Having been to Premier League games in the past, I was looking forward to expanding my football experience by attending a Championship in London and comparing that to my experience at bigger clubs in the top flight. Environment, venue and facilities, fan passion, style of play, talent level – just how different is a Championship match from one in the Premier League?
After a near 9-hour flight from Atlanta to London and a day of exploring the area surrounding our flat near the Edgware Road Underground Station, I started preparing myself for the Millwall against Brentford game on March 10 at the notorious Lion’s Den in Southeast London. I familiarized myself with each team’s roster and lineup, did some research on the managers, and reviewed the table and recent results.
Both based in London, Millwall and Brentford sit less than fifteen miles apart and this season they’re separated by only a few points in the table, making this match particularly meaningful.
On matchday, we took the Underground from Edgware Road to Embankment station where we enjoyed a couple of seriously good cold-pressed juices from a stand right outside the station. Juices in hand, we crossed the River Thames on the Golden Jubilee Bridge, then ambled along the Queen’s Walk, winding through the thick crowd of tourists, past the London Eye and London Aquarium, before heading back across the Thames on Westminster Bridge with its view of Parliament and Big Ben.
An hour or so before kickoff, we ducked into Westminster station where we jumped on a Jubilee Line train headed to the Canada Water station in Surrey Quays, a 20-minute walk from The Den. As we emerged from the station, we knew we were in the right place as we came across a small but rowdy group of navy-and-white clad Millwall fans.
We navigated our way through a supermarket parking lot that emptied us out into residential neighborhoods near Southwark Park.
After 15 minutes (and a few wrong turns), we encountered large groups of supporters streaming toward The Den. A sort of alleyway with white fences on either side helped to funnel the fans toward the stadium. As we approached, the energy began to heighten and our anticipation continued to grow. Neon-clad cops mounted on massive horses patrolled the area just outside The Den to help discourage any unruly supporters from getting out of hand.
Standing outside the stadium, there’s a clear difference in size compared to the big six Premier League stadiums that I’ve visited. While modern, The Den has a capacity of 20,000 and the Lions average attendance the last several seasons is around half that. In comparison, Old Trafford has a capacity of nearly 76,000, and both Emirates and Anfield have around 60,000 seats. Still, the size of the stadium did not diminish our anticipation for the game.
After admiring the outside of The Den while devouring a burger and fries, we headed toward our turnstile on the other side of the ground. We waited in a short line before getting patted down by police officers and shuffling through the narrow entrance to the tunnel. Once inside, we made our way to block 42 to our seats in the Lower Dockers Stand, row E, just a few rows from the pitch. While Premier League stadiums may be bigger, The Den allowed us to get a much different perspective of the game – almost at eye-level with the players – giving us a better feel for the speed of play.
A few minutes after settling into our seats, the starting lineups were announced. By this point, the fans had finished their beers and made their way out of the tunnel and into their seats. With about 13,000 fans now inside The Den, the noise level began to rise as the Millwall fans sang their chants with extreme passion. The Brentford players had to know they were in for a long game.
Within a minute of kickoff, Brentford turned the ball over around their own box and George Saville scored for Millwall. The Lions were off to a lightning start, setting off an eruption from the home fans.
About five minutes later, Brentford won a corner which led to a goal but after some conversing with the linesman, the ref called it offside. As the game played on, the skill level compared to Premier League players became clear. Millwall, in particular, tried to make up for a lack of technical skill by playing a physical and direct style, while Brentford did well passing the ball along the ground.
Throughout the second half, Brentford dictated the majority of the play hitting both the bar and post but they never found the equalizer. To the relief of the Millwall fans, the Lions walked away with a hard fought 1-0 win. Both teams displayed moments of exceptional attacking threat, but they lack that bit of quality that is required to score goals. Candidly, Brentford deserved the win – or at least a draw, considering how well they played – but Millwall sat deep and made it difficult for them to break through.
A key player was Brentford’s Ryan Woods, who sat in the middle of the pitch all game and completely set the tone. His touch on the ball combined with crisp passing and intelligent movement helped spread the pitch for the Bees, allowing each player more time on the ball.
Though boisterous, Millwall’s supporters weren’t as unruly as their reputation suggested. The fans around us were fully engaged and cheered for their team loudly throughout the game while unleashing a steady, often amusing, stream of profanity when the situation called for it.
While the quality of play was not as good as a Premier League match, the atmosphere and proximity to the pitch made it a memorable afternoon in London. We even had a bit of sunshine early on in the game as the soccer gods shined down on the mighty Lions.
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