The Lions are hunting a return to Wembley but the incidents around the Everton game earlier in the FA Cup run show nothing has changed since the violence at the 2013 semi-final
Millwall host Brighton on Sunday in an FA Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Nigel Keene/ProSports/Rex/Shutterstock

In football, it has always been easier to get a bad reputation than to lose one. Therefore, I can probably guess the common answer, now they stand within one FA Cup victory of reaching Wembley, if this question is put to your ordinary football fan: what immediately comes to mind when you hear Millwall’s name?

Unfortunately for all those who have tried to change the perception of Millwall over the years, I doubt very much that most people would reply by pointing out they were the Football League’s family club of the year in 2017 or that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has recently acclaimed their community work.

Garry Robson, the author and sociologist, sums it up in his book No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care. “It [Millwall] has become a byword for, amongst other things, violent mob thuggery, unreconstructed masculinity, dark and impenetrable urban culture and working-class ‘fascism’,” he writes. “The archetypal status of the Millwall fan is a vexed and complex one in which myth and reality have perhaps become so closely intertwined that even some of those most closely involved are unsure as to where the one might end and the other begin. It is a story of violence and mayhem both real and apocryphal, of particular and localised patterns of masculine culture and of the ways in which popular representation of that culture meet with subcultural self‑definition in dialectics of identity.” Or, to put it another way, it can be a bit rum down there.

It certainly hasn’t been easy for Millwall to change the way people regard the club’s role in English football. It is a reputation formed over decades and it hasn’t been dampened recently by the video footage of that Everton fan being slashed across the face, all the way from his temple to the corner of his mouth, before their FA Cup tie in January. Even the more determined football hooligans, by and large, operate to some kind of code. What this incident told us was that Millwall’s seemed to be different to the rest, nastier, and did not go by normal rules. It feeds the stereotype. It hardens the image and that, in turn, makes it even more difficult to present any kind of defence on the club’s behalf. Unless, that is, you want to risk sounding in denial.

It is a curious paradox, though, when there is another argument that Millwall, approached one way, might actually be one of the safer grounds to visit in London and certainly a great deal less stressful than the days, for example, when Arsenal’s Gooner fanzine described the experience of getting in and out of Cold Blow Lane “like being on manoeuvres in some enemy-infested outpost of Vietnam”.

Walk out of South Bermondsey station these days and there is a specially created turning directly outside to funnel away supporters on their own route to the new(ish) Den. On non-match days this route is just a normal pathway, favoured by dog-walkers and joggers, with the trains from London Bridge rattling by and the Shard visible in the distance. When Millwall are at home, however, it has another use entirely. The path runs parallel to the train lines and is designed strategically to keep its users away from the streets surrounding the ground. It is surrounded by a 6ft-high metal fence, as well as a series of bolted gates to prevent anyone coming the other way, and it weaves along this back route for a few hundred yards before eventually coming out directly by the away end.

It works a treat if the idea, plainly, is to keep one set of supporters away from the other. But then you stop to think about it properly and what it says about Millwall that this kind of system is even necessary. I mean, where else in English football is it necessary to segregate everyone outside the ground as well as inside?

The route, incidentally, is known locally as “Cowards’ Way” and, on the last occasion I walked it, it was also a reminder about how far Millwall’s reputation stretches. The clues could be found on the stickers – Hooligans Magdeburg, Valenciennes Dragons, Südkurve München, Venezia, Auxerre, Torpedo Moscow on Tour – that have been left as calling cards on the various lampposts. Millwall’s notoriety appears to have made this patch of SE16 a tourist attraction. A potential scalp, too, for a certain kind of supporter. Unless you believe the mob of Everton that headed for Surrey Quays – or Surrey Docks, as it used to be known, before that little swathe of Rotherhithe was renamed by property developers – merely wanted to introduce themselves to the locals for a discussion about house prices.

If all this sounds slightly lopsided, it is not to ignore the work of the Millwall Community Trust, the number of events that are put on every day at the Lions Centre and the fact that a new generation of supporters will be more familiar with Zampa the Lion, the club’s mascot, rather than Harry the Dog, leader of F-Troop, Millwall’s old hooligan firm, as featured in a 1977 Panorama documentary.

