04/04/04

‘Now it’s Ifill, though, for Millwall… Good block by Poom… CAHILL!… So often the talisman for Millwall and he’s done it again! A goal for Millwall in the FA Cup Semi Final.’

April 4th, 2004. 1:26pm.

A young Timothy Cahill, of Samoan ancestry, had just written himself into Millwall’s history books by scoring the goal that took the Lions to the FA Cup Final, a trip to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and a daunting looking tie against Manchester United.

It also meant European football (the Anglo-Italian Cup doesn’t count) for the first time in their history. The following campaign, the Lions would be playing in the First Round of the UEFA Cup, due to their final opponents’ qualification for the Champions League.

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To a little club from South East London, it meant the world. To its fans, it meant everything. Dreams were realised. Millwall Football Club would be playing in the show-piece occasion of English football, the FA Cup Final, on May 22nd.

After the Quarter-Final replay win over Tranmere Rovers (incidentally, my favourite away day along with Watford on New Years’ Day 2002), FA Cup fever gripped SE16 as the Lions would line-up against their Championship counterparts Sunderland for a place in the final.

The day started for me at 5am. As a bright-eyed and bushy tailed thirteen year-old, I bounced out of bed, excited for what the day could possibly hold, but with obvious nervousness of what it may not. With my hair gelled up at the front (as was the style in those days, before the Indie boom of 2005 and the swept-over style, I’ll have you know), my hair was sprayed blue with what was – with the benefit of hindsight – the cheapest, most rotten hairspray from the party shop you could think of and I was ready for the off.

The minibus arrived in the darkness of the early hours of the morning and the few of us that were starting out from its original destination hopped on. After a pick-up in Eltham and then The Den, we were on the road to Manchester as the sun came up. Well, I say the sun – most of you probably remember that for the majority of the day, it absolutely pissed down!

Despite the time, the beers began to flow, as did the early morning grub. As a thirteen year old, I sat there quietly with my sandwiches and…. alright, maybe I had a little sip of my Dad’s beer.

It was a fantastic journey – spirits were high no matter what lay ahead. A joke that is still used to this day originated on that bus. You’ve only got to mention the phrase ‘Semi-Final’ and memories come flooding back.

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As Old Trafford came into sight, the tension started to build. The enormity of Millwall being in an FA Cup Semi-Final dawned and it was time to get down to business. With Arsenal meeting Manchester United in the other Semi-Final the previous day, the thought amongst most Lions’ fans – and probably the Sunderland ones, too – was that this was ‘our’ final. With almost certain defeat guaranteed in the actual final, the winner of this would lap up the glory.

As soon as we stepped off the minibus, you could hear, feel and sense the excitement in the atmosphere. Both sets of fans enjoyed the same bars, pictures were posed for and songs were traded back and forth.

I had been to Old Trafford before to watch Manchester United v Celtic in Ryan Giggs’ testimonial, so I knew of the grandness of the place, but after walking through the turnstile, entering the ground and seeing one side fill up with blue, it all became oh so real. Millwall Football Club, my little team from a corner of South East London, were just ninety minutes away from the FA Cup Final.

Both teams came onto the field of play backed by an almighty roar from the 56,112 fans present. The Lions lined up with Andy Marshall in goal, a back four of Kevin Muscat, Matt Lawrence, Darren Ward and Robbie Ryan, with Paul Ifill, Dennis Wise, Tim Cahill and Dave Livermore in midfield. Danny Dichio partnered Neil Harris in attack. Willy Gueret, Andy Roberts, Marvin Elliott, Peter Sweeney and Nick Chadwick took their places on the bench.

Paul Durkin blew his whistle and the Semi-Final was underway. The opening exchanges were frantic, as was expected, but it was Sunderland who landed the first blow in the fight. Jon Oster’s free-kick struck the bar, beat the despairing dive of Marshall, but luckily for Millwall, bounced to safety.

Neil Harris had the ball in the net shortly after, but the celebrations were stopped dead in their tracks by the linesman’s flag. Dennis Wise’s men were not to be denied, however, as they took the lead shortly before the half-hour mark.

George McCartney (more of him later) under-hit a pass to ex-Millwall man Phil Babb, allowing Paul Ifill to cut in on the right-hand side. With perhaps better options around him, Ifill decided to take a shot. Estonian ‘keeper Mart Poom blocked it, but the ball fell to Tim Cahill, who fired into the net to send the Lions 1-0 up and spark wild celebrations at the opposite end of the ground.

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How do you describe the feeling of seeing your team take the lead in an FA Cup Semi Final? At that point in time, it didn’t matter. The blue of half of Manchester for the day erupted as a wall of noise probably heard in Liverpool was released.

Cahill ran towards the Lions faithful, twirling his shirt around his head, whilst Neil Harris tried his hardest to keep up with him. The Aussie jumped into the grasp of ‘keeper Marshall and eventually the rest of the team caught up. The Mackems looked crestfallen. Were Millwall on the way to the FA Cup Final?

Unfortunately for Ifill, his day in the sun was cut short just a few moments after the goal, as his attempt to over-stretch for the ball resulted in the famous ‘Ifill limp’ returning. He was subsequently replaced by Peter Sweeney.

