Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Living through years of Millwall promotions and relegations, FA Cup Finals, visits to the Old Wembley, visits to the New Wembley, Play-Off Finals and playing in Europe. Our guest for this interview has done all of these things, and along with remembering fond times on the pitch at both The Old Den and The New Den, he also has fond memories of the football club that was the reason behind his special relationship with his father. A number of these moments with his Dad were documented in the fantastic book 'Because My Dad Does', and this was followed up by the brilliant 'A Natural High' which focused on Millwall's promotion to the top flight. For this article, we sit down with Millwall author and life-long fan, Merv Payne.
1. Merv, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. First important question, how do you think the season is going so far?
I can honestly say that, certainly so far, this has been the strangest of seasons in my 42 years of following The Lions! In that time we've obviously had some very good and very, very bad seasons. There have also been some mediocre ones where we never looked like troubling the promotion places or in danger of the drop. On each occasion the team we put out and the way it played pretty much justified that season. For example, my first few years as a fan from 1979 until 1982 saw us hovering around mid-table mostly, with a team made up of youth prospects and journeymen. The football was pretty unremarkable but fans weren't surprised by that. Then in the season we almost went down to Division Four under Peter Anderson we saw some of the most inept displays you could possibly imagine and for many, relegation was accepted. Then George Graham turned up and sorted us out and you knew that, even if we lost, Graham would never allow his Millwall teams to do so without a fight.
His promotion side of 1984/85 was a real thing of beauty and you could tell early on that this was a team going places. Similarly, our other promotion or play-off chasing sides have produced exciting football, and the relegation-bound ones often looked doomed from the off so we knew what we were getting! Millwall fans have never expected success like many do, they just insist on being entertained, win, lose or draw. So what we have this season is a bizarre situation. I think it's only fair to say the football is of the uninspiring type you'd expect from a mediocre mid-table Millwall team, yet we have one of the strongest squads we've had at this level. The fact that we are in such a healthy league position after nicking wins makes it all the more odd, and fans are so desperate for the football to be more exciting that some want the manager replaced.
The reality is, no team at this level, on our resources would even consider sacking a manager of a team that is in 8th place, four points from third and with just two defeats in the last dozen league matches stretching back to August, regardless of the manner in which the wins are coming. Now I'm not announcing myself as chairman of the Gary Rowett fan club, but just trying to have a balanced view. I've heard some on social media saying that they would rather we lost being a bit reckless or more ambitious but that just makes me think of Ian 'play five strikers' Holloway and I really don't want to go back to those days. The bottom line for me is I believe every football team has a playing identity ingrained in it. If you look back at the successful Millwall teams they've all been direct, but entertaining. Not out and out hoofball, but not total tippy tappy either. When we've found that perfect blend of the two - as George Graham, John Docherty, Kenny Jackett and Neil Harris did, we see exciting, pacey football, dazzling wing play and swashbuckling midfielders, all topped off with scorers of great goals. The real shame for me is I believe we have that in our squad bu Rowett doesn't seem to want to use it to it's full potential.
I feel exactly the same way about Gareth Southgate and England. Sure we don't quite have the embarrassment of riches that he has, but we do have the personnel I feel to play like those great teams of old. I really hope he has a change of heart but can't see it myself and it's a shame because I do like him as a manager and when he first arrived we seemed to play some really good stuff. Feels a bit like it all went a bit sour as soon as Covid first kicked in after that great win at Forest.
Bloody hell I went on a bit there didn't I? Sorry!
2. Many Millwall fans know you as the author of such fantastic books including ‘Because My Dad Does’ and ‘A Natural High’, with both telling the stories of you and your family journey with Millwall. How did the idea of the books come about?
I've always loved reading and dreamed of writing a book when I was a kid. Like most people, my childhood ambitions were shelved once I became an adult. After my dad passed in 2007 I wrote a tribute to him for the House of Fun website. I had been regular on there for years and met quite a few HoFers at matches and many of them - especially Paul Neve who set Hof up - had met my dad. It started out as my eulogy for his funeral service but was obviously way too long which is why I decided to post it on Hof instead. About a week later I started getting emails and texts from friends saying they'd read it all over the Internet. It sort of went viral - or at least as viral as you could go in 2007, which was nice because sharing my story and finding that it resonated with som many fans of different clubs was a great comfort in the tough weeks and months after he passed. Then it was forgotten about for a few years.
