Nestled serenely on the banks of the Thames, in SW6, we took the chance to get this club under our belts with the visit of Sunderland in their FA Cup 4th Round Replay, after a 0–0 stalemate. It was also our first post work game, so required some back and forth between me and Tom on Facebook messenger, to agree on a meeting point near Putney Bridge tube stop.
As I got there first and as it was only a short walk from the station, I ended up in the Temperance pub, with what also seemed like most of the away support. They were in very good voice already, something that would continue into the night. I snagged us a corner table, under a big TV showing La Liga highlights. I had one eye on that, one ear listening to Football Weekly and the other ear listening to loud renditions of “If you hate Newcastle clap your hands” and “Seb Larson, la, la, la, Seb Larson, la, la, la”, as I waited for Tom.
Tom arrived not long after me, txting me updates on his journey, “At Earls Court, fuck there are a lot of people”. Such was the amount of away support, by the time Tom had arrived, the pub had a queue to get in and a one in one out policy in action, as it was hardly a pub worth queueing up for, Tom suggested getting a few tins from the off licence and taking a romantic, night time stroll along the river towards the ground.
It was not my first visit to Craven Cottage, most recently I had seen Spurs play there on Boxing Day a few years ago, and on that occasion had the joy of seeing the Father from a family of 4 vomiting into a bush due to the previous night’s excess, as his Wife held their bemused children close as Daddy shamed himself in public. For Tom it was his first, and he instantly commented on the very plush surroundings of the ground. We were sat in the Johnny Haynes Stand almost exactly on the half way line. The stand is named after Fulham’s favourite Son, whose statue outside the ground is a much better fit than the one of Fulham’s other favourite Son Micheal Jackson (Tom was a bit gutted to say the least that the statue had been removed, leaving with Al -Fayed after he sold the club in 2013).
The stand itself is an example of architects Archibald Leitch, whose work can still be seen to this day in some way or another at other grounds such as Anfield and White Hart Lane. It really is a very fine example indeed with its red brick and iron work. In fact the stand from the outside looks more like a large Edwardian house than a football stadium. With this age, history and character comes some major issues that become very obvious in the 21st century.
Our seats where on the aisle, 4 rows from the front, in what could only be described as footballs answer to no man’s land. The long rows of seats were only serviced by two exits at the far end of each row, with an aisle in the middle which did not lead anywhere. This seemed to be caused by the placing of the press box, slap bang in the middle of the stand, furnished with what looked like original fold down wooden seats, and caused no end of confusion. The constant up and down, back and forth of confused fans trying to get out, find their seats, brought a smile to Tom and mines faces only after being caught out ourselves by the Rubik’s cube which is the Johnny Haynes stand.
The game itself was to be played out by two teams who probably felt this was a welcome distraction from current league form. Sunderland currently 14th in the Premier league, but still flirting with the bottom 3, hoping the goals of Defoe brought in this January from his self imposed exile in Canada, would be enough to stave off the Championship for another year.
Fulham stand 15th in the Championship, and are really in a bit of a slump. After the disastrous reign of Felix Magath and his cheese sorcery, failed to keep Fulham up last season and a shocking run of games at the begging of life in the Championship, resulted in him getting the boot, and making promotion for Fulham look a long way off.
The first half was dominated by what seemed like Fulham’s absolute reluctance to go forward, and keep hold of the ball, and Sunderland’s number 4, Bridcutt doing a good job at breaking up play. On the occasions they did get forward, it was normally on the counter, with the pace of Fulham’s number 12, Seko Fofana as the focal point, but it seemed to break down time after time, because of a lack of quality in the all important final pass. The sentiments of the crowd were reflected in the constant chorus of grumbling and shouts of, “Come on Fulham, FORWARD”.
The two best chances of the half fell to Sunderland. A snap shot from the edge of the box, straight at the keeper, Bettinelli, hit with such force it caused him to palm it out, and resulted in the Fulham defence scrambling the ball out for a corner. The second chance was from the same side, but this time a low shot on target, which Bettinelli got just enough of a glove on to make sure it went wide and not inside his far post. Although the best chances had fallen to Sunderland, it was Fulham who went in at half time ahead. Their first corner on 28mins was flicked on at the near post, and after a short game of pinball in the Sunderland box, Fulham number 20, Rodallega pokes it in, and points to the heavens in celebration, 1-0.
Half time was a scramble to try and get a drink and to fulfil Tom’s aim of eating and ranking the food at all grounds we visit, like a new app on Trip Advisor. After shuffling along with all the other frozen souls past the press area, and making eye contact with Phil Brown the now Southend manager and ex Hull manager, who I got a nod and a wink from under his grey flat cap and Marbella brown face. The queue for the loo was long, and the loo could perhaps only be described as a cupboard under the stairs, so I gave up and left Tom to it, and his hunt for a pie!
It was perhaps 10 mins into the 2nd half when the people next to me rose, and I heard “sorry, sorry, sorry”. It was Tom, with his camera in one hand, and a pie in the other. He shoved it my way and wished me Happy Christmas, it was a Craven Cottage pie, (which Tom ranked a very generous 8.5).
