By Vince Cooper
When professional football resumed in 1919-20 after the First World War the Football League expanded from 40 to 44 teams but Millwall were still languishing in the lower reaches of the Southern League.
However in 1920-21 the Southern League was incorporated into the Football League and Millwall became inaugural members of the new Third Division enjoying a decent first season where they finished 7th, although 12 points behind runaway winners Crystal Palace.
The first Football League match at The Den took place on 28 August 1920 when Bristol Rovers were the visitors and were soundly beaten 2-0 in front of a 25,000 fans. In their inaugural Football League season Millwall, having dropped the ‘Athletic’ portion of their name, didn’t concede a goal in their first eleven home games and finished a respectable seventh. There was also the first hint that The Den would be a tough place to visit when the Newport County goalkeeper was punched to the ground after jumping into the crowd, the result of which was the ground being closed for two weeks.
I wouldn’t jump into that crowd
The club continued in mid-table until the mid-1920s when, with Essex county cricketer Alf Moule as their chief goalgetter the Lions started to push towards the upper reaches of the third tier. Moule’s partnership with Dick Parker, signed from Queen’s Park Rangers, proved particularly profitable.
After Moule left for Norwich, Parker took over as the main provider of goals and he scored an impressive 38 times in the 1926-27 season to lead the club to an excellent third-place finish and also to F.A. Cup victories over first division runners-up Huddersfield Town, as well as Derby County and Middlesbrough (before a crowd of 42,250) before they succumbed to Southampton in a replay (they had missed a penalty in the first, goalless, clash) at the quarter-final stage..
Skipper Len Graham leads Millwall out – accompanied by a lion.
After scoring four times in the first two games of the 1927-28 season however, Parker was sold to Watford. He had amassed 62 goals in 88 games for the club. His place up front was taken by Gateshead-born Jack Landells, who had been signed from Grays Thurrock in 1925. Landells took up right where Parker left off and finished the season with an impressive 34-goal haul as the Lions romped to the Third Division (South) title, finishing 10 points clear of Northampton Town and scoring a whopping 127 times.
Jack Cock. Goalscorer, war hero, music hall star.
To assist in their promotion bid Millwall had also added veteran England international (and sometime music hall and movie star) Jack Cock. Cock proved an excellent recruit, assisting Landells with 25 goals of his own in the promotion campaign and then finishing top scorer three years in a row as the club finished in 14th place for three consecutive seasons at the higher level.
Cock had made an extremely promising start to his career with Huddersfield Town in 1914 before World War One intervened. He signed up immediately, joining the ‘Footballers Battalion’. He rose to the rank of acting Sergeant Major, earning the Military Medal for bravery and being reported as ‘missing, presumed dead’ at one stage.
When not on Army duty Cock turned out for Croydon Common and Brentford recording six hat-tricks playing for the latter and being chosen for the England team that played in the Victory international against Ireland in 1919, scoring after just 30 seconds which is reported to be the joint-fastest international debut goal. He also scored in his only other game for England, a 5-4 win over Scotland.
He returned to Huddersfield when the war ended but soon moved on to Chelsea when the cash-strapped Yorkshire club accepted a £2,500 offer for his services. After topping the scoring charts in his first season at Stamford Bridge, Cock’s form dipped and he moved on to Everton, then Plymouth Argyle before joining Millwall at the age of 32.
Advanced age failed to dim Cock’s goalscoring abilities and he found the back of the net over 80 times during his stay at The Den before moving into non-league football. He would return as manager in 1944 and spend four years at the helm of the club.
Cock was also known for his fine baritone voice and reportedly used to sing before matches as part of his warming-up routine. He appeared regularly on the West End stage and starred in a number of films, including ‘The Winning Goal’ and ‘The Great Game’ and, in later life, ran The White Hart pub in New Cross.
In 1932-33 Millwall achieved 7th place in the Second Division, their highest placing thus far but the following year the club lost their last eight games. The disastrous run came after the death of long-time manager Bob Hunter, and saw them relegated.