At the time I worked for The Sunday Sport newspaper and they took on a consultant, a chap called James Brown. He's the guy that created Loaded Magazine and is often seen as one of the talking heads on football programmes. He sat opposite me and as he's a big Leeds fan we often chatted about our various footballing ups and downs. At the time he was putting together an online magazine called Sabotage Times and asked me if I would like to submit something for consideration. I didn't really have a clue what to write, so just sent him the link to what had become known as 'Because My Dad Does' because of the story's final line about why I support Millwall. He loved it and it became one of the first and it turns out, most popular pieces on there. He told me I should turn it into a book but I wasn't so sure, I didn't know where to start. He put me in touch with some great contacts in publishing who gave me some great advice but after loads of false starts I just couldn't get it to work so I ditched the idea. That was about 2009. Literally every year after that I vowed to do the book but it never happened.
Then in 2018 I had a different idea about doing a book just about Millwall's promotion season of 1987/88 when they won the Second Division title and went up to the First Division for the first time. I thought that would be an easier place to start as a first book. Then as I wrote it, I found myself weaving loads of stories not just about that season, but earlier in my childhood into it and it sort of morphed into the book James Brown had been telling me to write all those years ago. I was close to getting a publishing deal with it, but it never happened and I started to get a bit fed up with it all in August 2018. To be totally honest I was having a bit of a crap time all-round. I don't want to get all serious and trot out the mental health mantra, but let's just say I wasn't in the best of places! One morning late in August I woke up feeling a little worse for wear and had a weird question in my head: "If I popped my clogs today, what's the one thing that I hadn't done for myself that I would regret not doing?" I don't know where the question had come from, but the answer was easy: write that bloody book! So I sorted myself out, stopped getting stressed about work (I'm self-employed which can be great for writing, but also bad for paying the bills on time!) and published the book myself. I wasn't expecting any reaction at all, or even sales to be honest. I did it totally for my own satisfaction, to finally say: "Right, job done". To my total surprise it did quite well. JK Rowling never lost any sleep but, as with the initial piece that inspired it, the reaction from fans of all clubs was really heartwarming. The thing is I found the whole process very therapeutic. My Dad suffered from depression and reading helped him. Now I found writing was a fantastic way to detach myself from stuff in life that stressed me out and enabled me to reset. Six months later the book was still selling and I was missing the whole process of writing.
I never intended to write more, I assumed I'd get Because My Dad does out and that was that. I felt the obvious follow up was A Natural High, to continue the story. I decided to make it less personal though and just focus on Millwall. I'm pretty sure everyone had heard more than enough about me! I really enjoyed writing A Natural High, chatting to ex players and reliving those great days and I was utterly gobsmacked at the reaction to it. To be fair the cover did help, that shirt is so evocative for so many Millwall fans. Every time I see it I get chills. I can hear the Halfway Line roaring as we put another top flight team to the sword. Cas soaring to head home, Briley and Hurlock smashing in a crunching tackle, Jimmy Carter or Cally going on a mazy run down the wing and Teddy stood up on the fence of the Cold Blow celebrating another goal. I'm getting carried away again now. Sorry if things got a bit serious in that one too - that's actually the first time I've ever admitted some of that stuff!
3 . 'Because My Dad Does’ is an amazing read, and really shows just what football can do for families and bringing them close together over a common bond. How important was the football club in the relationship between you and your Dad?
Millwall was the relationship between me and Dad. He was old school. Got up, went to work, came home, watched the TV went to bed then at weekend it was Millwall on Saturday and pub Sunday lunchtime. He didn't go in for all this Gillette TV advert style stuff you see, or like the big moody black and white pictures you could buy in Athena (you're probably too young to remember that!). He was very distant, as I said before he had some issues which he dealt with himself very well. Mum was always very hands on, good at keeping me occupied but Dad was in the background. He felt it was just his job to provide, like I say very old school. Because of that, I craved something we could share. I had loads of books and comics and many of them depicted kids with their dads who were borderline superheroes. Making them stuff, playing football with them. All total bullshit of course, but not when you're seven! So that day he reluctantly agreed to my Mum's suggestion of: "Oh go on, take the boy down The Den", everything changed really. He took me fishing a few times but it bored me shitless and a couple of trips to the Stock Car racing at Wimbledon were OK, but that was all three of us. Millwall was just me and him, it was ours, and I liked it.
