Great Football League Teams 13: Millwall, 1987-8

Posted by on Feb 11, 2011 in Great Teams | 4 Comments

Some clubs are more keenly aware of their history than others. Despite the unkind but largely accurate chants sometimes aimed at us by opposing fans, Millwall is one of them. Take the annual Dockers’ Day celebration. Each season, a match is dedicated to the memory of the flat-capped stevedores and warehousemen from among whom much of the club’s support was drawn in the middle 20th century. A number of ex-dock workers are given the VIP treatment for the day and a team from the distant past is invited to provide autographs for fans, before the whole motley crew is paraded on the pitch.

This season’s chosen fixture took place last weekend, a largely forgettable 1-0 victory over Doncaster Rovers. Of much more interest to those who made it down to the Den would have been the presence of the club’s greatest ever XI: the Second Division champions of 1987-88. Before I launch into lyrical tribute, though, I have a confession to make. Regular readers may have noticed that quite a few entries in the excellent Great Teams… series have focused on the last decade or two. The problem with history is that relative young uns like myself can only access it through our dads’ copies of Rothmans or, more likely, informative blog posts such as these. You see, I was only four years old when the legends of 1987-88 roamed amid the corrugated iron and cracked, urine-streaked concrete of the old Den, and thus never got see them first hand.

By the time I made my debut on Cold Blow Lane, many of that group of players had been and gone, having either struggled with the rigours of First Division football or found new employers with larger pockets. A few stuck around, though. Teddy Sheringham, Keith `Rhino’ Stevens, Brian Horne – all products of the youth system – did their best to get Millwall back into the big time, to no avail. Teddy’s subsequent career is well documented. Stevens finished his playing days a one-club man, with 546 appearances to his credit, and briefly even became manager in the late 1990s. Goalkeeper Horne missed just one game in that exalted campaign and was ever-present the following year. An England U21 international, Horne had been somewhat diminished by injury when I saw him play.

Millwall had started the 1987-88 season as one of the most talked-about sides in the division. Not for the usual reasons, though. A series of acquisitions judged expensive by the standards of the day built on foundations laid by George Graham in the middle of the decade. In came widely coveted striker and sometime Irishman Tony Cascarino, £200,000 from Gillingham, winger `Chicken’ George Lawrence, £160,000 from Southampton, and centre-back Steve Wood, £85,000 from Reading. A former ‘Wall YTS graduate and erstwhile teammate of Pele and Michael Caine, Kevin O’Callaghan, added some stardust after returning to SE14 from Portsmouth. Manager John Docherty’s line-up placed a premium on width, lining up with orthodox wingers on either flank, all the better to service the awkward front pair. Meanwhile, captain Les Briley and Terry Hurlock guarded the centre of the pitch; both old-fashioned box-to-box pistons, the latter adding some passing finesse at odds with his reputation.

Pre-season promise was not quite met with early performances, however. Injuries to first XI personnel, including centre-back Alan McLeary, prompted changes in the starting line-up and contributed to erratic form up to the halfway point. Full-backs Danis Salman and Nicky Coleman, as well as Graham signing Alan Walker in the centre of defence, each made more than 20 appearances, while Lawrence fell in and out of favour. A settled line-up took form incrementally, though, as the season developed, and after the turn of the year the Lions took up residence in the top places. Helped by the prowess of Sheringham and Cascarino, who notched 42 goals between them, a run of 7 wins in the last 8 games – including victory over eventual runners-up Aston Villa – propelled them to the top of the table, where they stayed for the last five matches.

The title-clinching penultimate game away at Boothferry Park has since become south-east London’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols’ gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall. Anyone old enough to have followed the Lions at that time (and some who clearly aren’t) has claimed to have been in Hull that day. And I don’t blame them, for this was the pinnacle of the club’s history: a spot kick by O’Callaghan confirming promotion to the top flight of English football for the first and only time. A home tonking by Blackburn in the last game was blamed on a collective hangover. The Doc aside, I don’t think anyone was bothered: the title and legendary status were already secure.

A 10th place finish – and a brief period atop the 92 – the following season merely added further lustre to that earlier triumph. Their successors have had chances to emulate the 1987/88 vintage but not quite made it. With the present-day Lions sitting in 7th place in the Championship, those of us too young the first time are hoping for some history to call our own.

Stanley
As a kid, Stanley undertook an odyssey around the football grounds of London and North Kent before alighting at Millwall. Despite the efforts of Jason Dair and many others, as an adult he decided to move closer to the arena erroneously known as the New Den and is now a proud season-ticket holder.

3 Comments

  1. Matthew Rudd
    February 11, 2011

    I'm a Hull City supporter and I was a 14 year old at Boothferry Park that day – even sharing a cab from the bus station to the ground with some tattooed Millwall fans. There were far more Millwall fans in the stadium than allocation allowed, and rather than leave them outside the overspill were permitted, under extremely close watch, to sit in two other sections of the stadium usually reserved for home fans but not ever without empty seats. There were one or two mild instances of over-exuberance, and the city centre before the game wasn't for the faint-hearted, but it all went off largely very well for Millwall, with the fans celebrating the title win in the right way.

    The game was dire, though. Kevin O'Callaghan scored an early penalty and after that neither team seemed to have any energy. I remember, from my standing position in the old Well at the front of the West Stand, that the infiltrating Lions fans seemed to like Jimmy Carter more than other player, even though every one of them was a hero that season.

    It seems odd that a couple of recent visits to the KC have prompted far more criticism of Millwall fans, given that in 1988 they were at the height of their dubious reputation and had ample further reason through their team's real quality to turn up at Boothferry Park utterly legless. Well, the atmosphere was white hot and on tenterhooks all day, but within the stadium at least the Millwall fans were rarely anything more than very, very loud.

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  2. Stanley
    February 11, 2011

    Thanks for sharing those memories, Matthew. Great to hear from someone who was at the game.

    We do like a winger at the Den, and I've noted from those who were around at the time that Carter was a big favourite. (He'd left us for Liverpool by the time I came on the scene.) I neglected to mention him only because he didn't properly establish himself in the side until the back end of the 1987-88 season.

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  3. Lanterne Rouge
    February 14, 2011

    I remember Steve Wood at Reading – a very good centre back in a title winning side under Ian Branfoot. I wasn't surprised when he turned out to do so well at Millwall. Hurlock, on the other hand, was bafflingly terrible for the Royals and it was annoying to see him go on to do so well for the South East Londoners.

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