Sport Soccer

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Irish stars in second tier gear up for push to promised land

Ireland international and Preston striker Sean Maguire is
tackled by Millwall’s Ben Thompson and Millwall’s Mahlon Romeo. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Ireland international and Preston striker Sean Maguire is tackled by Millwall’s Ben Thompson and Millwall’s Mahlon Romeo. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

David Sneyd

Kids line up at the back of the Cold Blow Lane Stand at Millwall's New Den to get free bottles of chocolate milk. It is a scorching hot day in south east London, but Huski, a Swedish drinks company, are the club's new primary sponsors and are being generous on this opening Saturday of a new Championship season.

A young boy has a football at his feet and is attempting to do keepie-uppies. He gets to five and the ball drops. Then seven. Then four. He makes it to nine and his father encourages him to stay at it as more boys and girls buzz about in anticipation.

On a grass verge, old friends with new tans from the summer who only see each other on Saturdays like this are catching up after time away. Some eat homemade sandwiches from tinfoil, others have cans of warm beer for company.

Ireland internationals Aiden O'Brien, Shaun Williams and Alex Pearce - named club captain after signing permanently from Derby County - are all in the starting XI for the home side, while Seán Maguire and Alan Browne start for Preston North End.

"You get to the stadium and all you want is for the match to start straight away, I hate the waiting around. You want to be let loose and play because you've worked your arse off all pre-season," Williams says.

An hour or so before kick-off and the wait goes on. Williams and his team-mates pop caffeine shots to supplement the buzz of adrenalin.

At the opposite corner of the ground to the Cold Blow Lane Stand is the Millwall Café, a small establishment converted at the end of a long row of businesses which are housed in a low-rise warehouse.

The walls are littered with signed pictures of players, past and present, as well as memorabilia from the 2004 FA Cup final defeat to Manchester United.

It is a place where older regulars bring their own mugs for tea and coffee. Painted on a bridge just outside, leading to the ground, is graffiti that reads: Refugees Welcome.

But that is not the perception of Millwall.

The start of a new season always brings a renewed sense of hope, but old problems are never far away.

Only a few days before they began their Championship campaign, the English FA fined the club £10,000 for racist chanting from a section of their support during the 3-2 win over Everton in the fourth round of the FA Cup last January.

These are issues that are difficult to shake and the battle to do so goes on, but as 3pm on the opening day of the season closes in only one thing matters: winning.

A sublime first-half volley from Jed Wallace is enough for Millwall and the final whistle is greeted with a raucous cheer.

Peppered through the 90 minutes is the same chant from the home supporters.

"No one likes us, no one likes us,

"No one likes us, we don't care!

"We are Millwall, super Millwall,

"We are Millwall from The Den."

It is well known by this point, only there is plenty to admire. Millwall, in the Isle of Dogs district, is a memory of old London.

Staring across from the press box, the skyscrapers of CitiBank, JP Morgan and HSBC from nearby Canary Wharf tower over the Dockers Stand - another nod to its working-class roots.

Williams (32) is part of that history having played over 250 games for the club since joining from MK Dons in January 2014.

His life has changed since arriving. He is a father now - Freddie is two, Frankie five - and both are waiting along with his wife in the players' lounge.

"I'll go in now and Freddie will be running around wrecking the place, Frankie is good as gold and can take him anywhere."

Three points may have been secured, but that hasn't prevented Williams from getting a dressing down from the team's nutritionist in the dressing room.

"Your head is spinning now," he explains. "I've just got an earful in there because I don't want to eat anything. The adrenalin is still going and they want us to eat pasta and all sorts but I would rather just be left to it for now.

"Everyone has different feelings after a game. Not everyone is the same. I'll just go home and try and relax and have a Chinese later.

"This is a game of emotions, ya know," Williams continues.

"We were building towards this game and we're buzzing because we won. We're the lucky ones now, but it's a long season and we'll get plenty of knocks along the way.

"You have to be strong mentality to deal with that. You only deal with those emotions, of closing them out at times, with experience."

At the opposite end of the scale is Williams' friend, Seán Maguire. The Preston striker had family waiting for him beside the team coach as he prepared to head back to the north of England with only his frustration for company.

"You're gearing up for this day for so long and then you get beat and feel like it all came to nothing. When you lose games like that and don't score you come away and you hate football. You absolutely hate it," he admits.

"My missus will be dreading me coming home because she knows I'll be in a bad mood for the whole weekend."

Maguire is 25 and while this is only his third season in England he knows, like Williams, that there is a long road to go.

"There are so many games, another 45, like, and you have to just forget about this three points and move on to the next one."

They won't all be sunny days like this. Winter will soon close in.

Irish Independent

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