River-Cottage-Football: Sticking £ 100 million where?

AN experiment? An indulgence? Folly? Or merely the search for something new and rewarding? The purchase of a Fulham season ticket, before – I might add – knowing if the club was going to be in the Premier League or the Championship, was a bid to regain something from my lost youth. In the past couple of years, I have been suffering a form of footballing impotence, an inability to be over-impressed or excited by anything on the playing field. Appreciative, yes, of moments of sublime skill, but I had lost the buzz of being partisan, of really caring about the outcome of a game. Bored, to some extent, of boorish behaviour and myopia.

The seeds for this jaded, world-weary feeling about watching football really stemmed from a long, protracted – and some might say too lengthy – association with my local non-league club. I recall Nick Hornby writing that when a midweek minor county cup game started to become over-important, you’ve got problems, and that really made me think about how all-consuming being involved with my local step three club had become. Suddenly, the trials and tribulations of Hitchin Town didn’t seem so crucial and I knew my time was coming to an end – I was tired of the routine. But it was a conversation with Layth Yousif, an aspiring journalist and Arsenal fan (and now living the dream as the Islington Gazette’s Arsenal man) that really pressed the trigger for me. I casually mentioned that I wanted to see the likes of Real Madrid, Barca, Bayern and Juventus over the coming years. He expressed his surprise that I hadn’t seen these places already but when I explained, “Layth, while you’ve been watching Arsenal all over Europe, I’ve been going to places like Leamington, Kings Lynn and Halesowen.” My wife than added fuel to the fire and said that, “You want to go to Barcelona, but you’ve been spending your time at Banbury, Bedford and Biggleswade. You can’t do everything.”

Home for 2018-19

So I departed and began a sojourn around Europe while also maintaining my long distance support of Chelsea, where I had only visited once or twice a season over 20 years due to my role with Hitchin. But by the time I was ready to return to Stamford Bridge, the game had changed and tickets are as rare as gold dust. Moreover, while in the 1970s and 1980s I was engrossed by all things Chelsea, I had also changed, moving into middle-age and acquiring a degree of cynicism about the way the modern game had evolved. Two recent trips to Wembley FA Cup finals (one win, one defeat) demonstrated to me that I was no longer part of the Chelsea family. In 2017, as Chelsea equalised against Arsenal, a Chelsea fan behind me jumped on my back to “celebrate”. I pushed him aside, but he came back, crunching my shoulders and bending my glasses. I shoved him off again, swore and turned in disgust. He started to square up to me, but the message was clear – “I’m almost 60, I am not going to jump around with you – piss off.”

There was another aspect to this shift in my mindset. As a Chelsea fan in the early 1970s, I enjoyed the 1970 FA Cup win and the 1971 European success. Players like Peter Osgood were my heroes. In the troubled mid-decade and into the 1980s, I thought the days of milk and honey were over, but there was a revival. I enjoyed the mid-1980s resurgence and the goals of Kerry Dixon. He became manager of Hitchin while I was on the committee. The modern era has been great in terms of success and for a while, I felt the old adrenalin return, but today, if a season ends without a prize, you know the next one is coming along soon – as well as a new manager. One of my happiest moments as a Chelsea fan was seeing them win the FA Cup in 1997, ending a 26-year barren period.

I accept this is the way football is, but in some ways, I feel my time has passed at hanging on to every incident, every twist and turn. Certainly, when I do get to Chelsea, I feel I am at someone’s else’s wedding and I am often unmoved by the ebb and flow of the game. Time for a change. A club for middle age perhaps, a chance to rekindle the feeling of caring about a result. So, I made the decision to go “on loan” at another club – rather like the legions of players that get farmed out by Chelsea, Manchester City and other top clubs.

And so, the 2018-19 season and a year at Craven Cottage. I must admit, I had not looked forward to a new Premier League campaign as much for some years. I had been a very good neutral for five years, watching football in France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Hungary and the Czech Republic, among other countries, but I walked along the Thames in search of a new experience. And in my back pocket was my first season ticket of any sort since the 1977-78 season.

Prime real estate all around

Fulham of course, has just about the most pleasant, almost idyllic, approach of any football club among the 92, and I’ve been to 86 of them. Prime real estate all around, rowers easing past the stadium on the river, a well-kept park for the well-heeled (advertising things like farmers markets) and fleets of Audis and BMWs parked in the side streets, belonging to Waitrose customers. The park is full of benches dedicated to people who loved to walk along the embankment, one even mentioning that a certain lady’s dog enjoyed Bishop’s Park. I asked a local how he felt about having a football ground in his backyard. “If we have to have one, this is not a bad club, but I would prefer something else. When you have 25,000 people arriving at the bottom of your road, you are going to have a mixed experience,” it was a fairly measured reply to my question, but I pointed out that Fulham have always been here (since 1896) while he had been a goal-kick away from the Stevenage Road stand since 2008.

