2011/12: Europa League Second Qualifying Round, 2nd Leg – Fulham v Crusaders

The last time I was making this train journey from Leeds to London to watch Fulham in a European tie; it was under very different circumstances. Back in April 2010 on a balmy evening I took my place in a capacity crowd at the Cottage to watch 90 minutes that would determine whether Fulham FC would appear in their first ever European Final. History tells us that it was another night of drama, incredible emotion and tension as Fulham defeated Hamburg 2-1 to reach the inaugural Europa League Final.

Some 15 months later, it is all rather different. As the 14.15 pulls out of Leeds City Station, it is under a grey Northern sky and drizzly rain flecks the carriage windows. The anticipation and nerves that surrounded the journey down last April just aren’t there. Yes, once again Fulham are in the Europa League, but this is about as far from the Final as you can possibly get. Having gained a place through the Fair Play League, Fulham started their Europa League campaign at the First Qualifying Round with a game in June. A 3-0 aggregate win over NSI Runavik from the Faroe Islands, set up a Second Qualifying Round meeting with Crusaders FC from Northern Ireland. With the Cottagers already 3-1 up from the First Leg, the home tie at the Cottage is pretty much a formality.

I can’t deny that I am looking forward to getting a first look at the team under new manager Martin Jol, but it is also about reconnecting with being back in London and that feeling of being “home” which bonds and satisfies the inner soul. As the train edges ever further South via Wakefield, Doncaster, Grantham and Stevenage, the weather outside does not alter and a wet welcome awaits me in Kings Cross.

As the train pulls in, I know there is now the joy (sic) of travelling across London by Underground to complete my journey. I just want to get this bit done as quickly as possible and emerge at Putney Bridge and the comforting sight of The Thames and Bishops Park. Despite not having lived in the capital since 1991, I know I need the Piccadilly Line to Earl’s Court and a change onto the District Line to Putney Bridge. I blend in with the commuters and tourists with my Evening Standard and look for news of tonight’s game. With the Test Match at Lord’s and the build-up to next years Olympics dominating the sports pages, Fulham warrant a mere paragraph.

Still a flick through the paper and an attempt at the crossword passes the time and I’m soon emerging out of Putney Bridge station. A quick walk and the Thames is in view, the rain continues, but I stop to take in the sight of Putney Bridge and the calm that being close to water brings. The familiar landmarks of St Mary’s and All Saints sit resplendent at either side of the bridge. As the rain gets heavier I decide it’s time to move off and quickly glimpse to see The Eight Bells full of Crusaders fans. I push on down Fulham High Street towards The Golden Lion where Fulham fans have gathered for their pre-match sustenance. I order a pint and then gaze around the rapidly filling pub. All this is familiar, I’m one of them – I’m a Fulham fan, but then I know it’s not my local and I don’t have this ritual here during the season – I’m not one of them. It’s not bitterness, but sadness. In truth I know I miss the ritual of watching my team and meeting mates before a game.

Outside the rain has eased so decide it is time to make my way to the ground. I branch off down the Fulham Palace Road and past what once used to be newsagents and grocers’ shops but which are now restaurants, estate agents and the like. As others cut off to make their way down to the stadium, I know there is only one turning I want to go down and that is Finlay Street. It is the road I walked down with my dad so many times since the early seventies. You arrive with the Cottage in front of you and the words “THE FULHAM FOOTBALL CLUB” painted on the side. I see it once more and feel both content and nostalgic. I wander the length of Stevenage Road and take various pictures.

With programme purchased, I make my way into the Putney End. Again I can’t help making the comparisons with the Hamburg game. Where in April 2010 the German fans filled a corner of the Stevenage Road stand, the Crusaders supporters take up half the space. The confident, bouncing, noisy Teutonic hordes are now replaced by a crowd which whilst offering vocal support for their team, seems more intent on just enjoying the occasion.

Come kick-off there is a crowd of nearly 16,000, but there is no edge. Despite it being a competitive fixture it does feel like a friendly. Crusaders give of their best, but the extra speed and quality of Fulham in their passing means that the home team are leading after 19 minutes through Andy Johnson. Other chances come and go, but Fulham add no further goals.

Half-time gives a chance for more reflection. I look to the Hammersmith End and see the covered all-seater stand, which fairly much mirrors where I sit in the Putney End. These identi-kit stands serve a purpose and without them, Fulham wouldn’t be able to play at the Cottage in the Premier League. However, they have the feel of glorified temporary seating. They just don’t seem to fit in with the splendour, history and unique quality of the Cottage itself and the Stevenage Road Stand. Indeed the black cladding around the Cottage looks restrictive and a barrier to keep everything at a distance. My eyes too are filled by what seems to be hundreds of yellow jackets on an army of stewards, whose sole message appears to be that everything and everywhere is off-limits. Is this the price of modern football?

