I always get nervous walking to Craven Cottage. It’s not because the streets are mean, because the plethora of multi-million pound real estate suggests that the worst that could happen to you is that you trip over the latest iPad, get flattened by a reversing Audi or BMW, or get knocked aside by a “yummy mummy” and her 4×4 pushchair. The demographics of London SW6 include hedge fund managers, bond traders and other assorted refugees from the City of London or Belgravia. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of tennis balls pinging over the net. Unlike the other end of Fulham Road, it’s hardly football territory.
No, the reason I get a little apprehensive about a trip through Bishop’s Park is the sight of All Saints Church. I’m a bit of a heathen, true, but my image reflects in the mirror, so it’s not because I have a taste for good quality plasma or flying by night. All Saints Church was the scene of one of the most chilling moments in the 1976 film, The Omen, when former Dr. Who, Patrick Troughton (playing the role of a priest) was skewered by a lightning conductor that had been sent hurtling from the top of the church after the hysterical holy man had upset the Antichrist.
Reassuringly, as I hurried past the church, I caught a glimpse of the floodlights, so all was well. There would be no need to clutch a crucifix as I made my way to the Cottage. I heard no cloven hooves, not even police horses. The crowd simply took a gentle stroll through the park to the Edwardian splendour that is Fulham’s Stevenage Road stand.
But talking of Omens, they were not good for this game: two out-of-form teams who may find they meet in different and humbler surroundings in 2014-15. With Fulham and Norwich in 16th and 15th places respectively, the expectations for this FA Cup third round replay were decidedly low. “No-one really wants it,” was one comment I heard on the District Line as I alighted at Putney Bridge station.
The two sides had drawn 1-1 at Carrow Road on January 4, just nine days after their Boxing Day clash on the same ground, a game which Fulham won 2-1. But both had been in dire form, Fulham getting a reminder that they are in serious trouble when they lost 6-0 at Hull, Norwich picking up three points in their last six attempts. “It’s going to be like suicide chess,” said one Fulham fan in Bishop’s Park. “Two teams trying to take the quickest exit out of the competition”. I wondered why I had bothered to attend!
Comments about the decline of the FA Cup annoy me intensely. The clubs continually devalue it by fielding under-strength sides and the FA further damages it by holding the final on the same day as league games. Then the FA tell you it’s oh so wonderful and the TV tries to “big it up” when, in fact, they are flogging a horse that’s already been consigned to the slaughterhouse. The Premier League and the UEFA Champions League are killing it and the result is that it’s easy to get tickets for a FA Cup tie. How can they expect the fans to get behind it if the people running the competition clearly don’t value it themselves?
Omen too: Damien
Back to those omens. I was looking forward to seeing Damien in action, Duff that is. He’s no longer the fleet-footed winger who starred up the road at Chelsea, but he’s worth watching. Duff and Arjen Robben added width and flair to Mourinho’s title winners of 2005 and 2006 and to me, Chelsea were never as good to watch when the wings were clipped.
Another player I wanted to see again was Dimitar Berbatov. I’ve always consider that, with the right club, he could have been one of the greats. He’s playing at Fulham because everyone else tired of his inconsistency and languid style. But neither Duff or Berbatov appeared in the starting line-up. What’s more, only two of the side that started against Sunderland three days earlier lined-up for Fulham and five of Norwich’s first XI at Everton were in opposition. No wonder they charged only £15 for the privilege – I was tempted to ask for my money back under the Trade Description Act, but I caught a glimpse of a big black, salivating dog on the far side of the ground. It was that film again.
Hell Bent on success
The game exceeded all hopes. Fulham’s shadow squad performed well in the first half, despite an early warning from Robert Snodgrass, who struck the crossbar with a fierce shot. But there was precious little else of note from Norwich, who looked like they had taken the “suicide” pledge before the game and didn’t want the FA Cup to get in the way of their Premier survival hopes.
Fulham took the lead through Darren Bent, who was lumbering around like a menacing veteran heavyweight champion for much of the half. Bent’s on a season-long loan from Aston Villa in a bid to recapture the form that won him England caps (perhaps a late bid for Rio?), but according to recent stats, he touches the ball just 15 times a game. If some of those 15 are tapping it into the net, then so be it, but Bent has clearly lost his way after injury.
Against Norwich, though, he looked like his old self. He scored the first goal after 17 minutes, completing the simple task of finishing from close range after a low cross from Pajtim Kasami. Bent was involved when Fulham extended their lead three minutes from the interval, a similarly easy job for Ashkan Dejagah after Alexander Kacaniklic had rolled the ball across the area.
Fulham’s third goal came from Steve Sidwell, who headed home at the far post from Sascha Riether’s cross. Norwich were poor, quite frankly, and there were some calls for the head of their manager, Chris Hughton to go. Fulham’s manager, Rene Muelensteen has the luxury of being a new appointment, but it won’t take long for the pressure to build if Fulham are still struggling to avoid relegation come March.
Sidwell impressed me and I couldn’t help feeling that this is a player who Chelsea should have persevered with. It might have saved them some money.
Omen free: The final conflict?
It would be nice to say that a 3-0 win was encouraging for Fulham, but the team that so easily rolled Norwich over is not going to be the one that fights the drop for the Cottagers. As for the FA Cup, they have a good chance of making the last 16 as they will meet Sheffield United now in the fourth round. They won’t need reminding that Wigan won the FA Cup last season but suffered relegation. Cup success versus Premier survival? That’s something of a dilemma.
Fulham have been in the Premier for over a decade, which is no mean feat, regardless of their financial support. The club has come a long way since the gormless days of “Viva El Fulham” and Tommy Trinder, but it’s nice to see the quaint old Cottage in the corner. That’s what makes visiting Fulham one of the more rewarding experiences in London football. I avoided the park on the journey home. Thought I saw lightning and a large black crow on the gate. And did I hear strains of, “Ave Satani”?