Monday, November 30, 2009

The beautiful game

Some things I learnt from Saturday's visit of Bolton to the Cottage.

There are days when playing the beautiful game just isn't enough. Sometimes you have to work hard and grind out a result. Fulham dominated the game for long stretches but struggled to find a way to goal. At times our final ball was poor but when we did find the target Jaaskelainen was equal to most of our efforts and when he wasn't there always seemed to be a Bolton head or foot to stab the ball clear. In the end we were lucky to rescue a point.

Gary Megson deserves some credit for recreating an exact facsimilie of Sam Allardyce's Bolton team circa 2003. I'm not the most tactically astute but it doesn't take a genius to understand the Big Sam/Ginger Meg master plan.
1. Kick 'em early and kick 'em hard.
2. Keep kicking them until you can't get away with it any more.
3. Take every opportunity to win a free kick or a corner.
4. Once you've won a dead ball lob it in the box and win it in the air.
5. In the unlikely event you take the lead, defend like billy-o.
It's not pretty but it is effective.

Had Kevin Blom been refereeing this game I doubt Bolton would have finished with more than 8 men. Steve Bennett managed to book 6 Wanderers for a succession of crude and reckless challenges (and Jonathon Greening for an equally poor lunge at Klasnic) but became more and more lenient as the game progressed. The building frustration from our lack of a goal and the unpunished thuggery began to take its toll. On my language if nothing else.

Hodgson era Fulham are no walkovers. This was not a vintage performance but the team deserve credit for their persistance and hard work. We missed the presence of Zamora up front. Dempsey works very hard but doesn't seem to get the rub of the green when he's the lead man up front. We were rescued by a touch of class from Damien Duff and a deflection off Gary Cahill's knee. I celebrated the 75th minute equaliser the way I might have done a winner in any other game.

A sigh of relief at the end, Bolton deserved their point but we fought hard to preserve our unbeaten home record against them since we were both promoted in 2001.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Slight return

spo·rad·ic Pronunciation
(sp-rdk, spĂ´-) also spo·rad·i·cal (--kl)
1. Occurring at irregular intervals; having no pattern or order in time.
2. Appearing singly or at widely scattered localities, as a plant or disease.
3. Isolated; unique:

Hello again. It's been a while but I've been pondering a return to writing about Fulham for some time and the Rome trip just might have provided the catalyst for this. I'm not going to get into regular match reports or trying to keep up with the daily news but if I have something worth saying and I can get it done in a resonable time frame I figure I might as well put it on here. We'll see how it goes.

While I'm here I thought I'd add my weight to the Craven Cottage Newsround campaign to introduce a F*ckupbuzzer to alert Refs to match changing errors. Actually, CCN haven't started a campaign as such but I figured if I started calling it one it might pick up some momentum and force a change.

I've been involved in quite a few heated debates in the wake of the Henry handball. It seems to me there are two issues here. Firstly, what can we do to help officials out and ensure we avoid the sort of mistakes that ruin the game and secondly, how much responsibility should the players take. I'm firmly in the camp of making the most of technology to ensure a fair result. I'm fed up with the media circus that follows a major cock up and would really just like to see something implemented quickly. I also believe players should start accepting their responsibility to make the game more honest. If money is considered more important than fairness and principles there's something very wrong with the world.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rome in a day

Looking back over my 35 or so years following Fulham there are many milestone games that stand out. These are matches that live long in the memory and often indicate how well (or how badly) we were doing at the time. The home draw against Lincoln in 1982 that confirmed our promotion (and the first since I'd been going) to Division 2. The travesty at the Baseball ground that ended our hopes of returning to the top flight in 1983. Relegation at the Vetch Field, promotion at Carlisle (even though I wasn't there), the FA Cup victory at Villa park and the subsequent loss at Old Trafford.

There are more of course, some possibly unique to me. I still vividly remember a home game against Walsall when Ian Branfoot had taken over. Possibly our first game in the basement division and one we were losing 1-0 going into the final ten minutes. When Kevin Moore's late header crashed into the net I celebrated like we'd won the league and shed a tear that might have been welling up inside me since that long journey home from Swansea the previous season. I've no doubt that, despite the result, this trip will be another one of those special games.

Me and my friend Mark had booked ourselves on the Fulham flyer. The easy option and, based on our fairly inept attempts looking for independent alternatives, not massively over priced (turns out lots of people found decent deals. Maybe next time!). We left Shepperton at a hideous time in the morning and, once we'd navigated the barrage of Gatwick security (belts off? shoes off? at this hour in the morning?), found ourselves with a couple of hours to kill mooching about the airport shops. I was just admiring the impressive collection of hugely expensive malt whiskey when a familiar face appeared. I knew Rob, of Following the Fulham, was going to be on the flyer and it was great to meet up for the first time in person. This was to be a theme of the trip, meeting people we half knew from the Cottage or making new friends with people we didn't. It's part of what makes Fulham special. Most of us are surprised and delighted to meet someone else who supports the Whites (it didn't used to happen very often). I'm sure this isn't the case if you're a Man Utd supporter.

On arrival in Rome we had an early introduction to Italian driving. After a short pause to watch the baggage handlers look quizzically at an empty luggage hold we began an erratic journey from plane to terminal. Our bus driver seemed uncertain of the exact route to take. We were tooted by one airport driver who we'd just cut up then managed to jump a queue of traffic as our man decided to take the direct approach rather than follow everyone else. Once disembarked, our route through the terminal and onto the coaches was marked by a string of armed Italian police. Maintaining their steely glares there was a hint of bemusement as 300 or so quiet and well behaved Fulham fans strolled past them. I imagine they were expecting something quite different from a visiting English football team. This didn't prevent them from throwing themselves into the role. We had a police escort all the way into town (flashing lights and everything) which seemed, in many ways, to only draw attention to the fact we were there.

