to the ground that once stood here.
Just outside of the housing development, the famous tunnels that once led to through to the roaring fans still stand. Walking through now, you can still imagine the intimidation fans once felt before entering the ground. A final reminder of the infamous Den that once stood here.