When we last wrote a feature on Millwall in September 2015, their bitter wrangle with the local authority had not quite come to a head. The club and its supporters were already worried about the interest of Renewal – an offshore company with ambitions of being at the heart of local 'regeneration' – in the land around their home ground, The Den, but it was not until September the following year that Lewisham Council voted in favour of a compulsory purchase order (CPO) on the land rented and used by the club, kicking off an all-out war. Since then, Millwall have won a series of victories, aided by the vigorous campaigning of fan groups, high-profile allies in football and dogged reporting from, amongst others, Private Eye, The Guardian and specifically senior Guardian sports writer Barney Ronay. What has been uncovered is a story of unsettling relationships between developers and politicians, nebulous business practises behind the scenes and, all in all, everything which is most unsavoury about the process of gentrification against the interests of the existing community. The revelations have been so damaging that the CPO has – as of January – been called off, and Renewal's designs on the area set back some considerable way.
While some members of Lewisham Council have been instrumental in reviewing and ultimately rejecting the original CPO, the scandal has been extremely embarrassing for the council as a whole. As reported by The Guardian and Ronay, the labyrinthine links between Renewal and a collection of current and former council officials are too close for comfort, which is no doubt one of the reasons that there is to be an independent inquiry into the CPO which will cost the public around £500,000. Had the CPO gone through, it was suggested that Millwall would have had to leave London, while local residents would have been ousted from their homes in the club's secluded corner of Bermondsey. For a Labour-dominated council to have favoured an enigmatic offshore entity over those residents is damning enough, but going to war with a famous, historically working-class football club – and losing spectacularly – represents a huge public relations gaffe, especially at a time when the Labour Party is accused by its opponents of being run by a cosy and out-of-touch elite.
It should be noted that the Millwall hierarchy are not opposed to redevelopment per se, but want to be more involved in the process in order to safeguard the club's financial future and facilities. The land around The Den could certainly do with some TLC, but were Millwall to be sidelined from regeneration plans for the area the club would find itself isolated in an increasingly competitive game. Certainly the much-lauded Millwall Community Trust would have been evicted had the CPO gone ahead, this despite its headquarters playing host to walking football for the over fifties, disability activities, coaching sessions for local youngsters and so on, much of which would have been threatened by relocation. Again, to have sided with a profiteering offshore company over the community reflects incredibly badly on a predominantly Labour council, as does the fact that Renewal's regeneration plans included an embarrassingly low number of affordable homes.
Though the CPO of the land around The Den has been killed dead for the moment, there are still fears among some fans and outside observers that Renewal's plans will be resurrected, with anxieties likely to linger on for as long as Lewisham Council fail to give the club assurances on a more inclusive regeneration scheme. There are set to be mayoral elections in the borough next year – the current mayor, Steve Bullock, has come out of the CPO fiasco looking particularly ridiculous – with several potential Labour candidates already pledging to robustly assess the redevelopment process, and to put Millwall at the heart of any compromise decision. Before the mayoral race begins in earnest, however, there is a momentous general election to be contested. Owing to both their disillusionment with the status quo in Lewisham and their own distinct vision of local politics, Millwall fans have taken the bold step of putting their own candidate forward for the constituency of Lewisham East.
Though this is not the first time that a football club has been represented at a general election – Charlton fans famously formed The Valley Party ahead of the 1990 contest, while Blackburn supporters have also put forward a candidate this year – the Millwall Community campaign will certainly be one of the more esoteric political movements of recent times. Supported by the Millwall AMS supporters' group, their candidate is Willow Winston, a 72-year-old artist and sculptor who has found herself increasingly involved with Millwall over the past few years.
"Ever since I first moved to Bermondsey, I've been a secret supporter of Millwall," Willow tells VICE Sports over the phone. "I love hearing the match, and I can hear the wonderful cheers and sounds coming out of the stadium. I've always loved that, but I didn't used to go to matches, so I wasn't involved directly, only in my heart. I was always pleased when Millwall did well – and always a bit gutted when they didn't – but I've been really active with Millwall for the last year and a bit. I've even been playing football there. It's so-called walking football, but there are a few of us who run anyway." This is probably the closest thing the Millwall Community campaign will get to a scandalous revelation, which is more than can be said of the local Labour leadership.
