Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fulham 4 Juventus 1 - Greatest match of my life

OK, it's a little after the fact but I need to get some words down about this if only for my own memories.

The Old Lady comes to the Cottage. It was always going to be a special night. A chance to play one of the biggest teams in Europe doesn't come along too often and you've got to make the most of it when it does. I'm wearing my lucky socks and my lucky top. I've placed my lucky bet on the opposition. We've driven down our lucky road and made sure my Dad has made his lucky touch of Johnny Haynes' boot. We enter via my lucky turnstile. Done everything we can to help the cause.

The 3-1 loss in Turin had set us a difficult task but that away goal, Dickson's sliced shot in off someone's shin, gave us hope and a lifeline. As long as we don't concede an early goal we'll be ok.

One minute twenty six seconds in. Diego twists and turns in the box and is half blocked. Hangeland tries to clear but doesn't connect. Trezeguet, on the floor from an earlier effort, picks himself up and slots home a sharp finish.


The ground is packed. We've sold out and it's full of Fulham fans (or mates of Fulham fans). There's a brief lull in the atmosphere. We let the facts sink in. 4-1 down with our away goal advantage nullified. It's not gonna happen now is it, but no-one wants the party to end this soon and the atmosphere starts to build again.

Fulham dust themselves down as well. We push on and find ourselves attacking freely. A left foot cross from Konchesky is chested down by Zamora. World Cup winning captain Cannavaro is brushed aside and attempts a quadruple roll to convince the Ref he was fouled. He wasn't, he's just not as good as he used to be. Zamora controls the ball, turns, and fires a bullet volley past the 'Keeper into the bottom corner of the net.

That goal gives everyone a lift. Fulham continue to press. A through ball from Chris Baird looks to have put Zoltan Gera through on goal. Cannavaro falls over again and takes Gera down. There's a pause then a red card flashes. A melee ensues as the Italians argue fruitlessly. Eventually the Juve Captain accepts his fate and hurdles the "Respect" hoarding on his way off the pitch. A nice exit if nothing else. Zamora takes the free kick and, from the distance of the Hammy End, it seems destined for the top corner. The big hand of 3rd choice goalie Antonio Chimenti arrives to push it over the bar.

Fulham keep the pressure on. A Simon Davies freekick eludes everyone before smacking against the far post, then Dickson Etuhu gets his head to a corner and finds the same bit of wood. It's all Fulham. When the second goal comes it's a tremendous team effort. Konchesky rampages down the left wing and sends a firm pass into Zamora's feet. Bobby flicks the ball into the box with the outside of his right foot. Simon Davies, who has tracked across from the other flank, collects the ball and cuts it back from the bye line to where Gera is waiting to fire into the roof of the net. 2-1 Fulham, game on!

It's a thrilling game already but as the half time break gives us a chance to catch our breath we know there's a long way to go. Surely Juve will come out reorganised and more determined.

Fulham start the second spell with the same level of passion and effort they ended the first. Damien Duff drives down the right flank, fires in a cross and catches a gold shirted arm. Penalty says the (frankly quite Fulham friendly) Ref. No Murphy tonight but up steps Mr Gera. I'm not confident, but Zoltan has no fear. A fine penalty whipped into the bottom left corner as Chimenti dives the other way. A double sommersault from Zolo and then he's mobbed by the team. All square and now anything could happen.

With 70 minutes gone Dempsey replaces Kelly. His arrival sees a big re-shuffle. Davies goes to right back, Gera trots out to the left side and Dempsey takes over in the hole. It seems like a lot of change to incorporate one player.

Dempsey has an early header saved by Chimenti. Davies and Duff are now causing chaos down the right hand side. Gera, who initially looked peeved to be moved, begins to find space on the left. We're not sitting back and Juve are praying for penalties. Time ticks away and there's a sharp reminder of how delicate the balance of the tie is. Juventus gain possession for long enough to send a shot low and wide of Schwarzer's right hand post. Not that close but close enough.

Then it happened. Dempsey recieves the ball from Etuhu on the edge of the box, his back to goal. He turns into space, leans back a little and floats a chip towards goal. From behind it happens in slow motion. The ball rises high into the air, it looks like he's over hit a cross, but no. It's coming down towards the top corner. Surely not. That can't go in? Oh my word! It can! It has. YESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!

There's a primal roar around the Cottage. The noise of almost 25,000 celebrating as one. Dempsey charges down in front of the Hammy End. Pumping his shirt and slapping his badge. This is what he can do. This is why Roy wanted him on the pitch. This is football genius. From 4-1 down to 5-4 up.

Against all the odds we're through. The quarter finals await.

The journey home is punctuated by the sound of congratulatory texts. I'm in a daze, reliving each moment and laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

Friday morning and we're the big news. Radio 5 and Talk Sport are both leading with our amazing victory. We're headline news on Sky. It's real. I seem to spend most of the day taking congratualtions from people at work and explaining what an incredible night it was. Even now as I write, three days later, I'm full of pride and pleasure at what happened on Thursday.

We lost to Man City today. I really don't care. I can't remember a loss affecting me less. We were below par for sure but still gave them a scare. A few players were rested, a few reserves had the chance of a run. It felt like a training game. Preperation for the big matches to come. It's been another amazing season already but there's a chance it could become a very special one indeed.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Omens and viewpoints

It being a cup game I found myself in the Johnny Haynes stand yesterday for the F.A Cup quarter final against Spurs. I'd thought when booking the tickets it would be good to be closer to the action. We'd been in the Riverside for the Shakhtar match and enjoyed the change of scene. The old Stevenage Road stand is shallower and really we were too low to have a great view of the action, that combined with my own sense of foreboding and a tight and, at times, scrappy affair led to an uncomfortable 90 minutes. In fact I can't remember enjoying a game that we've not lost less. As the last few minutes ticked away I could visualise both the elation of a goal for us and the gut wrenching disappointment of a goal for Spurs.

During the week my Mini had reached the unusual landmark of 66,666.6 miles, something that I noticed approaching by chance and managed to capture on camera. Note to any Police officers reading this, I had pulled over and safely parked the car before taking the shot. It did take a bit of doing though to find somewhere suitable at the right moment. This felt like it might be an omen of some kind. You'll probably realise by now I'm quite superstitious.

The first half seemed to be all Spurs. They're no Shakthar Donestk, but they made more use of the ball going forward. Fulham struggled to find any rhythm but remained stoically organised and limited Tottenham to a weak header from Peter Crouch and a Kranjar shot from the edge of the box. Crouch, who was all elbows and whinging, may well have risen to my top five most disliked players in the premier league.

The second half was much better, as Fulham attacked with more purpose and the game opened up a little. We really missed the guile of Danny Murphy in midfield. Jonathan Greening can be a tidy player but I could count the number of forward passes he made on one hand and none of them had the direction or purpose that Murphy might have achieved. Our forward play therefore tended to be a bit repetitive and lacked any real drive or speed of thought. Too many times we'd break down the wing but then slow down the play until we had few options available or simply gave the ball away. I felt yesterday was an occasion when switching the wingers might have shaken things up a bit. Duff and Davies (though to be honest the Welsh wonder had a poor game) bombing down the wing and slinging a cross into the box might have created something our patient build up could not. Though, I guess, that's not really us.

Credit goes to Dickson who had a fine game in the middle and also Chris Baird who seemed to see a lot of the ball. On a positive note we're still in the hat and will at least know who we might face by the time of the replay. The initiative is definitely with Tottenham now but we've got nothing to lose. Maybe Murphy will be back and we'll have one more massive performance in us.