And so the teams return for the second-half. Crusaders are not disgraced, but the superior fitness of the Fulham team begins to tell as the game goes on. The home team find more space and in a fourteen minute spell, goals from Damien Duff (56 minutes), Bobby Zamora (66 minutes) and Steve Sidwell (70 minutes) give Fulham a 4-0 win on the night and a 7-1 aggregate win. The teams carry out the customary shirt-swapping, applaud their respective groups of fans and are suddenly gone. With the yellow army patrolling the perimeter of the pitch, the fans too drift away into the damp July night.

My journey North now begins in earnest and I join the crowd as it snakes through Bishops Park, the Fulham faithful offering a hum of contented banter, set against the rumble of traffic flowing back and forth over Putney Bridge. At the Underground station, fans flock to the trains heading back to Earl’s Court. I dip into my bag and once more attempt to complete the crossword in The Standard. Without noticing I’ve changed trains, trance like I’m already at Kings Cross with just under an hour to kill before the 23.30 takes me back to Leeds. A call home, a swift pint, a purchase of a sandwich and some tinnies and I’m ready for the return. I’m amazed how busy the station still is, everything on the concourse is open and people are buzzing around like its still rush-hour.

The final walk down the platform and within minutes the train lurches out on its journey North. I eat and crack open a can, and for the first time tonight feel tired. I’m lucky that I’m in a bank of seats with a table and nobody else sat in them. I’m not in the mood for conversation. I stare blankly out of the window and sip increasingly slowly the cold lager. It adds to the sensation of a frozen and numbed brain. I just want to be home now, but know that the train is not due in until 02:45 and then a taxi ride awaits. The crawl home continues and a second can is opened. With ticket checked by the guard, I settle back in my seat. Sleep comes easily and quickly. A jolt and I awake to find the train has stopped and I’m relieved to be in Leeds. Along with the rest of the weary passengers I stumble out into the early morning air and I head for the taxi rank.

Its 03:00 by the time I get into bed. I understand the concept of a weary body and mind. They say “home is where the heart is” and I now can feel the warmth of her skin.

2010/11: Expectation

Expectation – is it a burden or a motivator? In football terms, I suppose it’s different things to different clubs. As a Fulham fan back in the 1995/96 season I was grateful that we managed to avoid relegation to the Conference. There was no expectation, just a relief that the club actually existed. That season marked the low-point and the start of a journey that has been quite unbelievable. If somebody had told me that within 16 years, the club would be in the top-flight for 10 consecutive seasons and would reach a European Final, I’d have said they needed a very long lay down in a darkened room.

As wonderful as that journey has been, on a personal level I’ve always tried to be realistic about the expectations for Fulham. For others, there has been an unreasonable (as I see it) rationale as the club has progressed. There is nothing wrong with ambition, but it has to be balanced with reality. Some people may consider my views as lacking aspiration or as killing a dream, but I have my position because ultimately our teams do let us down.

As the last of the winner’s tickertape fluttered down in Hamburg at the end of the Europa League Cup Final and Fulham trudged off, thinking of what might have been – there were bound to be consequences. Firstly, Roy Hodgson became a managerial target and was bound to leave and secondly fans were thinking that Fulham “had arrived” and that 2011/12 would bring a top seven finish and domestic silverware.

Mark Hughes took over and after going unbeaten in the League in August and September, the remainder of 2010 became decidedly desperate. A Boxing Day mauling by then bottom of the table West Ham at the Cottage and dropping into the bottom three made those balmy European nights seem a life-time away. The reality of relegation was an unwelcome apparition as 2011 awoke. I had that dread and fear in the stomach that comes from knowing your club is in trouble. Cold logic tells you that you’ve had a good run, 10 years in the Premier League has been a bonus. However, a positive run of results in both the League and FA Cup as January turns into February and suddenly there is a whiff of expectation. The FA Cup Fifth Round looms, you get a home tie against a fellow Premier League team. I’m expecting Fulham to win, for the first time this season I’m feeling confident. As I said earlier in this piece, eventually your team lets you down and it hurts. Following that loss to Bolton, I’m now looking worriedly at the remainder of the League fixtures and dreading the rest of the season. How can the result of one game make me feel so different?

Leeds United unlike Fulham is a “big-club”. History, tradition, trophies, fans – and a huge expectation. But that expectation varies too. There are those who think a mid-table finish this season would be creditable – those who feared a relegation battle – and those who see a second successive promotion. The trap has been laid, 14 games to go, sat in 6th place, just three points away from an automatic promotion spot – expectation level has been set. Barnsley come to Elland Road tonight, a win and the right results and Leeds could be second. And so the expectation would grow. Would that be the springboard to go on and clinch promotion? Would the pressure become too great? Expectation – is it a burden or a motivator?

 He who dares Rodney. He who dares…..