Once we reached the drop off point at Villa Borghese we were free to explore. Three hours in the city centre didn't leave much time so we made a whistle stop tour of the main attractions. Spanish Steps - tick. Trevi Fountain - tick. Coliseum - tick. Rob had got to know Tim on the plane who, as a regular visitor to Italy, briefly acted as our guide before being hijacked by a man who claimed he ran the best restaurant in Rome. On our way down to the Coliseum we bumped into the two blokes who sit in front of us in H7. Meeting so many people we half knew or had something in common gave the whole day a slightly surreal feel. Having done the tourist thing we set off in search of food and drink. With nearly all aspects of the trip providing no alcohol (dry flight, dry coach, dry stadium, dry return journey!) the chance to have a pizza and a couple of peronis was gratefully accepted.

Trying to look Italian in front of the Coliseum whilst the ever present Silvio Berlusconi looms in the background

We had a strict return time of 15:30 to catch the coaches into the stadium. This had always seemed unnecessarily early and inevitably, despite the suggestion they'd leave no later than 15:35, it was some time before we even got on the coach. This did enable us to meet more neighbours from H7. Val, Bernard and Henry had got a £2.99 flight from East Midlands airport and were staying over night. There was a huge Police presence and we apparently had to wait for them to search everyone before we boarded. They seemed in no rush to get started and I couldn't help wonder if Fulham had got their time zones confused. After a good hour of posing and looking tough they finally completed a half-hearted search and we were piled onto the coaches. Another long pause before we made our way through town (more flashing lights and sirens) to the Stadio Olimpico. Driven straight into the away fans enclosure we saw no sign of any Roma fans and little evidence that there was a game on at all. We filtered off the coaches towards the Distinti Nord Ovest entrance and at last it felt like we were at a football match. Fulham fans singing and joking as we shuffled our way through the turnstiles.

Police at Villa Borghese

The Stadio Olimpico is deceptively sized. It doesn't dominate the skyline from the outside and whilst clearly large when you're inside there's a different sense of scale that may be a result of its Olympic history. It's still an impressive stadium but I didn't get the same impact I felt the first time I went to Villa Park or Old Trafford. A huge expanse of empty seats probably didn't help, the crowd of 20,000 swallowed up by the 76,000 capacity venue. It's a ground with history though. This is where Liverpool won the European Cup twice (against Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1977 and A.S. Roma in 1984), where West Germany beat Argentina to win the 1990 World Cup, and where F.C. Barcelona humbled Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final. A special place and a rare chance to see Fulham play there.

Nice stadium, if it was full

I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck as the two teams came out for kick-off. This was what it was all about. Fulham settled down quickly and the early exchanges suggested we were in for a tightly contested match. We looked comfortable on the ball but lacked a bit of composure with the final ball. Roma were slow off the blocks but had moments of great touch that hinted of more to come. A long ball to Dempsey who then played a wonderful ball into the box for Kamara to chase, a tap on the ankle and down Joe went. Surely not? But yes - a penalty kick. Diomansy dusted himself off and fired home the spot kick to the mass delight of 2000 travelling supporters. Blimey, 15 minutes gone and we're winning 1-0 in Rome.

Kamara's PK hits the back of the net in blurry vision

We comfortably held our own until the break. The joy we felt at half time was short lived. With less than 5 minutes gone in the second half Nevland (on for the injured Kamara) made an ill judged challenge on De Rossi. A poor tackle for sure, but one that would have got a yellow card in the Premier League. As referee Kevin Blom pulled out the red card 2000 hearts sank as one. We were still 1-0 up but with over 40 minutes to play we all knew the task had just got very much harder. Inevitably, despite stubborn resistance from the Fulham defence, Roma found a way through. A deflected bullet from Roma's Riise followed by an unchallenged header from the brilliantly named Okaka Chuka. 2-1 Roma and they shut up shop.

Roma Ultras, or at least those that could be bothered to turn up

The boys on the pitch did us proud though. They never gave up and, as the final minutes ticked past, created a few half chances to keep us on the edge of our seats. Another straight Red that should have been Yellow saw Konchesky leave the field, but even then we would not bow. Hangeland pushed himself forward and we almost scrambled a late goal. We certainly deserved it but there was no fairy tale ending. The away fans cheered the team off. Hangeland and Paintsil made the effort to come down to where we sat and applauded our contribution (JP kicking the match ball into our reach for someone to claim as a souvenir). As they trudged back to the dressing room it was clear the hurt was as bad for them as it was for us.

Schwarzer fires off a bomb of a goal kick

The last time I'd been made to wait behind after the game we'd just drawn 4-4 with Pompey. This was not quite so fun but still dealt with in good spirit by the Fulham faithful. Most of the Roma fans must have been tucked up in bed with a coco by the time we were allowed to head home but yet again we were met by a variety of armed Italian law enforcers. Back onto our coach (No.3 which had gallantly led the way all day), more flashing lights and an escort all the way to the terminal. A long wait at an apparently deserted Fiumicino Airport before a turbulent flight back to blighty. I eventually crawled into bed at three in the morning. A very long day and one that hadn't fulfilled all my dreams but a journey to remember.

Who's that team we all adore?