Dragging myself out of my sickbed to watch Fulham FC

After my last entry, written from my hotel bed. I was feeling rather miserable knowing that I’d wasted an entire day of a trip that I’d been looking forward to for so long. I dosed myself up on medication and got my head down for some sleep.

The alarm woke me a 6pm, giving me enough time to shower and get changed. Despite feeling like I could sleep until 6m the next day I was heading to the football.

I’d asked the hotel book me a cab to the ground. The way I was feeling the last thing that I wanted to do was get on a crowded match day tube, and I’m sure that they wouldn’t have wanted a germ ridden passenger along for the ride. The cab ride started interestingly; or rather it almost didn’t start at all. Reception called me to say that the cab was outside. This was a good 15 minutes before I was expecting it. Luckily I was ready to go, and so pausing only to grab my camera I dragged myself down the stairs and out the door only to find no cab. I wondered up and down the street in search of my ride, but to no avail. Defeated and even more annoyed then I already had been, I went back to the hotel. The receptionist called the cab company, giving them a right earful. I’m sad to say that it made me feel a little better…

Despite having taken enough different cold & flu remedies to rattle when I walk, I’m still ready to drop. Devoid even of the mixture nervous energy and sheer terror that I usually experience when heading off to an even, I just wanted to go cut my losses and go back to bed. Just as I reached the decision to do just that, my taxi arrived.

For the second time.

I climb into the ridiculous 12 seater Mercedes mini-bus that the cab company have determined is the best vehicle with which to transport a single passenger through one of the worlds busiest cities. “I’veGoing to Chelsea Football Club, right” asks my driver. ìNope, Fulham FCî, I reply. After getting a grunt to the affirmative, we set off, pulling out into the nightmare that is London traffic. We make our way slowly and jerkily south; pausing every few seconds with a load blast on the horn and the occasional shake of a fist. I’ve no idea how Londoners cope with their traffic. New York was manic, but the traffic went in straight line and the intersections were wide and clear. London of course is not built on the block system. As a pedestrian this is part of the charm, that you can walk around a corner and be confronted with a building as large as the Royal Albert Hall ñ seemingly appearing from nowhere. With traffic however it just means that there are cars coming from every direction, every few meters bringing a new junction and fresh chaos.

I sat with my head rested against the window, my eyes lazily taking in the lights of stores and houses and generally being grateful that I didn’t have to deal with this every day. I then happened to catch a glance at a sign that made me sit up ñ a Chelsea badge attached to a lamppost. I began to get that sinking feeling that means something is going to go wrong. Casually I pulled out my iPhone, bringing up our current location on the map. Now I know that Fulham and Chelsea are relatively close together, and I will be the first to admit that I don’t know the roads as my driver did. What I did know is that if we stayed on this road then we would end up at Stamford Bridge rather than Craven Cottage. However, according to my map if we turned left then we would be on the road to the Cottage.

We went straight.

A minute later the driver pulls up outside the gates of Stamford Bridge. “Here we are mate, right across the road there “Chelsea FC”. “That’s nice I reply, except I’m watching a Fulham match not Chelsea”. A short discussion now occurs in which I explain that I’d booked a cab to Craven Cottage, that I’d said Fulham FC when I got in the cab. That I have a ticket right here that is for Fulham, and does it even look like there is a match on tonight at Stamford Bridge!

Finally it sinks in that I’m not getting out of the cab and we find ourselves travelling down a now familiar road, only this time taking the turning.

Eventually all access roads become closed off to traffic, and I find myself looking that the short walk to the home of Fulham FC.

I’d never been to a match at night before and despite supporting neither team found myself quite excited. I walked down the road with the crowds, seeing the Cottage emerge from behind the rows of terraced housing. The stadium aglow from the floodlights and the noise levels rising as we filtered into the crowd outside the ground.

The experience of going to a match at an old ground like Craven Cottage feels so much more visceral then the relatively sanitised walk to a modern stadium. At Fulham everything is condensed into a small area. 20,000 people pushing past burger vans, ticket touts, program & merchandise sellers and even the opposition fans, shepherded towards their turn-style and into the ground as soon as possible. The contrast to Wembley and even the Denver Broncos Invesco Field is immense. With those stadiums there are big open boulevards leading to the stadium. The entire area is pedestrianised. There is nothing to draw your attention other then the architecture of the stadium itself. The primary focus is to get you into the ground as soon as possible, so that you can queue to buy your official program from a hole in the wall. So that you can pass the official fast-food sponsor of choice and hopefully spend some cash at the official megastore.

Getting into the stadium was very confusing. I knew that my ticket was for the riverside stand, and I had arrived at the opposite stand. I made my way along the length of the ground, resisting the fantastic smelling burgers and myriad opportunities to buy a programme. I turned the corner to be greeted by a small brick wall and the river. I Hadn’t expected the riverside stand to be that literal! Making my way back, I realised that entry to all stands was through the same side of the stadium. Eventually I found the right turnstile and after passing through a series of passages came out pitchside.

I’ve previously mentioned that seats at Wembley are miles away from the pitch. There are no such complaints at Fulham. When I bought my ticket, the website showed that I was sat in the front row of the top tier. What I hadn’t realised is that the bottom tier at Fulham is about three rows deep and roughly a foot lower than the top ‘tier’. This was easily the best seat I’ve had for any event I’ve ever been to. Any closer and I’d have been on the pitch. To top it all the ticket was only £20! The players came out to warm up and were close enough that you could see the steam rising from them.

