Millwall fans at times can be a somewhat divisive bunch. Every one of us has an opinion on how we think the team should be run, which player should start, what formation we should be playing and which player should be dropped for one who has been sat on the bench for a number of weeks. A lot of these opinions are very yin and yang, and a lot of the time, many choose to ignore those in the stands who disagree with what they hear around them, but what if your hobby is to encourage this kind of polarising debate between the fan base in a positive way? How would you mediate these conversations to seem impartial and neutral when you may think the person you are talking to is completely incorrect, and what is it like when your hobby grows so big that your podcast that you record with friends turns into a nominated product at the prestigious Football Content Awards for two years running? For this interview, we sit down with the Archbishop himself, Mr. Nick Hart.
1. Nick, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. You are well known amongst the fan base for Achtung! Millwall and also your contributions to a number of fanzines over the years, but how did your love affair with Millwall get started?
My very first match at Millwall was on March 31st 1972. Millwall 1-0 Portsmouth - a Barry Bridges goal scored right in front on us standing behind the Cold Blow Lane end goal.
I didn’t come from a particularly football fixated family. The men were more focused on betting, horse racing and greyhounds to be honest.
But even at the tender age of ten, I was always struck by the myriad ways in which bookmakers drove home to their large houses in leafy suburbia (in their fast, flash motors of course), whilst we lived in a council house and used the bus to get around. Go figure as the Americans say.
Nope, for me from a young age, football was an illumination of life. My heroes growing up during the 1960s were George Best, Pele and Johann Cruyff. Playing Subbuteo on our front room carpet and constructing imaginary football leagues, THESE were the names that you always wanted to ‘be’.
My experience of football was based mainly on watching the ‘Big Match’, Match of the Day or, if I got lucky and was allowed to stay up, ‘Sportsnight with Coleman’ which featured the big midweek action.
I also used to LOVE the football magazines of the time. ‘Shoot’ magazine was a favourite with its player profiles and team photos, but I also remember ‘Goal’ and ‘World Soccer’ - which always seemed less picture based and more intellectual (ie boring).
Anyway, at the age of eleven and sitting one day in class at Castlecombe primary school in Mottingham, my best mate called Yarks (that’s what we called him, his proper name was Jacob) asked me ‘if I wanted to go to Millwall?’. So we and a few other 11 year olds set off from Elmstead Woods into the dark heart of New Cross and along the legendary walk along the CBL.
Of course I did. Here I am 50 years later to prove it.
2. You grew up as a Millwall fan on the terraces of the Old Den and watched some players that today’s generation only hear stories of. But, what was your first Millwall memory?
My first impression was the green hue of the turf. My second was the explosion of noise as Bridges hit the back of the net in front of where we were standing.
Bang! The place seemed to ignite like that dumped car that I’d once seen some bigger kids throw matches into its petrol tank.
Bang! After the game I discovered that Millwall were actually doing well that 1971-72 season and were seemingly heading for the big time of First Division football.
I decided there and then that the cocktail of hot dog smells, foul language and the electric excitement of impending success had me in its clutches. I was therefore a ‘Millwall supporter’ and would be for the rest of my life.
Even then I knew that the lowest creatures to crawl God’s Earth were those who changed their clubs - eg Radio One DJ Kid Jensen who I’d read in ‘Shoot’ had originally been a QPR fan, but now followed Palace. In my eleven year-old level inner conversation, I decided that no matter what would become of my life I would never be that person.
So Millwall it was. I think I made the right choice, although a few trophies along the way would have been nice.
3. As someone who has grown up with the Old Den and experienced the move over to Zampa Road, how has the club changed over the years?
Here’s the wonderful and somehow mortifying truth. Only read this if you can handle it.
In many ways it hasn’t changed much at all. Which is both magnificent and at the same time, worrying. Because the world around us most certainly has changed and isn’t going backwards whatever we might think of that.
For sure we no longer turn up for football wearing silk scarves tied round our wrists, nor sporting 1970s style Bay City Roller hats, tank tops and flares. But in many fundamental ways the club - and its support - remains rooted in the same anarchic willingness to defy authority that I first saw in the early 70s.
Nothing much changes at Millwall really - and I guess that’s why we love it so.
Compared with many other clubs that I’ve seen, our support remains directly linked to the founding Docker fathers’ outlook dating back to the game’s past. No prawn sandwich outlets nor cheese purveyors at The Den. Ever.
Equally, whether we like it or not, the game nowadays is driven by money on a scale unimaginable in the past. The power of the media to crush those who stand in its way is something that is much more obvious now that perhaps it was in the past.