My first visit to Craven Cottage was in 1975-76 season and I’ve been a few times since then. I have always enjoyed the ambience of the place and the Stevenage Road stand, now named after club legend (and he is a proper notable) Johnny Haynes, looked better than ever.

And so, too, did the Fulham squad. Chairman Shahid Khan and his son were busy in the summer bolstering manager Slaviša Jokanovic’s playing resources, investing some £ 100 million on new talent. Fulham were one of the big spenders in the transfer window and largely, had acquired young players with potential.

I knew all about Jean Michaël Seri, the Ivory Coast midfielder from his time with Nice. His arrival at Fulham, along with a team mate Maxime Le Marchand, excited me and given that Barcelona were after him, suggested this was a player of quality. In total, about a dozen new players joined the club in the close season, hinting they were not settling for mere survival.

How much do you have to spend to guarantee that a season in the Premier League won’t turn to a nightmare? Such is the level of expenditure, and the domination of the few, that there surely can be no guarantees. Crystal Palace, Fulham’s opponents on the opening day, had spent just £ 9.5 million (on Cheikhou Kouyaté of West Ham United), just 10% of Fulham’s outlay.

Fulham v Crystal Palace – Saturday August 11, 2018 3pm Craven Cottage  0-2 (0-1)
Attendance: 24,821

Goals: Schlupp 41, Zaha 79
Fulham: Fabri, Christie, Chambers, Le Marchand, Bryan (Vietto 71), Cairney, McDonald, Seri (Johansen 82), Schürrle (Kamara 61), Mitrovic, Sessegnon Crystal Palace:Hennessey, Wan-Bissaka, Tomkins, Sakho, Van Aanholt (Souaré 90), McArthur, Milivojevic, Schlupp, Townsend (Kouyaté 88), Benteke (Sørloth 83), Zaha.Referee:Mike Dean

Palace’s fans mingled happily among the home audience and there was no hint of a problem. Thankfully, the modern game, for all its sins, has brought us a more civil experience travelling to and from London football grounds – when I started my fortnightly visits to Chelsea in the mid-1970s, I ran the gauntlet of the District Line, avoided skirmishes outside the stadium and fled in terror as fans “ran” at away fans at the North Stand end at Stamford Bridge. But I remember those days too well and I would still not wear “colours” regardless of where I was watching a game. Walking to Fulham from Putney Bridge, however, was no gauntlet run.

Inside Craven Cottage, I found my seat in the Hammersmith End and, not knowing what sort of view awaited me for £ 390, and was very pleased with the vista. Off centre, how I like it and at the end of a row. It was drafty, which prompted me to note that in winter, extra padding was needed, which I guessed was a breeze coming across from the Thames, which was in sight. Not only a decent seat, but a room with a view – this would do very nicely for 2018-19.

All that was needed was a Fulham win. Not such an easy task given the overhaul of the team and the fact that Palace and their manager, Roy Hodgson had been around a few years at this level. Fulham, by contrast, had just three players in their line-up with Premier League experience.

The game itself was lively, never dull. Palace, after surviving Fulham’s opening fizz, were quicker and more snappier than the home team. Fulham tried to pass the ball around nicely, but whenever an attack was launched, the visitors were quick to close-down the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic, a player I like very much. Wayne Hennessey, the Palace keeper twice denied the Serbian forward in the first period. Tom Cairney looked good in midfield, but Ryan Sessegnon, the player everyone tips to go on to great things, rarely had the space to do anything spectacular.

In the 41stminute, Fulham received a setback when Patrick Van Aanholt slid the ball into the area to the waiting Jeffrey Schlupp, who sent a first-time effort high into the net and just inside the far post. It was a little dose of reality after Fulham’s retail therapy.

The Fulham crowd were noticeably quieter in the second half as that reality started to hit home. Hennessey was outstanding in the Palace goal and whenever Wilfried Zaha was on the ball, there was always the promise of something happening.

And so it did in the 79thminute. It started with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, another Palace success story on opening day, bursting through and sending the ball wide to Zaha. The much-coveted Ivorian gave himself more room by pushing wider and was greeted by the sight of Fabri, who found himself in nomansland. Zaha slid his shot underneath the new keeper for the second goal. Some Fulham fans were very unhappy about Fabri, who had been uncomfortable on his league debut.

So the first league game ended in a 2-0 defeat for Fulham, which didn’t stop the majority of the crowd from giving them a good send-off as they disappeared from view by the ornate and slightly eccentric cottage. They will, of course, find there could be a dozen or more clubs that may give them a tougher afternoon than Palace, but as their new faces become more accustomed with the club, the manager and their team-mates, Fulham will surely get better. They didn’t play badly, but at times, they looked a little overawed. The defeat gave the happy Palace fans the opportunity to taunt the Fulham faithful on their way out of the ground – “You can stick your £ 100 million up your arse.”

Nevertheless, it had been a good start to the Premier League season. I think I am going to enjoy Fulham in 2018-19. I’ve already got my tickets for the Brighton away game on September 1. I cannot remember when I last displayed so much commitment!

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