It was no accident that the first step back in the right direction was taken by Mahlon Romeo.
In the minutes before this London derby against QPR, Romeo stood in front of Millwall captain Alex Pearce. He then led his side out of the tunnel and into the Lions’ Den. For one night only, the logo of Kick It Out shone across their shirts.
Only three days earlier Romeo had stood in the same spot and heard his own supporters boo as players took the knee.
Millwall and QPR players created a strong display against racism before their game on Tuesday
Both sides had agreed to make a statement after Millwall fans booed players taking a knee
But there were no jeers or hostility from the stands as Millwall drew 1-1 with QPR
Only three days earlier, the defender was left ‘almost lost for words’ as football’s fight against racial discrimination took a dark, depressing turn.
Forever hostile territory for visiting players, The Den was never meant to make its own feel unwelcome and unloved. The fan protest before defeat by Derby did just that.
Their reasoning? An opposition to the politics and actions of the Black Lives Matter organisation.
The response from outside was sceptical at best. Here, it was feared the picture would grow bleaker still.
Instead, there were no boos, no hostility, no need to wonder if players would be forced to walk from the field.
A negative response to Millwall players taking the knee caused huge controversy on Saturday
Instead, as the two sides held a banner in a united show against discrimination, only cheers and a standing ovation.
As QPR’s players dropped to one knee and Romeo held his fist to the sky, only clapping.
In the stands, Millwall CEO Steve Kavanagh crossed his fingers and then led the applause. He even allowed a thin smile to crack across his face. This was the response his club needed.
But was there really much to celebrate? Or should English football be concerned that Millwall had to adapt their fight against racism rather than risk more sickening scenes?
For one match only Millwall wore Kick It Out slogans on their shirts to show their support
‘There’s too much “Do people take a knee? Don’t they?” and then no one does anything about it,’ manager Gary Rowett insisted afterwards. ‘We want to actually do something about it and for me both clubs but in particular our club should be applauded for that stance.’
Millwall had described Tuesday night’s game as ‘one of the most important days in (their) history.’
In a letter handed to each of the 2,000 in attendance, they called on fans to do their ‘duty’. And then came this: ‘The eyes of the world are on this football club tonight – your club – and they want us to fail,’ they wrote.
It was a bizarre statement. And a particularly unhelpful one at that.
Millwall called it the most important game in their history with ‘the eyes of the world’ on them
The two teams battled out to a stalemate but it was dominated by passionate displays
Millwall have always taken pride in their infamy – ‘no one likes us,’ and all that. But it seems they do care.
And any suggestion that English football had revelled in their racism storm, that anyone wanted to see more hatred and bile, was pathetic.
Particularly when staff at Millwall were said to be ‘distraught’ over Saturday’s scenes.
And yet Rowett reiterated afterwards that some observers may have been ‘expecting and possibly hoping’ for more controversy.
‘There’s been a lot of mud chucked,’ he added. ‘Whether you can argue rightly so in some ways.’
No one will disagree with his assertion that now is the time for meaningful change to follow.
Ilias Chair opened the scoring for Queens Park Rangers after a rocket from the edge of the box
Chair (R) and team-mate Bright Osayi-Samuel (L) celebrated the goal by taking the knee
As QPR director of football Les Ferdinand said in September, the power of gestures becomes ‘diluted’ without action.
This night helped right some wrongs for Millwall but issues remain – on and off the pitch.
And after a football match broke out, so did some boos when QPR took a second-half lead.
Ilias Chair had unleashed a rocket from outside the box and then took a knee alongside Bright Osayi-Samuel.
Millwall equalised through Jon Dadi Bodvarsson to ensure the spoils were shared at the Den
‘We both felt we needed to do that – especially here,’ Chair said.
By full-time, however, Millwall moods had improved after Jon Dadi Bodvarsson fired home a deflected equaliser.
Millwall are now winless in nine but after a dark few days, a chink of light at least.
Romeo was named man of the match and there can be no arguments over just how vital he is to Millwall and to English football.
After the game Mahlon Romeo held up his shirt to fans showing the Kick it Out slogan
‘(He) sat in a meeting yesterday until six o’clock in the evening,’ Rowett said. ‘There’s been an awful lot of emotional strain last three or four days, I’m proud of him.
‘Not only in the way he spoke intelligently and passionately within that meeting but also his response tonight and the fact he’s contributed hugely to a far more positive and proactive message and a far more positive evening, certainly than we had on Saturday. He should be applauded for that.’
He was. As the players walked off, Kavanagh puffed out his cheeks in the stands.
Around him supporters clapped as Romeo took off his shirt, held up the Kick It Out logo and headed back down the tunnel. It was right that he had the last word.