4. That first game you went to with your father was Carlisle United at home. What did you expect walking into The Den and feeling the euphoria of the 1-0 win?
It's mad, I remember it so well. Having such a good memory for stuff like that certainly comes in handy for writing, yet if my wife asks me to grab some milk while I'm out on the school run I'll forget within 30 seconds. My eldest son's mate was testing me on some Millwall trivia once in the pub when he found out I had written some books. I managed to answer everything, results, scorers, dates times. Afterwards he insisted I'm on the spectrum. I probably am. Anyway, back to Carlise at home, Saturday September 1st 1979 (you see, there I go again, I'm like bloody Rainman) it was just the most magical experience ever. The attendance was 5,000 but the roar when Kevin O'Callaghan scored the only goal was unlike anythying I'd ever heard before - compared to the polite cheers and applause at Wimbledon Stock Cars which was all I had to compare it to at least. But it wasn't just the volume of the atmosphere, it was the unrestrained passion and just pure honesty of it all. My dad was totally different at Millwall games. He was loud, funny, animated, his face literally lit up there. I can't adequately describe it in mere words but if you've seen the film Awakenings with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, the transformation that De Niro's character undergoes from vegetative state to animated madman is a pretty accurate (if a little over-the-top) comparison!
After that day I was hooked. I have to confess to being a big fan of the Liverpool team at the time (many were) watching them almost every week on TV, but this was so much better. Not just the being there, but the imperfection of it all. The moaning of the crowd when Millwall were playing badly, even the toxicity on bad days, it was all part of the experience. That first match we sat in the seats but two weeks later we were on the Cold Blow Lane terrace. We were 5-0 up at half time to Exeter, so exciting, couldn;t wait for more goals in the second half. It finished 5-1 and there were actually boos at the end from the Millwall fans! That's when I knew I had found my club.
5. Like many Millwall fans, including a lot in the older generation now, the idea of us playing in the top tier of English football always feels like an Everest when the season first kicks off. For someone who was so young at the time of Millwall’s more successful periods, how did those years feel for you?
Literally like a dream. The thing is we were so very far away from it just two years before we went up in 1988. The club had terrible financial problems, The Den was falling apart, sections had to be closed off for safety reasons, crowds were terrible, regularly around the 3,000 mark. The squad was paper thin and full of youngsters and rejects. How Docherty kept us up in 1987 I'll never know, it was a feat almost as impressive as the promotion 12 months later. Even when the new consortium came in and money was invested in the squad, there was a lot of cynicism. We'd been there before, in 1982, in the Third Division when we'd bought loads of supposedly top players in an all-out attempt to get promoted and we almost went down. There were some strong, wealthy clubs in Division Two that season and there were so many occasions during that season when you felt we just weren't going to be quite good enough. We knew we'd never win the play-offs and yet everything seemed to suddenly click and that run to win the title was just amazing.
As for actually being in the First Division, well, I literally can't describe it adequately, and I might be biased but even reaching the Premier League any time soon can't come close. When you are actually standing on that away terrace at Anfield, looking across at The Kop swaying and the teams coming out of the tunnel just as I used to almost every week, sat on my living room floor watching it on Match of The Day wishing it was us and you realise: "That's Millwall, my Millwall, running out next to Liverpool, this is actually happening" nothing can beat that. Repeat that emotion for Old Trafford, Highbury, White Hart Lane and Goodison, stadiums as they were back then, proper football grounds. I feel so lucky to have experienced it.
6. Football has changed massively over the years, and along with removing terracing and fencing, Millwall also moved stadiums and are now in The New Den. How did you feel at the time having a place that was so special to you and your family removed, and a new stadium built not too far away?
It was horrible. I know we had to leave and it wouldn't have been the same even if we'd stayed and redeveloped, but it was such a wrench. The old Den, just like those classic stadiums I mentioned before was a proper football ground. It was unique, ugly, imperfect, a hotch potch of make do and mend, scarred from years of war and neglect. As the saying always went: "It's a shithole, but it's our shithole". The new ground has had some fantastic atmospheres and great days but I'm just as grateful that I am able to say that I went to the old place as I am to say I say us in the top flight. Bringing the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United there was a real sight to behold!