It was warm and tasty and much needed. The temperature had seemed to nose dive, and it helped me get the feeling back in my hands.
The first quarter of the second half was all Sunderland. If Fulham had won, it was never going to be called a giant killing even though there is a league separating each team and Fulham were a premium league team 12 months previously, but Sunderland came out with more purpose and had perhaps not really got out of first gear in the first half. A word from Poyet at halftime, and with Bridcutt still breaking things up very well in midfield, Fulham where pinned back in their half, struggling to get out and it only seemed a matter of time before Sunderland scored.
On the hour mark Sunderland got their equalising goal, after I think what you would call a howler from Bettinelli. A routine catch from a Sunderland cross, which took a deflection off a Fulham player, looped up in the air and unchallenged he caught it, and then dropped it in his own net, 1-1.
Sunderland fans were now singing loudly, while the Fulham fans around us shouted “wake up Fulham!” You got the feeling that with all the pressure being piled on, things were slipping away from Fulham. Fofana is the main man for their attacks, but his good bursts of pace were undone by a lack of quality in the final 3rd.
On 73mins Bettinelli went some way to make things up to the home crowd, charging out of goal one on one with the Sunderland attacker and stopping them going behind. One minute later though there is very little he can do about the shot from Sunderland’s number 20, Alvarez on loan from Inter Millan. He receives the ball unmarked on the right, drives into the box, and with a little bit of clever footwork to cut the ball back on to his left, bypassing two Fulham defenders and firing in a blistering shot past the Fulham keeper. Alvarez picks up the ball, trots towards the corner flag on the left hand side, shoves the ball up his shirt, and sucks his thumb, its 1–2 Sunderland. Renditions of “We are going to Wembley, Que Cera Cera” and the smoke of a flare fill the away end, things just get tougher for Fulham and the crowd is very subdued.
On 79 mins at the far side of the pitch, a full team on team, royal rumble kicks off, with handbags swinging, after Fofana seems to kick out at a Sunderland player who attempts to slow the taking of a throw in, which results in an angry response from some of the Sunderland players. The home fans shout “off, off, off” as the referee consults with his assistant in the centre of the pitch. The home fans though are disappointed as it’s only a yellow for Giaccherini after raising his hands, and everyone keeps there full complement of 11 players.
Fofan has done all he can, but it’s not been enough this evening. He goes off with 9mins left to be replaced by local boy, 17 year old star in the making Patrick Roberts. Much is expected of this youngster, can he turn things around for Fulham, this late in the game? Not long after coming on it seems the stage is set for him to draw things level, after picking up the ball in midfield, he flies down the wing, only at the crucial moment he decides not to shoot, carries the ball on that little bit further, and the plight of Fulham rears its head again, and his final ball is poor, and things quickly break down.
The board showing extra time goes up, Fulham have 5mins to get the equalizer and force the game into extra time. The home fans are now at a peak of frustration as their team are still just in the game, but poor decision making means attacks seem to fall apart at the crucial point. On the other hand the Sunderland fans can sense the 5th round is almost here and keep on singing. And it’s not long until all hope is lost and it will not be Fulham progressing to the next round.
Second half Sunderland substitute, Danny Graham receives the ball with his back to goal, and then him and his marker fall in slow motion to the ground. The referee sees it, as he has been pulled down, and points to the spot. A straight forward penalty from Jordi Gomes, sends the keeper the wrong way, and it’s all over now, 1–3 to the away team, and it’s the end of Fulham’s cup run for another year.
Tom and I hold fire leaving the ground, Tom wants to take some pictures and neither of us, are in a rush. Our relaxed attitude to going home results in a quick photo opportunity with Phil Brown, who was very happy to let Tom take a picture of me and him. By the time Tom has finished up, the stewards are shutting up shop and glare at us, to be fair it’s been freezing tonight and I’m sure the only thing they want to do is go home. Once on the streets outside, things have cleared very quickly and only the police horses and the odd wandering Mackem are to be seen.
There was though, a small congregation of people, maybe only 15 – 20 strong, self stewarding themselves behind some metal railings, by the players exit to the ground. It’s soon very clear these are what seem to be “professional autograph hunters”, with a few hundred match attack cards of Sunderland players with sharpies in hand or pre tensed Sunderland shirts ready for the scrawl of the payers soon to be appearing to get on the leviathan of a coach that has just pulled up to take them some, or all the way back to the North East.
They clearly have one target in mind, and it’s not long before he arrives and calls of “Jermaine, Jermaine, Jermaine” ring out as the sharpie slingers gather around him. As a Spurs fan, it was quite cool to see him up front and in the flesh. And one of the advantages of being a big lad, meant that I could reach over the “professionals” in front of me and for a brief second get him to sign my match day program.
Part of the reason Tom and I are doing this, is to see if that connection between players still exists somewhere in the modern game. Defoe has been around the block, so I’m sure he can tell the difference between a fan, and someone out to make a quick couple of quid on Ebay from his signature on a kid’s card game. I never expected him to be chatty or even really engage, and I’m sure the guys hassling him on the phone, for more signatures did not improve his mood, but it would have been nice for a split second to have a slight connection with a person whose name I had sung, but then I guess I’m not that cheery after a day at work either!