Back in the third tier, Millwall spent a couple of seasons in mid-table obscurity under Billy McCracken before appointing Charlie Hewitt to take charge for the 1936-37 season. One of Hewitt’s first moves was to bring in Dave Mangnall from local rivals West Ham United and the Wigan-born centre forward proved an inspired addition.
In their first season at the club Hewitt and Mangnall inspired Millwall to a remarkable cup run. After a 6-1 victory at Aldershot where Mangnall bagged four, the Lions were drawn at home in every round and saw off Gateshead, Fulham, Chelsea and, before a record crowd of 48,672, Derby County.
Fans at the Manchester City match.
The 6th round saw Millwall drawn at home again, this time against star-studded Manchester City. Again it was ‘David The Giantkiller’ who proved the difference, scoring a goal in each half to make his team the first from the 3rd Division to reach the last four of the competition.
Fans invade the pitch at full time against Manchester City
In the semi-final Millwall were drawn to play Sunderland at Leeds Road, Huddersfield and, despite another goal from Mangnall they fell to the eventual winners by the odd goal in three in front of 62,813 fans.
A Training session
The following season, with Mangnall again leading the way, the South Londoners claimed the 3rd Division (South) title although this success was much tighter than their first. With former England international Jimmy Richardson playing a key role, the Lions visited Exeter on the final day in contention but knowing nothing less than victory would secure the title, and promotion (only the champions were promoted). Even without injured star-man Mangnall, Millwall, despite falling a goal behind proved far too strong for their West-country opponents, romping home 5-1 to secure their place back in the 2nd Division. For good measure the Lions also claimed the London FA Challenge Cup, seeing off Crystal Palace in the final 2-0.
A packed Den
Along with Mangnall, another hero of the time was Reg (JR) Smith, a left-winger the club snapped up from Hitchin Town in 1935. The son of a South African rugby international, Smith was a key member of Hitchin’s Spartan League winning team in 1935 before turning pro and joining Millwall. He had an excellent season during the team’s title-winning campaign and was picked for England’s matches against Norway and Northern Ireland. He grabbed two goals against the Norwegians and might have made more appearances for the national team but for the intervention of World War Two.
Smith joined the RAF at the start if the War and would leave the club for Dundee in 1946 although he returned as manager at the end of the 1950s. War time came just as Millwall had started to establish themselves back in the second flight, and they had actually been the most profitable London club in 1938-39.
‘Alongside the likes of Mangnall and Smith, this was a Millwall team full of character, and characters. The likes of ‘Peanut’ Phillips, ‘Chisel’ Forsyth, ‘Top Hat’ Hedley and ‘Buller’ Martin were entertaining the Den faithful.
During that final season of full-time football prior to the outbreak of hostilities the club announced plans for major redevelopments at the Den including the extension of roofing and an increase in capacity. The plan was for the ground to be fully covered within three years and work begun with high hopes for the club both on and off the pitch.
Within a week of the start of the 1939-40 season however, Germany invaded Poland and the Football League was forced into postponement with regional leagues taking its place.
Volunteers help clear up debris after The Den was bombed.
When the Luftwaffe began air raids over England, the Isle of Dogs, as a key industrial area with its proximity to the docks, became a target. The Den, situated in the heart of the area, led a charmed life until April 19th 1943 when the ground suffered severe damage from a bomb that hit the North Terrace. This forced Millwall to play home games at Upton Park, The Valley and Selhurst Park until 1944 when, with help from a number of volunteers, the ground was restored enough for the Lions to return home.
A wartime team with Charlton’s Sam Bartram guesting in goal.
During the war, the Football War Cups (North and South) replaced the FA Cup and in 1945 the Lions made it to the Southern final where they lost 2-0 to Chelsea in front of 90,000 fans.
The Den in 1945
Once the war was over the club were keen to continue with their redevelopment plans but, despite having purchased all the materials they were forced to put the plans on hold due to rationing. Eventually the government gave permission for the works to be carried out in 1948, although on a smaller scale than in the original plans.
The Football League resumed in 1946-47 but the momentum Millwall had gained in the build-up to the War was gone and in the second season after the resumption they lost their 2nd Division place and returned to the 3rd Division (South). Charlie Hewitt, who had managed the club prior to the outbreak of war, returned to the club to replace Jack Cock as manager but this failed to bring about an upturn in fortunes and the Lions languished in the third tier until 1958-59 when they were relegated to the 4th Division. In the midst of this, on 5th October 1953, Millwall inaugurated their new floodlights with a game against Manchester United who they beat 2-1.
