Fulham and Charlton show why the Championship is so compelling

HOW OFTEN does a crowd filter out of a football stadium feeling they haven’t really been entertained? All too frequently, there’s a collective shrug of the shoulders, comments like, “not bad” or “they tried”, although supporters of the winning team console themselves with the result, a case of points over performance, function over form.

Not so the 18,500 people who witnessed Fulham against Charlton, a four-goal thriller that could have been won by either side. Fast, furious stiff, a little niggle here and there, and a couple of ejector seat goals. What’s more, the atmosphere was, at times, intense, boosted by a healthy contingent from South London, fans who are clearly enjoying Charlton’s return to the Championship.

Fulham’s form had taken a turn for the better again with two wins, against Wigan and Reading. When they faced Wigan a week earlier, they had not won for five league and cup games, now they are unbeaten in five, thanks to the 2-0 victory against the Latics and a midweek mauling of Reading (4-1). Draws can be destructive when you’re chasing promotion, but stick a couple of wins in a sequence and it suddenly looks far rosier. Charlton, meanwhile, had won half of their 10 league games and were sitting comfortably around mid-table, just one point behind Fulham.

A couple of years ago, Charlton looked like a very unhappy club, largely due to the fans’ dislike of Roland Duchâtelet, the Belgian portfolio club owner. Charlton were relegated to League One in 2016 and they spent three seasons at that level before winning promotion via the play-offs in 2019. The club was losing more fans than any London club in the previous few years, but there’s a sense of revival about Charlton at the moment, even though they are said to have the lowest budget in the Championship. They are averaging 18,000 at their home games this season.

Duchâtelet wants to off-load the club, but he’s asking £ 60 million, a figure that deters would-be buyers. He told the Charlton fans that he’s been trying to sell for two years, but pointed to the annual losses suffered by Championship clubs as a deterrant. “It has become unaffordable for nearly anyone to own a football club in the Championship, meaning it is not easy to find a suitable buyer.”

At least Charlton fans have a manager they like in Lee Bowyer, although he almost left in the summer after initially turning down his current contract. Bowyer started his playing career with Charlton before joining Leeds United in 1996 and also played for West Ham United and Newcastle United, among others. He’s the proverbial “one of our own” that fans love to crow about.

Bowyer has done a lot to unify the club during a fractious period at the Valley. Certainly, the mood among the Charlton fans at Craven Cottage seemed buoyant and positive. They were in fine voice throughout the 90 minutes, letting us know that they “hate Millwall” and that their club had won the FA Cup.

They had plenty to sing about in the first half as their team went in at the interval a goal to the good, a neat low finish from Conor Gallagher, scored after 41 minutes. Charlton had looked the better side for much of the first period, but Fulham improved considerably in the second half and equalised on 55 minutes with a superb strike from Ivan Cavaleiro. Fulham were level for less than two minutes as Macauley Bonne headed Charlton back into the lead. Finally, Aleksandar Mitrović scored from close range in the 63rd minute to make it two each. Both sides could have snatched victory, but it was Fulham that went closest,  Anthony Knockaert crossing and “Mitro”, who seemed to enjoy a robust afternoon, striking the crossbar. It was exciting stuff and kept the crowd interested right until the final whistle.

It does look as though the Championship is going to be a tight affair again this season, but Fulham, and their entertaining brand of play, should feature in the race for promotion. Charlton are not far away, either, although the 46-game programme will test them, but on the evidence of their draw with highly fancied Fulham, Bowyer’s side shouldn’t have much trouble keeping away from danger. This was a game involving two teams who were keen to play football and go for a result. It was 90 minutes that made you feel glad you had a Fulham season ticket in your back pocket!

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA

A parachute helps Fulham and smothers Millwall

ANYONE who watched Fulham’s calamitous 2018-19 season probably felt there was no way the team constructed by the club’s owner and his son was “too good to go down”. Certainly, even if the players bought in the summer of 2018 – an example of scatter gun team construction – underperformed because of a lack of cohesion, Fulham’s record was still poor and relegation was on the cards from October onwards. It was a campaign of bad judgement, over £ 100 million of bad judgement.

