A trip to Millwall’s blue-collar Den on a sunny Saturday afternoon can jolt the senses of the adrenaline junkie. If that doesn’t suit, an enjoyable Sunday of pristine football at Fulham’s celebrated Craven Cottage can appease the neutral.

It is possible to understand the football scene in London in just 24 hours, as I attempted to do in a whirlwind weekend of February action. There are few cities that contain so many different worlds in one, and on FA Cup days, the cultural gap is apparent.

As south London’s Millwall travels to the north of the city for an FA Cup quarter-final against Tottenham, a look into one of the sport’s nerve centres reveals a sprawling network of classes, politics, and economics – not to mention the sheer volume of games on at any given time.

Humbling experience

Just this week alone, according to the London Football Guide, more than 90 matches had been scheduled to take place in the London area across professional, semi-pro, and amateur leagues. Sometimes, as in the case of Arsenal’s FA Cup clash against non-league Lincoln City at the lush Emirates Stadium, the fixture list can pit Premier League stars against part-timers.

The dichotomy truly comes to life in the FA Cup, which does not discriminate or have any borders. The magic of the cup lies in the opportunities smaller clubs receive.

When Sutton United drew Arsenal in the the fifth round, the players, crowded into a conference room, exploded with excitement. The chance to host a top Premier League team is what these players crave. In some cases, like Sutton’s manager, they aren’t paid. Most have other jobs. A share of the limelight, and a chance to down a giant, is exactly what the FA Cup provides.

Related – Gallery: Arsenal ends Sutton United’s FA Cup fairy tale

It is one of the only times multi-million-pound men traverse patchy fields that force the ball to bobble and encourage direct football; a match in mud, not one on carefully mowed lawns, harkens back to the roots of the game. It is a humbling experience.

‘No one likes us’

It was all laid bare at Millwall’s previous FA Cup fixture against Leicester City.

A trip to The Den, long considered the home of London’s notorious hooligans, also proved there is a lot wrong with the reputation of these smaller clubs, specifically this lot of so-called yahoos and rabble-rousers.

The fans in attendance shouted and intimidated, but never put anyone in danger. The picture didn’t match the common view of Millwall supporters as criminals looking to brawl.

These are hardy people, no doubt. An elderly woman wouldn’t take any verbal backlash from a male partner who wanted her seat. She barked right back until he caved and went to find a spot in the standing section atop the stand.

Another fan in his 40s, his courage to yell at strangers fuelled by pre-match alcohol, also berated the swarms of people winding through the turnstiles for their so-called part-time support. “Where’ve you all come from? I’m here week in, week out,” he cried.

Attendance at Millwall is generally in the mid-to-high thousands on matchdays in League One, England’s third tier, but on this day it was close to its 20,000-seat capacity.

The famous chant rang out over and over, “No one likes us, we don’t care.” They hurled insults at Leicester players on the sideline – forcing defender Ben Chilwell, according to one Millwall player’s account, to abandon throw-in duties.

There is a sense they don’t belong. But as a collection of people, there is overwhelming pride. Most are from working-class backgrounds, and the stadium itself is surrounded by modest street-side businesses and housing.

“The smaller the club, the more attached it is in the community,” James Doe, the founder of London Football Guide, told the New York Times in a 2013 interview.

The actual football on display was poor – not even the defending Premier League champion could get anything going – and that is the advantage of hosting titans on a bad pitch. The game is a quagmire, and the atmosphere rules.

And when Shaun Cummings bundled home the winner in the 90th minute, the whole place went berserk; at full-time, the stewards didn’t even attempt to contain the crowd flooding onto the pitch. Police horses galloped to corral the hundreds of fans as Status Quo’s “Rockin’ All Over the World” played on the loud speakers. Children swung their scarves and posed for pictures; the older fans shouted at their counterparts in the away end, but contrary to media reports, little was actually thrown.

“The Millwall fans can be tough,” former Millwall assistant Joe Gallen told the Guardian’s David Hytner. “They can be great – once they are on your side, they can be amazing. Once they’re against you, they tell you how it is.”

‘Tea and cucumber sandwiches’

The mayhem at The Den was a world away from Craven Cottage – even if separated by just a 15-kilometre drive.

As Tottenham easily dispatched Fulham 3-0, courtesy of a Harry Kane hat-trick, the home supporters rarely stirred up emotions. “Come on, Fulham,” was the odd chant at a respectable volume. For the remainder of the day, it was the visitors who filled the air with noise.

Craven Cottage, right on the River Thames, surrounded by beautiful white-washed terraced homes, is a lovely place to watch football. It is, as former NY Times correspondent Sam Borden described, the “Switzerland of the city.” There is a dedicated stand for neutrals and a host of cultures and different accents in the stands, and players face no abuse on the sidelines.

“The Cottage is a landmark of football; there is no other building quite like it … just like a cricket pavilion has benches overlooking the pitch and lends itself to tea and cucumber sandwiches,” wrote Simon Inglis, author of the Football Grounds of Great Britain.

Opened in 1896, it has history too as one of the oldest stadiums in the land, with old rugged wooden seating still intact. The place is treasured by football purists, and even if the atmosphere doesn’t inspire, watching a game there is like a time warp, some distance away from today’s cavernous venues.

London has a bit of everything for everyone, even for outsiders like Millwall. But as clubs like Tottenham and Arsenal try to globalise and attract fans from far-away markets, it’s clear that the regional sides still preserve the local flavour.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)

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