7. Your books are huge successes with the Millwall supporters, and other football fans alike. Did the response from the fan base catch you by surprise, or did you always think your book had the potential to do well?
As I suggested earlier, I never had any thoughts of success in any way from my books. I started out doing it merely to scratch an itch, but was delighted to discover that the process was both relatively easy and extremely enjoyable and therapeutic. The response is amazing and I still can't believe it. I was a massive fan of James Murray's Lions of the South which I think must be the best-written football club history ever. Obviously being a Millwall fan I'm biased, but it is truly magnificent and I've read it hundreds of times. The only negative about it is that James never updated it and it ends at the start of Millwall's greatest ever season - 1987/88. I've tried to continue that story. I'm not for one moment suggesting I'm anywhere close to being as good as James, but I just enjoy telling the story of my club.
There is something about seeing your book come to life too. When it starts with a blank Word document and then a few months later the first proof copy drops through the letterbox, it's a buzz right up there with a last minute Lions winner away from home. Thankfully, by self-publishing I have no editorial restraints, no deadlines, no pressure. I write purely for pleasure, not for commercial or ego reasons, which I think is what makes the process much easier. My eldest son was on holiday in Thailand a while ago. They'd got chatting to a Millwall fan in a bar and he heard them call my lad "Payne". Apparently he joked: "You're not related to Merv Payne are you?" to which my son replied casually, yeah he's my dad, how do you know that? And after my son proved he wasn't messing about, he started going on about my books, which was extremely humbling and really makes it worthwhile and even more enjoyable.
8. Aside from the people you go with and different ages, how has your match day routine changed over the years?
I miss the spontaneity of it all mainly. I used to love to just get up on a Saturday and just go to an away match for example. Now, it's like planning a bloody family holiday. The expense is hard on youngsters to forge a good bond with their club too. I think it's important to be able to pay for yourself. I used to get a lot of pride out of saving for my season ticket and financing away trips from my paper round or student shifts at Sainsbury's. Youngsters have got no chance of doing that now. It might sound silly but that was all part of it for me. As for going to matches now, I don't get to as many as I'd like to, mainly because of work, family and financial issues but when I do go my youngest son Tom always comes. He reminds me of me. He just totally gets Millwall and what supporting them means. Our last match was Sheffield United away and when that late winner went in it was amazing. Sheffield United away was the first long distance away game I did with my dad and I've been there with Tom lots of times now, we've never seen us lose and it's always a special trip for me. 9. From an experienced fan who has seen it all in his days supporting Millwall, where can you see the club being in the next 5-10 years?
That is such a tricky question. The finances in the game are getting completely out of control and I really can't see us competing on an even financial footing even with some of the clubs in the top 10 of the Championship. That doesn't mean we can't win promotion. We're certainly capable of building a promotion-winning squad if we can get our recruitment and youth system sorted. If we can get the regeneration sorted and that can provide some investment and stadium improvement I can honestly see us sneaking into the Premier League via the play-offs, but if we're totally honest, it'd be nigh-on impossible to stick around there very long. That is if the European Super League hasn't started by then! Realistically, I'd be happy if we just continued to build the club and squad gradually as we are doing without going mad. We're so well run at the moment and that's far better than gambling with the club's future to try and buy success. I guess I'm a bit selfish in a way. In my years following Millwall I've seen us win promotion, play in the top flight, at the old Wembley (and new one) in the FA Cup final, in Europe, and win play-offs. That's just about everything you could realistically hope for as a Millwall fan starting out in 1979. When a club of our size and resources first gets promoted from League One to the Championship, it's so competitive that for at least a season, if you stay up, you're really still a League One team in the Championship.
The big challenge is to become a Championship club. That takes time to build because not only do you have to get recruitment right to bring new players, once you have players that are performing well and are snapped up, you need to be able to replace them sufficiently too. That's becoming more and more expensive. If in ten years time (by which time I'll be pushing 60) we're still at this level but still providing that unique Millwall entertainment I'll be happy. That's crucial for me, we have to remain a proper football club. No selling out for success.
10. Finally, what message do you have for the Millwall fans who have bought and read your books and how good is it again to be back in The Den?
I made a comment in the acknowledgements section of my latest book that the kind feedback I receive from Millwall fans about my books means more to me than they'll ever know. As long as people enjoy reading them I'll keep writing and I am always gobsmacked by the kind comments and really humbled.
I owe you all a pint or two!