The atmosphere was electric, a genuine thrill in the air. Fulham vs Shakthar in the knockout stages of the Europa league, fighting to play one of the giants of the game in either Ajax or Juventus in the next round. Providing that is, that they could get past Shakthar ñ no small feat considering that they are the current holders of the cup. Despite my neutral status, I’d found enough reasons to cheer on Fulham. First and foremost they were the home team. Secondly, Shakthar put Spurs out of this some competition on the way to winning the trophy. A defeat that still rankles with the Spurs faithful as we played a 2nd string team ñ partly due to injury and partly to protect the fit first team players as Spurs recovered from the worst league start in their history. Finally, Fulham have a number of ex-Spurs players in their ranks ñ Simon Davies, Stephen Kelly, Danny Murphy and crowd favourite Bobby Zamora have all played at the Lane and receive a warm reception when they return.

Fulham got off to an amazing start, opening the scoring after only a couple of minutes. They then struggled to contain a very talented Shakthar side, who then bossed the game with creating many chances. Eventually Fulham’s rearguard action was breached resulting in the the equaliser. From there it seemed that Shakthar would go on to dominate the match and eventually overwhelm their hosts. The crowd were fantastic, with nothing but encouragement for their team. Danny Murphy, who to this point was having a particularly awful game was excused major criticism with the consensus being that he is allowed one shocker every now and again!

Fulham did have one particularly annoying fan. A man with a loud nasally voice that reminded me of Harry Enfields ‘Only Me’ character, crossed with the vocal stylings of Alan Partridge. His pleas for Fulham to “play it on the grass, my boys” or shouts of “C’mon now, they’re teaching us how to play” were repeated frequently. If he’s a season ticket holder and hasn’t been threatened with hanging by his own scarf, then I’ll be shocked. You can hear this man clearly in the embedded video exhorting for Fulham to “get it in the onion bag” – a turn of phrase that I genuinely didn’t know existed outside of old Roy of the Rovers comics.

Somehow Fulham managed make it through to half time without conceding a second. The relief could be felt around the stadium. The rain then started to fall heavily, but this did not dampen the atmosphere at all. Being so near the pitch I was only just under cover and remaining relatively dry. The row in front were not so fortunate. I overheard a couple of businessmen talking during half time. One of them, an American, announced to his friend/colleague that he had never experienced anything like this before – not in baseball or in football (NFL). I’d have to agree. This was the best atmosphere to a game I’d experienced with the exception of a 5-1 win for Spurs against Aston Villa. Spurs had high hopes for qualifying for european football, and it was coming up to the end of the season. The weather was glorious, Martian Jol had turned the club around the the place was buzzing with optimism. The crowd didn’t stop singing the entire game, and I went home on the verge of losing my voice.

The teams came out for the second half and as they did the temperature in the stadium began to plummet. Steam was not old rising from the players, but from the mouths and noses of all in the ground. Surely these conditions could only favour the team from the Ukraine? Shakthars fans responded to the fall in temperature by stripping off. A group of them standing bare-chested with arms aloft with only their souvenir scarfs for warmth. Someone near me was looking at his mobile phone and announced that it was -2 degrees, but still the Ukrainian fans kept their tops off as they would for the remainder of the game.

The teams were more evenly matched in the second half, although Shakthar continued to look the more likely to score. Then on a break, a ball bounced kindly for Zamora just outside the area. He swung at it and connected beautifully, the ball taking off like a rocket and into the back of the net via the underside of the crossbar. An absolute scorcher. The fans were jubilant and suddenly no-one cared about the cold and rain anymore. Soon after, I was talking to he guy behind me who asked if I’d managed to get a photo of the goal. I was replying that it had happened too quickly for me to get it, when suddenly the ball was cleared into us with the woman sat directly in front of me grabbing it to lob it back to the players. As she held it aloft, I had a sly touch – well it would have been rude not to.

The match continued, but there was now tension in there air that had not been there previously. The last 10 minutes seemed to take an eternity to pass. Shakthar piled on the pressure deep into injury time with a series of corners and free kicks, but somehow Fulham held on. The relief at the final whistle was immense. 20,000 people unsure whether to sigh with relief or go mad with excitement. A combination of the two seemed to be the consensus.

I filtered out onto the rain road in front of the stadium with the others. Chatter filled the air – the chatter of teeth from the freezing cold, and happy excited chatter about the match we had just seen. I started to follow the crowd knowing that they would lead me to the tube station, the nearest of which was over a mile away. Thankfully the crowd was walking at a very sedate pace, otherwise I probably would have exhausted myself trying to keep up. The excitement of the last 90 minutes had kept me going, but now with the match finished and only the prospect of the walk ahead did the fatigue that I had been feeling all day catch up to me. I stopped at one of the vendors to buy a scarf. The temperature now being low enough to make me wish I had brought my own and a pair of gloves. Scarf now snug around my neck and hands deep in pockets, I began the trudge though a muddy and unlit park. Normally I’d avoid a situation like walking though a city park at night like the plague. But I was with a couple of thousand other people, so I figured that I couldn’t come to that much harm!

Considering my own condition, the walk was surprisingly pleasant. Even more so when I realised that most people weren’t catching the tube, but heading into the town. This meant that I could jump straight on the first train and the rest of the journey to Earls Court was plain sailing. Arriving back I realised that I hadn’t eaten and so found myself in KFC ordering a ‘gourmet banquet for one’. After the short walk back to the hotel, I jumped onto the laptop to read the match reports whilst eating my chicken. Two thoughts occurred to me. The first – that I always seem to have KFC on my birthday. A consequence of not having a branch in Guernsey and the amount of times I’ve been away from home for my birthday. The 2nd thought was despite feeling like crap, for the first time in ages I was feeling happy. The match had been great, I was in London eating a something that has effectively become a birthday tradition, that tomorrow I was going to see my first ever gig. I finished my meal, had another shower to warm up. Downed more cough syrup and cold pill and climbed into bed hopeful that I would feel better in the morning, but also excited about the rest of my trip.

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