In Mel’s cafe on Ilderton Road the posters on the wall declare “Lions have Pride not Prejudice”. Millwall have positive links with groups such as Show Racism the Red Card and have embraced local projects such as the Save Lewisham hospital campaign. There are plenty of people connected to the club who will argue there is more good than bad, that the media need to change the tune and that a lot has changed since the days when BBC Radio 5 had an advertising poster for “Earthquakes, Wars and Millwall reports as they happen”. And, to a degree, it is true. Millwall are not always the sap in football’s family tree. It is just difficult sometimes to accept this sugarcoated version of events when there is also mobile‑phone footage from that Everton game of the home supporters in the Dockers stand singing: “I would rather be a Paki than a scouse.”

Millwall’s chief executive, Steve Kavanagh, subsequently talked about the club being damaged by 30 to 40 people. It looks and sounds like more. “This isn’t just a Millwall thing,” Kavanagh said. “This happens across society … we can’t be responsible for educating the whole of south-east London.” Maybe, but it is difficult to imagine the same happening at, say, Charlton or Crystal Palace and Kavanagh was pushing his luck when he said it would be untrue to say this kind of chant had not been heard at other football grounds this season. A simple call to Kick It Out confirms there have been absolutely no reports of anything similar happening elsewhere.

Millwall celebrate during their FA Cup fourth-round win over Everton. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

The difficult truth for Millwall is that racism has been an issue at the Den more times than the club would probably wish to remember. In the interest of balance, they were also the first club to form an anti-racist committee and one of the first to include what would now be known as BAME players (Hussein Hegazi, of Egyptian descent, being their first in 1912). They are also far from the only set of supporters with a prodigious history of trouble. Yet the relevant people may have to forgive me for not being entirely convinced when Rod Liddle, of all people, once appeared to be the go-to guy for arguing that people should get off Millwall’s backs.

It turned out Liddle also went by the pseudonym of Monkeymfc on a messageboard, Millwall Online, where he posted, allegedly, derogatory comments about Somalis, made jokes about Auschwitz and called for the axing of black-only organisations (“Fuck them, close them down. Why do blacks need a forum of their own?”). Liddle initially claimed in the Mail on Sunday he must have been hacked, then admitted posting most of the comments, but denied being responsible for one that suggested black people were less intelligent than white people or Asians. “All of these things are twisted out of context to make me look like a cunt. I may be a cunt but I’m not a racist cunt,” he said. Of course not.

To return to the original point, the problem for Millwall is that it is never going to be easy to shift their reputation. No ground has been closed down more times because of crowd trouble (the first time, in 1920, because the Newport goalkeeper had been pelted with missiles and, according to one report from the time, “flattened” by a “useful right hook”). The chanting against Everton is the subject of a Football Association disciplinary case and, if the Championship team can overcome Brighton on Sunday, perhaps you might remember the last time they reached an FA Cup semi-final, against Wigan Athletic in 2013, when all their hard work was undermined by the pictures from Wembley of dozens of fans brawling with one another.

Millwall’s press department subsequently informed journalists that the club would accept the blame only “if” it was proven to be their fans. When the FA put together a statement condemning the violence, liaising with Millwall as a courtesy, the club took offence at the passage saying it was “Millwall supporters” and insisted that part was removed. The relevant line was changed to refer to trouble “in the Millwall end”. And in the following days Millwall kept up this drip-drip process of trying to shift the blame on to others. “There were people in there from both teams,” the chairman, John Berylson, claimed. Ayse Smith, of the supporters’ club committee, suggested rival fans must have had tickets for the Millwall end.

Mick McCarthy tells a rather amusing story about bumping into an old friend during the early 1990s, informing him that he was now the player-manager of Millwall, and the instinctive reaction of his friend’s wife being: “How embarrassing!” The same two words could be used to describe how the club tried to rewrite the story of what happened at Wembley that day and one of those occasions when it became clear that an element of Millwall’s following were going to live up to the words of their most famous song.

No one likes them, they don’t care. It’s not quite that black and white – but it will probably always be that way for as long as the relevant people, to quote that old Panorama documentary, go by the belief that “the glory comes not from the team but from the reputation of its supporters”.