Tommy Lawton? Charles Laughton!
Overall though, form was poor. But the fans kept their spirits even through the tough times. At one time there were reports that the club might sign veteran England star Tommy Lawton which led one wag to quip; “Go and buy Tommy Lawton? Even Charles Laughton could do better than this lot!”.
A 1953 shot with the tote board of New Cross greyhound stadium in the background
Management was something of a revolving-chair during this period. After Hewitt’s departure, Ron Gray, Jimmy Seed and Reg Smith took turns at the helm before Gray, who had returned as assistant to Smith, took charge for a second time. He led the team to the 4th Division title in 1961-62 but failed to sustain the rise and they were relegated two years later. Gray was fired towards the end of the relegation season and replaced by namesake Billy.
Billy Gray, who had spent time at Leyton Orient, Chelsea, Burnley and Nottingham Forest (where he was a key member of the 1959 F.A. Cup winning team), initially took over as player-manager at The Den before hanging up his boots and focusing on his managerial duties.
Floodlights or a grandstand?
Under Gray, fortunes took an immediate upward turn. Successive promotions – mostly sparked by formidable home form – saw Millwall work their way back to the 2nd Division. However, a dispute with the club’s directors saw Gray resign after the second promotion had been confirmed.
The team celebrate breaking the home record.
Next man in the hot seat was another former Lion, Benny Fenton. Under his leadership the great home form continued. So great in fact that Millwall compiled an unbeaten league run at The Den stretching from 22 August 1964 to 14 January 1967 – a record total of 57 games. To commemorate the achievement the players were presented with gold cigarette lighters by the F.A.
Applauded onto the pitch after setting a new unbeaten home record
Fenton made a number of astute signings including the capture of goalkeeper Bryan King from non-league Chelmsford City, wing-pair Keith Weller and Derek Possee, and, a little later, Gordon Bolland from Charlton Athletic. With cult hero Harry Cripps and Barry Kitchener in defence and Eamon Dunphy running things in midfield the Lions were a quality second-tier team, as ever tough to beat at The Den where they were roared on by their passionate and devoted fans. In the 1971-72 season they missed out on promotion to the top flight by a single point.
Cripps was a true cult hero at the club. Even though he had started his career with bitter rivals West Ham United – where he played alongside Bobby Moore in the youth team – he never played for the Hammers first team and moved to Cold Blow Lane in 1961. Over the course of the next 13 years he won the hearts of the Den faithful, mostly playing alongside the equally tough Kitchener at the heart of the Millwall defence and became ‘one of our own’ for the Londoners despite originally hailing from Norfolk.
His whole-hearted style of play and urging on of his teammates, as well as of fans led to Cripps being a true idol for many Lions fans and he was still treated with reverence whenever he visited The Den despite eventually leaving to play for the club’s other local rivals, Charlton Athletic.
The 1970 side
Whilst Cripps and Kitchener provided solidity and toughness in front of classy goalkeeper King, the team also had skill to spare with Dunphy pulling the strings in midfield and Weller providing some real class up front.
Dunphy, signed from York City for £8,000 was an outspoken and often controversial character. In 1968 he demanded a transfer and threatened to retire from the game if not granted one. He was eventually persuaded to stay and would go on to make almost 250 appearances for the club. He also wrote ‘Only A Game?’, an excellent book about football from the inside and is now a respected TV pundit in his native Ireland.
Weller was born in Islington and had a trial at Arsenal, his local club, but they decided against signing him and he joined Spurs instead. He made sporadic starts for the White Hart Lane club but then moved to Millwall where he was converted from winger to inside-forward and quickly became a star.
Sold to Chelsea for £100,000 in May 1970, he was part of the Stamford Bridge team that won the European Cup-Winners Cup in 1971 but, later that year was sold to Leicester City for the same sum. Weller spent eight years at Filbert Street and was capped for England four times, a total many felt should have been considerably higher.