Tempers began to boil as the first-half reached a conclusion, with Jason McAteer and McCartney both seeing yellow for challenges on Kevin Muscat, with the latter forcing the right-back off, becoming Millwall’s second casualty of the half. He was replaced by Andy Roberts.

The second half was not 45 minutes long. I’m not having that whatsoever. Someone stopped the clock for about ten minutes a time every so often. Well, that’s what it felt like, anyway. The Sunderland attack charged and charged at the Millwall defence at numerous points throughout the half, a couple of times being just a whisker away from breaking through and levelling the scores.

With the Lions camped in their own half, Mick McCarthy’s men on the attack and the clock seemingly going as slowly as could be, the second half was a nail-biting, roller-coaster of a ride for everyone associated with Millwall. Kevin Kyle lashed the ball just wide of Marshall’s post, before Julio Arca hit the side-netting, fraying the nerves of the Lions fans even more.

With just fifteen minutes to go, however, Danny Dichio should have wrapped up proceedings. As the Mackems threw most forward to try and claim an equaliser, goal-scorer Cahill was sent away down the right-hand side. His pinpoint cross found Dichio unmarked in the Sunderland box, but his header was directed straight at Poom, with the Estonian also stopping Harris’ follow-up.

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The game was now reaching a climax; so were the nerves of both sets of fans. The noise inside Old Trafford reached a crescendo as the final minutes of the game ticked away. To Sunderland fans, they probably went too quickly; to all of us at the opposite end, they felt like hours. I remember looking at the clock in about the 84/5th minute, then looking back at what I thought was about 3 or 4 minutes later – barely 30 seconds had passed!

Six minutes remained on the clock when Old Trafford held its collective breath. McCartney picked the ball up on the edge of Millwall’s box as the defence were caught napping, but the left-backs shot went agonisingly wide. In fact, it almost seemed to go through the post, it was that close. 56,000 fans all let out a monumental sigh as the ball rolled its way off the field for a goal-kick.

Sunderland’s fightback was dealt a massive blow with just four minutes of normal time remaining, as McAteer saw red for committing one foul too many. This was greeted by huge cheers from the Millwall end, but work was still to be done as the fourth official signalled four minutes of stoppage time.

The deafening whistles inside Old Trafford from the blue end did not deter Mr Durkin, who was intent to play out the full four minutes of injury time. As the flags began to wave, ‘no-one likes us’ proceeded to be sung and the tears started to flow, almost dead on 94 minutes, the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the match.

The raw emotion, the euphoric feeling, the roar of the Millwall faithful as the whistle blew is something that will probably never be replicated – was it true? Surely it was all just a dream? Millwall are in the FA Cup Final?!

Grown men, women and children alike shared kisses, hugs and tears as the players, management, backroom staff, chairman and even Zampa the Lion celebrated on the pitch. Little old Millwall would be representing the Football League in the FA Cup Final on May 22nd versus Manchester United. As the inconsolable Sunderland fans made their way towards the exits, ‘Let ‘Em Come’ began to blast around the ground.

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That five or ten minutes after the final whistle is without a doubt the greatest moment of my life as a Millwall supporter and in all honesty, probably my life so far. As I stood there, a sobbing 13 year-old, embracing everyone I saw, a friend of mine and my Dad’s caught my eye. With tears rolling down his face, he grabbed hold of me and said ‘come here, you silly old sod’ and gave me the biggest hug I think I’ve ever received.

Moments like that will stay with you forever.

It was actually my father that made our little block realise that the win had also brought us UEFA Cup football next season. His cry of ‘fuck me, we’re in Europe!’ caused even more celebrations in a little section of the lower tier behind the goal. But, at that point, we couldn’t even think of that and any possible opponents. Right at that moment, everyone was still in their totally euphoric state, having just watched their team reach the FA Cup Final and forcing their lungs to breaking point shouting, screaming and singing along to ‘Let ‘Em Come’.

As the hoards of Lions fans streamed out of Old Trafford, the realisation set in. The FA Cup Final, UEFA Cup football and perhaps the support of everyone up and down the land against Manchester United lay in wait next month. But, for now, there was only one thing on the mind – celebration. As the buses started to leave Manchester, the beers began to flow as ‘Let ‘Em Come’ blasted on the stereo.

As the night drew in and plans for the final were already set in motion, the day caught up with most. Our bus in particular went very quiet as it made its way back into London. But, we’d certainly earned the rest.

At around 11pm, the curtain came down on an amazing day. Eighteen hours previously, we had set off for Manchester, not quite knowing what to expect. Eighteen hours later, we arrived back home with our team in the FA Cup Final. They did us proud.

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The reason I’ve chosen this to write about this time round, you may ask? Well, I’m writing this on April 4th, 2014. The tenth anniversary of that fantastic day at Old Trafford.

It’s also a reminder of what Millwall Football Club can be – no matter what the outcome of this season, I’ll always be there. Come rain or shine and all that. Who knows, another day like 04/04/04 may be just around the corner…

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