It’s nearly a year on since Lewisham council pulled the plug on the sale of ‘The Den’, Millwall Football Club’s home of 25 years. The £1bn regeneration project, otherwise known as ‘New Bermondsey’, loomed large over the club and its associates as pressure from over-sea developers and the council themselves heated up to what was once thought of as the inevitable sale of this footballing home.
Dave Sullivan, once a loyal servant to the area, served as the Mayor of Lewisham for two decades between 1982 and 2002. Yet his decision to blur the line between politician and businessmen would tarnish a reputation he spent half of his working life to build; as his tenure in South London came to an end he would go on to set up ‘Renewal’, an offshore, property developing company. Conveniently it was this company that tasked itself in getting the project through, several years before its eventual crescendo in early 2017.
As one of the founding directors, Sullivan’s involvement with the company subtly continued until 2007, three years after ‘Renewal’ started buying up land in the immediate surrounding areas of New Cross, making the possibility of a CPO (Compulsory Purchasing Order) a likely possibility. In this circumstance, it was for ‘the benefit of the area’, a different soundbite from four years prior, when the council rejected the football clubs vision to rejuvenate the area in a more organic and fitting process.
The next man to get drawn into this hazy scenario was the CEO of ‘Renewal’, Mushtaq Malik. As a senior council officer for Lewisham himself, he was seen as the cornerstone to any deal that was on the table between ‘Renewal’ and the council. Malik instigated the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation (SCSF), a charity that would provide a friendlier face to front the enforced handover of property. This provided a well-timed platform for Steve Bullock, Sullivan’s predecessor, to get involved; as he was instantly made a member of the board and the pattern of intertwining relationships continued to develop until a vote on the matter could finally take place.
In September of 2016 the cabinet predictably voted in favour 6-1 for the CPO to proceed. Residents and local businesses that hadn’t already brokered a cut-price deal would now be legally obliged to sell up what was lawfully theirs. With this, news emerged that the ‘New Bermondsey’ project would also involve the re-location of Millwall. The proximate area would prove too expensive for the second-tier club to move in to, meaning locations as far as Gillingham were being suggested, over 30 miles away from the community it’s been an integral part of for over a century.
The consequence was the formation of a strong network of support between Millwall supporters and their associates, independently set up to delay, stifle or at best sabotage the imminent handover. A strategic social media campaign followed, led by Millwall CLB Fanzine and the Millwall AMS, attracting the attention of high profile names both in and out of the sport. The importance of the situation was starting to be heard and most importantly understood as Lewisham council buildings were subjected to a routine media onslaught. National news coverage followed and the trajectory of the deal began to stumble. It’s a rarity to see the British press siding with Millwall support, but the bigger picture resonated deeper with the public than the more common column inches that often surround the club.
With amplified attention scrutinising every part of this story, those involved became complacent… The Surrey Canal Sports Foundation (SCSF) were in need of a charitable £40m to complete their vision, a target that looked well within reach; £20m was already lining the pockets from Boris Johnson’s Housing Zones scheme along with a further £10m that ‘Renewal’ had ‘pledged’.
Pic: Getty Images
However, they dropped the ball. The SCSF website claimed that £2m had been promised by ‘Sport England’, a charity with the purpose of bringing accessible sport to everyone around the country. Highly unlikely, considering how many unanswered questions there were surrounding the takeover, especially concerning the possibility of a relocation for the boroughs one and only football club in the top leagues. This claim was false. No deal had been made and ‘Sport England’ had even previously contacted them to take down the false information. It was this dishonesty that dealt the takeover its first real stumble.
Throughout late 2016, council meetings regarding the CPO were pushed back one after another, until finally in January 2017 Lewisham council announced that the deal was being pulled due to the necessity of an independent inquiry. The fan-driven campaign had won. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat provides a utopian afternoon for fans worldwide but the story of how ‘The Den’ was saved redefined the true importance of what a football club can bring to a community. It showed a collective unity amongst the local public despite members of the authorities running thin and turning their backs.
It can’t be denied that the area is in need of regenerating. As you go along the Surrey Canal cycle highway, the surrounding environment is decaying in some parts, but there is no reason why the club can’t play a key role in that. It was as early as 2013 that Lewisham council stated they would be working solely with ‘Renewal’ on this project, with a complete disregard for how that would affect the local area.
There’s a strong argument to be made that if Millwall were a top tier club then this wouldn’t be a concern. It would be a far easier sell to foreign or local investment if you had a Premier League team to tease them with. What isn’t factored in though was that people care for more than twenty teams up and down the country. They provide more to the community than a fan shop around the corner. Identity, charity, something to moan at. All of it.
On the 28th November 2017, the inquiry cleared ‘Renewal’ and the council of any wrongdoing, culminating in the possibility of a possible deal in the near future. The head of the inquiry, Lord Dyson, claimed ‘Renewal is the obvious developer’ with the idea that if left as it is, the area would remain undeveloped for years to come.
Steve Bullock will be vacating his position as mayor in the summer and the man set to replace, Damien Egdan, has stated his desires for Millwall to remain in SE16. This issue may well still come back again with Renewal still holding out for a deal. If it does, show your support. It’s not a case of supporting the team, it’s about keeping an area enriched with its distinctiveness and enhancing the identity that made it so loved in the first place.
Words: Fred Kavanagh