Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Closed for business

It's taken me a while to write it but I have finally completed my report of the Europa League Final (see below). It seems an appropriate final post. Time to call it a day for this blog though I will continue to write sporadically about Fulham for the wonderful Craven Cottage Newsround. Thanks for reading and see you at the Cottage sometime!

The Europa League Final - Fulham 1 Atletico Madrid 2

It always ends with disappointment.

This is what years of following Fulham has warned me to prepare for. Those words have echoed around the back of my mind as we overcame bigger and more unlikely hurdles during an amazing Europa League campaign. Yet I found myself in Hamburg on the twelfth of May watching my Fulham play in a major European Cup Final for the very first time. We’d achieved what seemed like an impossible task. We’d reached the final of a competition we’d started almost 10 months previously. This was already an incredible high, I was going to just enjoy the day. “Kay sera sera” and all that.

It was a bigger game than I could ever have imagined. One hundred and seventeen minutes after it kicked off it ends in despair. Diego Forlan collects a pass from Sergio Aguero as he cuts across the trailing Hangleland. A stabbed foot connects and sends the ball slicing past Schwarzer into the far corner of the net. That’s it, game over, no way back. I slump into my chair (the first time I’d used it since arriving in the stadium) as the Atletico fans go wild. Danny Murphy is replaced by Jonathon Greening. Not a substitution that inspires hope but it doesn’t matter because we know this time we’re beaten. A bridge too far for our weary heroes. The final whistle blows and I swear loudly and kick the seat in front. I’ve never felt this disappointed about losing a game. We leave before the cup is lifted, not wanting the pain to be any worse, and begin a long and miserable journey home.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, as our plane left Gatwick and soared above the clouds into brilliant sunshine, it had all seemed so different. A buzz of excitement filled the aircraft. Young and old Fulham supporters united by the thrill of travelling to witness a momentous event in the club’s history. Anything was possible. We landed and took the scenic route around the airport before pulling up next to Atletico's personalised jet plane.

Hamburg Airport was a scene of tranquillity with no indication of the chaos to follow after the game. We queued at the entrance to the S-Bahn for a while as German Police let regular commuters down onto the massive, and completely empty, platform. They held us back for some fifteen minutes for no obvious reason. It gave my friend Mark the chance to practice his German pronunciation with the Polizei guarding the escalators. The now growing crowd of Fulham fans wait patiently to be allowed through, causing more of an obstacle for the passing locals than we would have done down on the platform.

We were eventually allowed through and catch the first train to the Reeperbahn. This was where the fan zone was going to be but at nine in the morning things were still fairly quiet. We took a stroll along Hamburg’s most infamous street, passing random groups of Fulham and Atletico fans also trying to get their bearings. The endless procession of strip joints and sex shops seemed oddly incongruous at that time of the morning.

We decided to go in search of the Star Club, the venue The Beatles had played before they became famous. Down the opposite end of the Reeperbahn we found Beatle-Platz where silver silhouettes of the early Beatles line up (John, Paul, George, Pete Best & Stuart Sutcliffe) marked the side road to the club. The Grosse Freiheit (as the club is currently called) wasn’t obviously the right place but a star shaped street number and a small plaque in German convinced us we were outside the historic venue where The Beatles learnt their trade.

Keen to ensure we didn’t get so drunk we’d be unable to remember our first Euro final we continued on the tourist trail. Free travel on the trains and buses for ticket holders made getting about town very easy. A quick hop back down the S-Bahn brought us to the harbour side and we decided to take the boat tour around the docks.

Having turned down an 11 Euro trip in English we walked to the far end of the quay to find a smaller boat which cost 14 Euros. We were too far away to turn back so took the price hike. After ½ hour of looking at oil refineries and cargo containers, and a commentary in German, we were wondering if we’d made the wrong decision. However, the smaller boat was able to get into places the larger one couldn’t and we soon turned into more interesting waters.

We followed some older canals and found Blohm & Voss boat builders who specialise in luxury yachts for the very wealthy. Abramovich’s recent £80 million pound purchase was moored alongside, looking more like a small battleship than any sort of pleasure cruiser. We considered a raiding party to try and sink it but were put off by the ominous Russian mafia types skulking about the deck.