As one of the residents threatened with eviction by the now defunct CPO, Willow has a stake in the struggle against Lewisham Council and Renewal. She has lived next to The Den for around 16 years, using a formerly derelict warehouse as her professional studio, in which time Labour has always dominated the council and provided the local Lewisham MPs – perhaps one of the reasons that some of their representatives seem to think they are above being held to account. That said, Willow's political platform is not limited to her own experiences, nor those of Millwall, even if the tussle against Lewisham Council serves as the crux of their campaign. "The real reason I'm doing this is to serve as an example, and to encourage other people to know that their freedom, their liberty, is in their hands, not in the hands of them, whoever they are, be they developers or our so-called rulers," she says with a characteristic flourish.
"We are our rulers, and our current rulers are employed by us, to make things work for us," Willow goes on. "I want this campaign to be a seed corn, for Millwall to be an example to any other district or area of the whole country if necessary. Wherever this sort of thing is happening, wherever people are getting a raw deal, I want them to know they can stand up and speak for themselves, and if they are not strong they have to do so in groups." Millwall fans certainly have experience of this, with their grassroots social media campaigns and mass petitions helping to foster the media coverage which eventually made Lewisham Council relent. "We have so many problems in our society that we have to tackle, and we can only tackle them by showing to people that they themselves can join in," Willow goes on. "We have to provide ways of that being so, and I think that Millwall does that extremely well in our area. There are all sorts of organisations doing the same, and that's what I support, so I want Millwall to be a shining example to areas all over the country, because we are a shining example."
While this may sound strange to someone who is only familiar with the club's troubled public image – not helped by the high-profile incidents which tend to crop up when Millwall's day trippers are about the place – Millwall as a football club are often singled out for praise within the game. The club hierarchy has long attempted to combat their association with historical hooliganism, they go above and beyond for the community and they are even in Show Racism The Red Card's Hall of Fame. This side of the club is underrepresented in the media, however, which has perhaps led some of their opponents to think of them as an easy target. If those behind the local land grab thought the club wouldn't be much missed in the area, they were sorely mistaken, as shown both by the ferocious fightback and the presence of longstanding community figures like Willow in their campaign.
Willow is not a one-issue candidate, then, so much as someone whose experiences of local government have forced her to take a stand on wider issues such as gentrification, the cronyism associated with it and the political disenfranchisement that comes about as a result. She is certainly engaging enough to carve out a place for herself in public life, making a scathing assessment of development and regeneration under Boris Johnson's tenure as London Mayor, and even pulling off a relatively convincing impression of the least sincere politician of our times.
"Johnson thought it would be marvellous to have all these new homes," she says sarcastically. "But screw that, they are not new homes, they are not homes for anybody. You destroy a neighbourhood, you build a whole load of things which look like a second-class Battersea, which itself is a third-class development – absolutely ugly as sin – and you say it's satisfying the need for new houses. The thing is, nobody is living in them, because they can't afford them, or else they have already been sold to overseas consortia that buy them in quantity and sell them on to investors. That's how it works, and it has nothing to do with solving the real problems in society, the problem of jobs, the problem of a lack of self-value, and so on."
Willow isn't short of memorable soundbites, and there is certainly genuine passion in her rhetoric, not to mention a considerable amount of common sense. She is full of praise for Millwall, and especially the work the club does in the community. "Millwall has become a paragon, I have to say. The club should be used as an example to many others as to how you do good in the local area, and there's a lot of disadvantage in this area, of course. The club really do a tremendous amount for education, for health – I play football there with the other ancients, we have the best fun ever – and the club also offer their facilities to people with disabilities of all sorts, including people with mental health problems, which is really important."
Ultimately, when a football club is already picking up the slack for the sort of community projects no longer funded by the Conservatives, it is sad to think that local Labour representatives would nonetheless marginalise that club in a crucial regeneration scheme. Willow is relatively restrained when asked about the current Labour council, though she does say – exempting those councillors who helped scupper the CPO – that the council "has failed us abysmally. They have failed the football club, and they have failed the community." The accumulative stress of fighting the CPO has certainly taken its toll on fans and residents, as exemplified by Willow's comments on her battle against eviction. "My mind now is much more tied up with Millwall than my own situation, to tell you the truth, partly because I'm bored with my own situation," she laughs. "It's been going on for six and a half years, I don't know what the ultimate outcome will be, and if I thought too deeply about it and started to become frightened, that would be unpleasant, so I try not to.
"I'm much more concerned with the overall patterns here, because this is a matter of the most serious principle," Willow adds. If there is one message to take away from the Millwall Community campaign, then, it is that local government – whether in a party stronghold or otherwise – should be fully accountable to the people it represents. While this is a hugely consequential election in which there are bigger things at stake than any one football club, Willow's ideals seem to be those of transparency, society and prioritising people over profit. Those should, in normal circumstances, be Labour Party ideals as well, something which ought to make Lewisham Council think long and hard about their failings over the last few years.