Great Football League Teams 13: Millwall, 1987-8
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.