Football eh? It never fails to surprise you.
I left home with a sense of foreboding. Not the usual high hopes of my first game of the season, but a feeling that we would inevitably lose and the only unknown would be how well we'd perform. The loss at Hull and memories of last season's capitulation against the Gunners combined to make me unusually pessimistic. My mood had improved considerably by the time I entered a packed and buzzing Craven Cottage.
I'd got to the ground much earlier than normal to help the CCN crew sell copies of The Fulham Review. Arriving from the Putney mainline station I was able to make the walk through Bishop's Park, my favourite approach to the ground. The bells of All Saints Church were ringing and the sun high in the sky as I made my way down. These felt like good omens and my spirits began to rise. On the way past the ground heading towards The Crabtree I stopped to chat with a bus driver who was a Arsenal fan. Born in Putney, so a soft spot for The Whites, he thought they'd win 2-0. I said I thought they'd win 3-0. At the pub, during a typical failure of bar staff to actually know who was next, I made sure an Arsenal fan got served before me. It crossed my mind in doing so that I may have accumulated some positive karma points. Back at the ground we spent an hour or so selling Fulham Reviews. It went well and I enjoyed meeting a few people I'd only previously known online. Thanks to everyone who bought a copy (I don't think I'm ready to set up a market stall quite yet) and to those that said hello or that they'd got a copy and enjoyed it.
The game was a tight affair, Arsenal not at their best, Fulham passing well but adding hard work and endeavour to the display we'd seen at Hull. The goal came from a corner won after Zamora, turning neatly to find a bit of space in the box, saw his shot deflected behind. Bullard and Murphy combined to fire the ball towards the Arsenal near post. The cross probably should have arrived at head height but this didn't stop Hangeland, having shown great determination to force his way past Gallas, from connecting with his studs to stab home his first goal for the club. Shortly afterwards, in a move eerily familiar to last year’s fixture, Adebayour rose to head firmly against our post. Schwarzer was down quickly but we were spared an equaliser by inches. After that there were few scoring chances from open play. 1-0 up at the turn Fulham were the better side right up to the 70th minute. Arsenal did begin to force us onto the back foot in the final 20 minutes but struggled to find a way through our industrious midfield and weren’t on song with their dead ball opportunities.
Davies, Bullard, Murphy and Gera formed an effective and tight midfield unit. Bullard in particular worked extremely hard defensively suggesting he had taken on board some of Hodgson’s criticisms of his game. Jimmy put in his best performance for some time and was my Man of the Match. Tony Kallio made a surprise debut for the club at full back (Konchesky presumably injured) and was very solid. He didn’t offer much going forward, not surprising for someone primarily a centre back, but he looked comfortable on the ball and coped well defensively. He had just begun to look a little tired when Roy replaced him with Chris Baird. An even more unlikely appearance but, playing out of position Baird did very well. We’re short of options in defence so Chris could have a significant part to play this season. Nice for him to be involved in such a remarkable win. Finally a mention for John Paintsil who seems set for cult hero status already. Before kick off he stood arms aloft and head bowed like a boxer preparing for the greatest fight of his life. During the game he was all action, bombing forward at every opportunity but doing his share of defending as well. He reminds me a little of Gus Uhlenbeek, a player who could thrill you with his pacey runs down the wing before slicing his cross into row Z or falling over his own feet. I’ve a feeling Paintsil may have his moments of comedy error but I think we’ll enjoy watching him try. At the conclusion he did an Olympic style lap of honour round the pitch and deservedly received a standing ovation. Brilliant stuff, can’t wait to watch him again.
So having begun the day with low expectations I returned home full of joy and hope. We won’t play like this every week but knowing that we can helps a lot. I missed our last victory over Arsenal (at the tail end of 2006) and when relegation appeared a certainty last season wondered if I had forever lost the chance to see us claim a win against the Gunners. That makes this win all the sweeter and our next league game cannot come soon enough.