So as much as we love the ‘Millwall experience’, the theatre of cruelty that is The Den, our club’s image and reputation will always be that of a throwback. Neither the support, nor the media, will let the cartoon image of the Lions slip away too easily.
Quite where MFC will fit into the game over what I believe will be a tumultuous few years ahead, is the $64,000 question. I hope that we can find a place within what is a developing social and sporting situation, whilst preserving that same sense of rawness that I first found in 1972.
Fingers crossed, as the modern football world is not made for the likes of us I fear.
4. Tell us more about Achtung! Millwall and how it all started. What made you think the world of podcasting was the direction you wanted to go in?
I first started podcasting about ten years ago now. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of podcasts before.
Readers may remember Ant Meads who used to write occasionally online and in the fanzines. Well he contacted me asking to do an interview for something called a ‘podcast’, which he explained was a kind of radio show edited on your laptop and posed on a website host.
So I gave it go and found that, lo and behold, I really enjoyed yacking about Millwall and the 1001 things that spring into my head during the two hours or so that I am inside The Den.
I also found it a far more physically easier than writing, printing and selling the fanzine - which was a big selling point for me.
Standing in all weathers on the corner of Zampa and Bolina Roads flogging CBL Magazine had lost its sparkle in comparison with me waxing lyrical into my iPhone voice recorder. Yes, my head was turned by the impact of modern technology you might say.
When I began, I read a ‘Podcasting for Dummies’ books, as I really knew very little about the process.
One of the tips that really stuck in my head, was the idea that when you produce a podcast, you are speaking into the ear of the listener. Which is quite a privilege when you think about it. If people choose to listen to me, then I owe it to them to produce the best possible quality of content that I can. That’s my aim each show.
5. How has the podcast grown over the years since its inception?
The world of podcast listening numbers is riddled with more self-serving statistics than a FIFA World Cup bidding round. So I am always wary of the various charts and podcast hit parades that you get sent.
To be truthful I have always approached the show with the view that this should be something that ‘I’d’ listen to. So it’s got to be ‘me’ speaking, rather than me saying something that I think other people want me to say.
Often that means saying what you believe, rather than what might be popular. Which can draw you some flak. But I truly think that Millwall fans can sense a fake at 50 yards, so I hope and aim to be be a voice that captures my take on the essence of following our club up and down the country. Some shows will always be better than others, but that always has to be the target for me.
To answer your question, within the caveat that you can’t really trust listener numbers, the Achtung! Millwall show has has over 350,000 listens since it first began. Which is kind of a weird thought really. Four Wembley Stadiums’ worth of listeners. Wacky stuff.
6. Over the years you have had some fantastic guests and contributors, but what interview was your favourite to record?
Two interviews leap out at me. The Steve Claridge interview that Aaron Paul brokered for us during lockdown was something totally unexpected.
I always get very nervous before an interview as I am not a professional journalist (far from it really) and have no background in interview techniques, beyond watching ‘Parkinson’ on TV as a kid anyway.
Claridge, after an initially wary start, really opened up about his time as a player (of the year in 2002) at Millwall - and the pain of his sacking as manager during the chaotic days of 2005. It was totally unexpected and remains a fantastic memory for me.
The other wonderful moment for me was speaking to one of my favourite ever Millwall players, Trevor Lee. A wonderfully exciting winger striker and a truly lovely bloke. They say you shouldn’t ever meet your heroes, well I’ve been lucky enough to be able to beg to differ.
Tony Cascarino was a really nice interview too incidentally.
7. A few years back, Achtung! Millwall was approached by Love Sport as part of the London Fan Shows. How did it feel to work in a proper radio studio and your show be live on national radio?
I was INTENSELY nervous going into the Love Sport broadcast room.
Live radio offers no room to edit out anything silly, libellous nor nonsensical that you might say and I was fixated on not swearing.
I mean, I don’t use ‘bad language’ on any grand scale, but I am flesh and blood. So the idea that the odd saucy word would make its way out was obsessing me as we began.
Thankfully our show host Aaron Paul was highly professional and we soon warmed to the task.
Incidentally the things that I really admired in Aaron were both his knowledge of the EFL scene and his ability to speak to the clock - and yet remain coherent. Not easy.
I forever lurk on the edges of gibberish and I really admire that skill. It’s no surprise to me that he is now progressing so well through the BBC radio networks.
8. You have also started an Achtung! Grassroots spin-off show, and this covers the non-league pyramid of English football. How did this idea come about and what do you hope to achieve from the show?
Yes the non-league shows are something that I’d had in mind for a while now. I like to vary what we do.