His next move was to America and New England Tea Men. He spent the rest of his career, both as a player and a manager, in America. After retiring he opened a coffee shop in Seattle. Sadly he contracted cancer and despite a number of operations succumbed to the disease, passing away in 2004 aged just 58.
With the likes of King, Weller and Possee being sold off to meet bills and provide funds to repair an increasingly run-down Den, the team slowly fell apart and in 1974-75 after Fenton was replaced at the helm by Gordon Jago the club were relegated and dropped back into Division 3.
Jago managed to haul the team back into the 2nd Division at the first time of asking but two years later he was lured away to the burgeoning NASL and under George Petchey the Lions soon found themselves back in the third tier. Petchey did manage a decent F.A. Cup run in 1978 when Millwall made it to the last eight only to be humbled 6-1 at home by the eventual winners, Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town.
Petchey left in 1980 and a succession of managers came and went until George Graham took over in 1983 with the club bottom of the 3rd Division. The Scot engineered an escape from relegation and two seasons later they were promoted thanks in no small part to the emergence of Teddy Sheringham who initially formed a fine strike partnership with Steve Lovell.
Sheringham had joined the club as a 16-year-old after impressing when playing against them in a youth game. After scoring in only his second start for the club aged 17, he was loaned out, first to Aldershot and then to Swedish club Djurgårdens IF.
When he returned to The Den it soon became clear that Millwall had a top-class striker (one that would go on to star at Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur and win over 50 caps for his country) on their hands.
Perhaps inevitably a bigger club (Arsenal) came calling for boss Graham and he left after re-establishing Millwall in the 2nd Division. For his replacement the Lions made another inspired choice, giving the reins to John Docherty.
Sheringham and Cascarino
Docherty allowed Lovell to leave and, as his replacement, forked out £225,000 to Gillingham for the services of Tony Cascarino.
Born in St Paul Cray, Kent, Cascarino, was bought by his previous club from Crockenhill for a set of track suits and training equipment. A Lions fan as a youngster, the club missed out on the chance to sign him early on but the £225,000 proved money well spent.
Combining Sheringham’s cultured approach with Cascarino’s strength and aerial ability proved a masterstroke and the pair’s goals powered Millwall to the 2nd Division title in 1987-88 and finally, to the top flight of English football.
And The Lions made a great start to life at the pinnacle, topping the table early in the campaign before their form tailed off a little although they still managed to finish in a respectable 10th (the lowest position they occupied all season).
The form, and their place at the top, could not be maintained however and a disastrous run the following season saw Docherty replaced (by Bruce Rioch) and the club relegated. Sheringham and Cascarino were sold for a total of over £3million. The pair would go on to win 139 international caps between them.
The last match at The Den
New owners had taken over the club in 1986 and although they spent money on improvements the ground was really on it’s last legs. The Den had always been an intimidating and difficult place to visit, for opposing teams and fans (the ground was closed a record five times by the F.A. due to crowd trouble). But it was gradually becoming impossible to maintain and after initial plans to build a super-stadium encompassing the area of both the Den and the adjacent New Cross Stadium were shelved, the land was sold to Fairview Homes and the decision was made to move to Senegal Fields. Some fans found the switch to the grandly-named ‘New London Stadium’ (later ‘New Den’ and eventually just ‘Den’) difficult to handle and there were a number of protests before the move but the decision had been made.
The new ground, which also became the ‘home’ of Harchester United the fictional team of television series ‘Dream Team’ certainly lacks the intimidating atmosphere of the old stadium but facilities are obviously greatly improved although some ticket prices were initially hiked to an almost unmanageable level.
So, the original Den is no more. Gone is that frightening walk to the ground for away fans and also gone is the venue of that formidable home record. Fittingly, the last-ever game at the old ground, in May 1993, was against Bristol Rovers, opponents for the first football league match at the stadium. Sadly, the team failed to match that initial result, losing 3-0 in front of 15,821 emotional fans.
The intimidating atmosphere is impossible to replace in today’s mostly characterless stadiums but Millwall have survived, and at times thrived (including a run to a first-ever F.A. Cup Final) at their new home. The Den is gone, so I suppose we should say – long live The Den!