Back on dry land we made the short walk to St Michaelis Church, an impressive protestant church that dates back to the 17th century. The 449 steps to the top of the tower were rewarded with panoramic, though misty, views over the city. Lots of Madrid supporters had made the visit as well and we noticed several taking the chance to say a prayer for their team - maybe they had God on their side.

By now we felt we'd earned a beer and went in search of a friendly bar with some Fulham fans in it. The scene in the Reeperbahn fan-zone was very different from the one we'd left this morning. There were football fans everywhere, a few Fulham but mainly Atletico fans. We carried on in search of a little piece of South West 6 in Hamburg, and a bit further on and round a corner we found it. Hans Albers Platz was a sea of black and white. A little square surrounded by bars and places of dubious repute but a proper home from home.

We had intended to have a couple and then go in search of somewhere to eat. But you know how these things go, a couple leads to a few, a few leads to quite a lot. This was the place to be, the longer we stayed the more Fulham fans seemed to arrive. We bumped into a couple of people I know from work, we saw Richard from CCN, and we made lots of new friends.

Things were, perhaps understandably, getting a little fuzzy now. Time had ticked on and the square was thinning out so we realised it was time to make our move. We stopped for a quick bite to eat (something with hindsight we didn't really have time for) and then joined the crush getting onto the tube. The Reeperbahn station was heaving with fans of both sides and when one train arrived but didn't move for over ten minutes we knew we were going to cut it fine.

We hopped on a train going the wrong way and picked up the next train going the right way at the previous station. We still didn't go anywhere but at least we had a seat! Eventually things were sorted out and we began our journey to the Hamburg Arena. The train dropped us some way from the stadium and we hurried on to find the free shuttle bus point. Another crush but we made it. Fulham and Atletico fans shoulder to shoulder. Lots of friendly banter and mutual appreciation. It's the way it should be. It's the way it normally is with Fulham. I remember turning down a few offers to swap scarves, hugging a few Madrid fans (I'd definitely had one too many if I was hugging people!) and rushing on towards the now visible stadium. Getting from the Reeperbahn to the ground had been an epic task in itself. We scurried up the steps and made it into our seats in time to catch the end of the opening ceremony. Smoke and flags everywhere. Fulham fans all around. Over 10,000 of us, probably nearer 12,000. This is special.

The game itself was a bit of a blur. Atletico passed neatly and Fulham struggled to find their rhythm early on. We make mistakes and Atletico give us no time on the ball to sort ourselves out. An early chance sees Forlan hit the post. A close call. Then we give the ball away again, Aguero swipes at a shot and it somehow finds Forlan who toe pokes it past Schwarzer to give the Spanish the lead. I nip to the loo, there's a cheer whilst I'm there. "Is that Fulham?". "It must be". Back up the steps to a now joyous crowd, I've missed the goal but it doesn't matter, we're on terms again. A Gera cross and a Davies volley I discover, brilliantly taken. We're playing better now too. The half ends and it seems like we only just got here.

The second half is better. We're back in control, Atletico now seem to have lost a bit of belief. But we're struggling up front. Zamora strives manfully but isn't fit. Despite that he's a loss when he departs. Nevland has a go, his final Fulham performance but that bit of magic just isn't there. We're a machine that's running on empty. Extra time comes and goes. Neither team wanting to make the mistake that will end it. It's going to penalties. I'm content with that. Then, out of nowhere a goal comes. Aguero chases a lost cause down the left flank, gets in a cross, and Forlan is there to fire home the winner. Three minutes left but it's all over.

An incredible effort from our team. We'd played beyond everyone's expectations during a massive 63 game season. With a fit Zamora and a team that hadn't had such a long season maybe things could have been different. In the end we were beaten by a very good side with a quality front line.

And so it did end in disappointment. I've never felt as low after a game as I did leaving the stadium, I wasn't great company on the journey home and twenty-four hours later I was still feeling glum. However, with a new season fast approaching, I can now look back on the day as a brilliant adventure. The highlight of my years watching Fulham. A great, if not perfect, end to a fabulous season. We may not have come back with the silverware, but we did come back with some happy memories and a good deal of pride. Maybe next time eh?