x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The worst of neighbours

The League One club and their supporters have the worst reputation in English football.

Police horses guard West Ham fans during their match with Millwall in 2004.
Police horses guard West Ham fans during their match with Millwall in 2004.

The League One club and their supporters have the worst reputation in English football. To some, their slogan may represent a community club close to its roots. To others it reflects a mindset established by a troubled past. Much of the latter involves West Ham, and Upton Park will be full of venom tonight when the two meet in a Carling Cup second-round tie.

It is a game supporters are relishing, some for all the wrong reasons. What happens off the pitch could be as significant as what happens on it. Their rivalry has become glamorised by films about the notorious hooligan element in both sides. Green Street centres on an American student becoming part of the Hammers firm and its fatal finale hinges on a cup tie with Millwall. Hollywood may have added its usual gloss, but violence is part of the history between these two sets of followers. It dates back almost a century to when the dockers and ironworkers in the East End of London fell in love with the beautiful game.

Back then Millwall were one of the leading amateur sides, but when the Thames Ironworks team - later to become West Ham - was formed, it fostered a loathing that stands to this day, even though Millwall have moved south of the River Thames. The Metropolitan Police will be on high alert tonight. In 2004, the riot squad moved into the West Ham section to quell fighting sparked by a painful 4-1 loss at the New Den.

Supporters message boards are heated and stirring up emotions that have been on ice for four years, due to West Ham's promotion to the Premier League and Millwall's relegation from the Championship. The diehards will not be worried about the strict policing and reduced ticket allocation. With only 23 previous games between them, this is a rare chance to settle some old scores. The football may be a sideshow.

It was a similar episode at the 1972 testimonial of the Millwall player Harry Cripps when the fixture descended into open warfare between the two sets of supporters. Bottles, knives, darts and snooker balls in socks made lethal weapons. In the wake of the stabbing of the West Ham player Calum Davenport in his home over the weekend, the two clubs are hoping the outcome of this cup tie will be the sole focus of attention.

West Ham last beat Millwall in 1991 and Gianfranco Zola was made fully aware of what this derby against Kenny Jackett's side means following an exchange with a Millwall supporter last year. "He came to me and said, 'Franco, you are my hero'. I thought, this man must be a West Ham supporter or maybe a Chelsea supporter," said the West Ham manager. "He said, 'Look, I am Millwall. I am very pleased because you are taking West Ham down'.

"I realised then the relationship between the two clubs. I don't have a background in the match, but I'm told it's a game that I don't come to by walking to the stadium." akhan@thenational.ae