Millwall living FA Cup dream amid harsh reality of impending Championship relegation fight
LONDON -- For two clubs who have caught the attention of Hollywood scriptwriters, this Fifth Round FA Cup tie was a rather low-key affair.
The story of AFC Wimbledon, the phoenix club formed by fans after the original Wimbledon FC relocated from South London to Milton Keynes, is being turned into a film by American studio Fox 2000.
Millwall's reputation for fan violence earned the club's fans the dubious honour of a depiction in the much-mocked 2005 hooligan hagiography Green Street Hooligans.
But having each claimed massive upsets of Premier League clubs in the FA Cup fourth round -- Wimbledon putting paid to West Ham United, Millwall seeing off Everton -- the draw for the fifth round offered up more prosaic fare. Not Manchester United, not Manchester City, not Chelsea, but in both cases, unfashionable opponents from 11 miles away across the South London suburbs.
Each of the teams that faced off at Wimbledon's 4,850-seater Cherry Red Records Stadium (Kingsmeadow) could lay claim to significant FA Cup pedigree. Millwall have achieved more upsets than any other team in the competition's 148-year history, while the original Wimbledon's sensational victory over Liverpool in the 1988 final remains one of the tournament's most enduring tales.
Of more pressing current concern, for both teams, is the looming threat of relegation. Wimbledon sit rock-bottom of League One and face the first demotion since the club was re-formed in 2002. Millwall are too close to the bottom three in the Championship for comfort. The FA Cup will always be a welcome distraction for clubs outside the top flight, not least from a financial perspective, but it remains a distraction nonetheless.
In recent times, the two clubs have also been exercised by the question of where they play their football. Wimbledon are due to move into a new stadium at Plough Lane, a stone's throw from the site of Wimbledon FC's original home, for the start of the 2020-21 season. Millwall are tentatively looking to the future themselves after a fraught, fan-led campaign to prevent their own stadium, The Den, from being sold to developers.
The Den staged Millwall's fourth-round win over Everton, a game played to a raucous, rain-soaked climax in which Murray Wallace drilled home a dramatic stoppage-time winner. But the match was overshadowed by appalling violence, a pitched battle between dozens of rival fans leaving one visiting supporter with a grotesque scar stretching from the corner of his mouth to his right ear after he was slashed in the face. The Football Association is also investigating claims of racist chanting by Millwall fans during the game.
In the eyes of those who watch Millwall regularly, the people responsible for the Everton violence were opportunistic thugs with no real football connections, rather than committed match-going fans. There was only room for 771 Millwall supporters at Wimbledon and the game passed off without incident.
The home team, all in blue, threatened to make an ideal start, Joe Piggott volleying against the post from Shane McCloughlin's cross, but in the fifth minute Millwall went ahead when Wallace drove into the box to head home a cross from Ryan Leonard.
Conspicuously quiet prior to that point, the Millwall fans crammed beneath the corrugated iron roof of the squat Rygas Stand thundered their approval, bursting into a chorus of the club's signature chant: "No one likes us, we don't care!"
As Wimbledon pressed forwards in search of an equaliser in the second half, so they left space at the back for Millwall's day-glo orange hordes to exploit. Aiden O'Brien, Shaun Williams and Leonard all drew saves from the excellent Aaron Ramsdale.
Referee Jonathan Moss seemed to have offered the hosts a reprieve when he pointed to the spot after Andy Barcham went down in the box with 19 minutes remaining, but an offside flag brought the home fans' cheers to an abrupt halt. It was not to be Wimbledon's day, as Millwall held on for a 1-0 victory.
After registering only their second away win of the season, Millwall can now look forward to the 10th FA Cup quarter-final appearance in their history, and third in seven years.
Millwall manager Neil Harris described it is "an unbelievable achievement for a club of our size", but confessed: "As happy as I am now, our attention quickly turns to Wednesday night's [league] game against Derby." His opposite number, Wally Downes, told a similar story.
"We played well enough today and hopefully they'll take that on now," he said. "The cup has been a wonderful distraction for us. We haven't got an FA Cup final, but we've got 14 of our own cup finals."
Amid the harsh winter of an English relegation fight, the glow of the FA Cup only keeps you warm for so long.