It is therefore difficult to look upon Fulham and get the immediate feeling their current squad is far too impressive for most opponents. In football, there is always a danger that people fail to look beyond the Premier in forming their opinions about teams and players. The torrent of publicity and media exposure means the focus is all too often centred on the top clubs. Therefore, if a team gets relegated, there is a natural assumption that it is because that particular squad is not good enough for the top flight. If a team only narrowly gets relegated, it is reasonable to assume a decent promotion campaign can be launched, but Fulham were 10 points off the 17th-placed club, Brighton.

When Fulham hosted Millwall, the south London side were unbeaten and above a Fulham team that was clicking into gear after two wins. The visit of Millwall raised the security aspect of the game – dozens more stewards, a few police dotted around and a few anxious faces beneath the stand before the game and in the surrounding streets. Millwall’s reputation for being an army of hooligans is largely overstated and built on the past when mobs fought each other, although they seem to be the one group of fans who actually revel in being considered fierce and frightening. Hence they sing “no one likes us, we don’t care”. I naively followed Chelsea to Millwall in 1976 and went home a nervous wreck, vowing I would never return to the old Den. I didn’t.

However, it sounds strange, but a visit to the new Den is something of a throwback to the days when fans could create an unwelcoming, intimidating atmosphere that could put a visiting team off its game. I’ve actually enjoyed my visits to Millwall in recent years.

Millwall’s away following at Craven Cottage was noisy, as one would expect. Their single note yell, which seems to grow louder by the minute, is as chilling as the Zulu battle cry in the 1964 film starring Michael Caine. It was a bizarre experience – one half of the Putney End passive, ready to watch TV or cinema, the other a maelstrom. A tinder box waiting to be sparked. Some of the Fulham fans on the end of each row looked a little nervous, almost as edgy as the stewards and police that were keeping an eye on the visiting contingent.

Fulham’s fans were soon treated to an exhibition of football. Millwall started well, but soon faded. Once Scott Parker’s side quelled the Lions’ enthusiasm, they passed them to death. “We’ve got our Fulham back,” said one fan, referring to the team that won promotion in 2018.

Fulham’s Ivan Cavaleiro scores his side’s fourth goal

Fulham went ahead after 15 minutes when Tom Cairney set-up on-loan winger Ivan Cavaleiro who cut inside and sent his shot from the edge of the area past Bartosz Bialkowski. Cavaleiro, an impressive acquisition, crossed for Anthony Knockaert to score with a stooping header in the 32ndminute to make it 2-0. Millwall looked beaten at that point, but Fulham kept going with their possession football and intensive passing movements. In the 56thminute, they scored a third from the penalty spot, Aleksandar Mitrović being brought down and confidently converting the spot-kick. The goalscoring was completed by Cavaleiro, who controlled the ball well and rounded the keeper to slot home after 63. The Fulham fans lapped it up, a 4-0 victory that underlined their promotion credentials.

There was big gulf between Fulham and Millwall and people – particularly opposition fans – were assuming the home side’s financial clout was the big difference between the two sides. They saw the front line of Mitro, Knockaert and Cavaleiro as a sign that Fulham have far more money than Millwall. Of course, Fulham can afford to hire-in players like Knockaert and Cavaleiro, not least because they do receive compensation for being relegated in the form of parachute payments. In 2019-20, Fulham will receive more than £ 40 million, which may not buy many players, but could allow the club to be more than competitive with their wage bill. It’s strange that a club like Fulham is being looked upon as one of the big spenders, especially as they’ve always been South West London’s poorer relations (Chelsea on their doorstep, after all).

From a footballing perspective, Fulham’s performance was exhilarating. Millwall manager Neil Harris had to admit that his team had been hammered, “they were much, much better than us”.

The stats confirmed the chasm between the two teams – Fulham had 84.5% possession, an astonishing figure that someone like Pep Guardiola would have been proud of.

So the home fans were happy, singing “Super” Scotty Parker’s praise and putting last season’s misery into the memory bank. On the evidence of the first few weeks, Fulham are in for an interesting season. As for Millwall, they were unfortunate to come up against a team that is coming together nicely. Neil Harris said quite a few teams will get this type of treatment at Craven Cottage. He could be right.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA