River-Cottage-Football: When wealth is all relative

JUST imagine, if Chelsea’s founding family, the Mears, had got their way, there might not have been a Craven Cottage and the football world would have been deprived of one of the real pleasures of watching the game in London.

Is there a more pleasant experience than walking from Hammersmith, past the Odeon (the theatre where, in 1973, David Bowie killed-off his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust), progressing along Edwardian villa-ed streets, onto the Thames path and into Stevenage Road and catching a glimpse of Archibald Leitch’s most durable creation? I don’t think so.

Gus Mears, a Victorian businessman and owner of Stamford Bridge, the future home of Chelsea, offered Fulham the stadium at £ 1,500 per annum. They turned it down and Chelsea were born out of necessity. How football history would have been changed if Fulham had accepted that deal.

Early October and Fulham had their biggest home game of the season, an all-London clash with resurgent Arsenal. There was bright autumn sunshine and it was a midday kick-off on a Sunday. A couple of gleaming sailing vessels floated past Craven Cottage and the park was packed with “yummy-mummies” and off-duty hedge fund managers spending quality time with their offspring. A worthy charity run was in process, the panting runners weaving in and out of the crowd marching towards the stadium. It was all a bit like a Richard Curtis film script, you half expected Hugh Grant to be sitting on one of the river-facing benches, perhaps equipped with his black and white scarf. Everyone’s favourite fop is, after all, a Fulham fan.

A general view of fans arriving before the Premier League match at the Craven Cottage Stadium, London. Photo: Craig Mercer/Sportimage via PA Images

Fulham were in need of an uplifting and convincing result as their defence, in recent games, had looked naïve and fragile. They were in 17thplace, two points above the relegation spots. Beaten 3-0 in their last two Premier away games, against Manchester City and Everton, life in the top flight was starting to become very tough.

Arsenal, by contrast, had recovered from their first two games (defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea) and looked in reasonable shape. They had won eight in a row and new coach Unai Emery was settling in well.

Fulham didn’t really need an in-form Arsenal arriving at the Cottage at this moment in time, but they couldn’t avoid the big guns, so it was really “hope for the best”.

Their best was probably never going to be good enough, though, for although Fulham had spent £ 100 million on bolstering their squad, the mantra being potential rather than proven, Arsenal’s two star strikers, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, cost the Gunners a mere £ 102 million. Fulham may have had significant summer cash to spend, but they were still way behind their North London friends.

Aubameyang was left on the bench, so that could have been seen as one less problem to deal with, and Mesut Özil was also missing with an injury. Aaron Ramsey, who may not be an Arsenal player by the end of January, was also on dugout duty. Fulham brought back Maxime Le Marchand and Cyrus Christie, but relied on the team that lost at Everton.

Fulham started well, though. Hector Bellerin, he of the trendy top knot, mistimed a pass and Luciano Vietto, who had still to impress, dashed through and sent a deflected shot towards Bernd Leno, who pushed the ball for a corner. A lively overture. Arsenal settled and Alex Iwobi looked dangerous every time he gained possession. He gave the Fulham defence a difficult time and repeatedly exposed their weakness down the flank. “Here we go again,” said one home fan.

Just on the half hour, Arsenal went ahead. Iwobi worked his way down the left flank and he passed to Nacho Monreal, who drove a low cross to the near post where the waiting Lacazette pulled off a neat movement, owning the ball, turning and shooting into the net, all in a single movement. It was a classy, £ 47 million finish.

Fulham toiled to get back into the game and just before the interval, André Schürrle levelled the scores, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa picked up a poor pass from Monreal and Vietto prodded through to Schürrle, who chipped his effort over Leno. There was a sense of relief from the Fulham fans, but the joy was short-lived.

Arsenal were back in front in the 49thminute and it was a gem of a goal, Lacazette turning and sending a first-time shot from 25 yards past England hopeful Marcus Bettinelli, who appeared to be a little caught-out.

If that was easy on the eye, the third Arsenal goal was an absolute joy for those that like technical football. It started with Aaron Ramsey, who had been on the pitch for half a minute. The move involved Bellerin, Ramsey again, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and then Aubameyang, who fired the ball across to the still mobile Ramsey and he sent a cheeky backheel past Bettinelli. There were still 23 minutes to go, it looked ominous for Fulham.

Even worse was to follow in the 79thminute as Aubameyang scored an almost identical goal to Lacazette’s opener. All around me, people started to leave the ground as the Arsenal fans started singing, “we’ve got our Arsenal back”. Aubameyang added a fifth in added time to really reveal the gaping Fulham wounds. “Just because we’ve spent £ 100 million on players doesn’t mean we’ve spent £ 100 million on decent players,” said one disillusioned regular. “It is early days still,” I replied. “We’ll know in a month if the new players have what it takes. They’re still bedding-in.”

For the neutral, it had been an entertaining 90 minutes with some outstanding individual performances from Arsenal. The two strikers, Lacazette and Aubameyang showed why Arsenal invested so much money in them and the style of football was every bit as good as anything the Gunners served-up in the dying days of the Wenger regime. As for Fulham, they have played eight games, so they are not quite in a relegation fight just yet, but if their current run continues, and eight becomes 15 games, they may have a difficult time ahead. Reality has certainly arrived at Craven Cottage and it may take further cash outlays, certainly in defence, to ensure early season nerves don’t become late season trauma.

Photos: PA


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