The combination of Covid and health meant that we’ve only really started to do them recently, but I really enjoy being able to shine some light on the wonderful work done in the lower tiers of football.
I suppose my aim is to encourage more fans to give the non league scene their support. These local clubs are the life blood of the sport that we love and, if you don’t support stuff that you enjoy, then it dies.
As we’ve seen through the lockdown period, sport needs fans and to coin the Joni Mitchell song ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’.
9. Last season, Achtung! Millwall won Bronze at The FCA Awards and for 2021 it made the shortlist. What was it like winning the award and rubbing shoulders with some well known names in the industry?
I was genuinely amazed that we came in third place last year, behind some fairly well resourced names too.
Our show is fundamentally done in my spare room, no studio facilities for us. So to achieve that on basically my mobile phone, my laptop and a Blue Yeti microphone is quite an achievement.
I couldn’t do it without the chaps on the show of course, Michael Avery, Mike Hayden, Harry Warren, Ryan Loftus, Aaron Paul and Neil Fissler. Thanks to each of of them, as I am really proud of the variety of voices and subjects that we take on.
As far as the award thing is concerned, I must admit to being more than a bit of a cynic when it comes to such events. We’ve all been to work related ‘awards ceremonies’ which are at heart over-priced and self-congratulatory lash ups.
The recent FCA awards was just such a gig. I am not sure that I’ll go next year as the ticket cost to value for money ratio was ‘a bit strong’ as my old Mum might have put it. When the main course arrived, my wife thought that it was the starter. As for the red wine, well the paint came off of my brushes a treat with it.
I digress however.
On the table where we sat, I was really interested to speak with of the chaps from Bury AFC. A famous club that has tumbled down to little more than park level football, but sustained by the love of its fans. That for me was what it should all be about. Proper perspective as the AFTV table whooped and hollered over their series of awards. Harumph.
10. Aside from having the bird’s mess cleared from your area, what are your hopes this season?
I hope for a play-off run. We are currently lacking the goals to be able to properly give that a proper go, but the January transfer window looms and, despite one of the lowest goal scoring numbers in the division, we’re on the fringes of the top six.
If Gary Rowett can tap into the style, sound and fury of The Den that we saw against Stoke City, then we have a shot in my opinion.
I think it was Harry on one of our recent shows who said that all he wants is to be able to have his ‘1988’ - and I can’t argue with that.
Incidentally whilst we are talking about bird droppings, I think there’s a good study for any aspiring Zoological Society scientists into what exactly the pigeons of South Bermondsey eat to generate the quantity and amount of guano that my seat in Block One seems to attract.
Are they even pigeons up there? The club did in fairness jet wash the seats at the start of the season, which gave me simple joy until the next game, when I found that a Pterodactyl had relieved itself on a grander scale than had been there before.
At least I know who’s boss in the West Upper I suppose.
11. You recently had to spend some time in hospital for health reasons, and the outpouring of well wishes from the fans was clear for all to see. What does the Millwall fanbase and the club mean to you?
Yes I suffered what was actually a fairly major heart attack in June, which was something of an unexpected experience to say the least. Even more than one of Jake Cooper’s dribbling runs forward in fact.
Thankfully I was a lucky in that my wife called 999 without seeking my opinion - and the ambulance arrived swiftly. These strokes of fortune saved my life in truth.
It’s odd what goes through your head in moments of high stress.
I found nothing particularly spiritual to report as the ambulance sped into St Bart’s. No moments of insight with any deities.
But instead mundane thoughts about letting everyone know that we wouldn’t be podcasting for a bit and whether we’d passed the McDonald’s on the Commercial Road yet. (I think they’d given me a shot of morphine to be honest, which I can at least recommend for its calming influence).
Once I was more ‘with it’ and out of immediate danger, I was amazed to receive so many good wishes and get well messages.
Quite literally hundreds via social media, text and forwards from the message boards. It was quite humbling in truth and left me not quite knowing what to say.
I tried my best to thank everyone in the days afterwards but there were so many that I’m sure I missed a good few.
Maybe I can take this chance to say a simple thank you to everyone. These messages made a big difference to me and certainly lifted my spirits as the day’s events sank in.
My recovery since has been good, so I’m hoping that I’ve got a few years left in me yet. Another run in the top flight and go in the UEFA Conference League would make an ideal gift for future Millwall fans.
In the end we’re all really passing through though and, if there’s one thing that I learned from the summer is that life can be fragile, (Millwall is fragile) and it can all turn on a sixpence. So whilst we’re here, it’s on us each to enjoy the ride and I believe do your bit to leave something for the future.
Anyway, enough profound lectures from me. Thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far… arrivederci Millwall