Manchester United seek their first league win at Fulham since 2008, but despite a mixed record at Craven Cottage much joy can be had at the ground's quirks.
Craven Cottage may boast English football’s most curious juxtaposition. It is not a stadium, but a ground, and it’s one of the last bastions of proper football grounds in the over-sanitised Premier League. The walk through Fulham Palace Gardens and Bishop’s Park past the Thames becomes a picturesque cacophony of boisterous supporters, heavily tanked up on lager. And then at the ground itself supporters are close to the pitch, players get changed in the cottage, and it is evident that this is a sanctuary which hasn’t been plasticised. Yet.
And then there’s the clincher: it’s inhabited by detached modern football enthusiasts who’ve got no soul and sure as hell ain’t a soldier. That’s not to say the earthy supporters who followed Fulham prior to the marquee arrivals of Ray Wilkins and Kevin Keegan in the late 90s, which instigated the club’s rise, don’t attend. They’re just vastly outnumbered by tourists and nu-fans who ensure that the match-going experience is sapped, rather than diluted.
I’ve visited the Cottage five times and witnessed United win once, draw once and lose twice, as well as attending Everton’s scoreless draw last season with a Scouse mate. But not once can I recall any banter exchanged between visiting supporters and the mild-mannered ranks beside us. There’s no chance of that with traveling Evertonians either, who astonishingly sit at away games despite boasting vast numbers.
The surreal scenario is augmented by the Putney Road End also hosting a neutral section, which epitomises Fulham’s attitude towards football. Those who saw Alan Mullery’s goal of the season against Leicester or witnessed George Best and Rodney Marsh’s maverick displays have been pushed aside in favour of tourists. Via Seat Wave, you could buy a ticket for Wednesday night’s game for £55, because it’s Manchester United. Add postage and packaging and you’re asked to stump up a grand total of £67. The £49 face value for an away supporter is steep enough.
Of course, people will buy them because that’s what football has become. Craven Cottage does a fantastic impression of a rugby fixture because it encourages supporters – home, away and neutrals – to mix amidst a benign atmosphere. Mohamed Al-Fayed pronounced that those who loathe his tacky arcade bust of Michael Jackson outside Craven Cottage ‘can go to hell’. We’ll see you there.
Last season after United snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat via Nani’s tame penalty at 2-1 and Brede Hangeland’s equaliser, we boozily began the one-and-a-half mile walk back to the car. What we were about to overhear was a growing motif of the Whites’ support. Admittedly, the son's idiocy ('justice was done when Stockdale saved that penalty' – it was a penalty) triggered proceedings, to which my Old Man merely offered that he 'didn't agree'. Opinion made, yet the boy’s mother countered that 'He shouldn't be walking on my Fulham footpath.'
Those sardonic "Thursday nights, Channel Five" efforts already have a retort in the guise of "Thursday night in Amsterdam".
How can you not bite at such a preposterous comment? Due to the alcohol-induced political incorrectness of what was said, I’ll not divulge, but that is what Fulham is – a hive of Tarquins & Tamaras. And as a visitor, you’re self-dependent on having a lark.
Irrespective of the curious case of the Cottagers and United’s mixed record there lately, I’ve not had a bad day in West London. The atmosphere is always superb amongst Reds and the evening kick-off this year is an added bonus, on top of the guarantee that it is the second part to the Christmas jolly, after the weekend’s raucous visit to Loftus Road for the first time in almost eight years.
Six days before Christmas in 2009 we were at Fulham, merry and armed with hip flasks (it had been snowing) and drinking early watching Liverpool get beat by Portsmouth 2-0. And then the match started. A defensively-decimated United lost 3-0 with a defence of Fletcher-De Laet-Carrick, with Patrice Evra on the wing and Fabio on the bench. Tinkerbell strikes! And still the traveling hordes hollered defiantly whereas the T&Ts maintained silence.
Expectations have been lowered in recent weeks and there’s a determination to enjoy this season in spite of what the club has become under the Glazer family. Ideally, they’d like Old Trafford to resemble Fulham’s touristic makeup, evidenced by the heinous half-and-half scarves sold and bought outside of Old Trafford.
Yet a resistance will always lurk, however dwindling it may be. United may go out to City at the first hurdle of the FA Cup, but the atmosphere will be electric, tickets will hopefully fall into the right hands and it’s a rare occasion when the FA Cup feels special and important. The football too was excellent for a second successive week on Sunday.
The Europa League is a punishment, but the Reds have drawn Ajax and everyone is as keen to go to Amsterdam as Samuel L Jackson. Amusingly, those sardonic ‘Thursday nights, Channel Five’ efforts already have a retort in the guise of ‘Thursday night in Amsterdam’. Stacey Giggs too would have been delighted to hear that her husband’s terrace chant (to the tune of Joy Division’s masterpiece) was rejigged to ‘Giggs is going to Amsterdam’. Imagine Fulham fans in Amsterdam.
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