THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

A home game against the reigning champions is often a foregone conclusion. On this occasion things went very differently as Neil Hurden saw the hosts comfortably dominate their out of form visitors

It’s the Saturday before Christmas, it’s uncharitably cold and my mind is dis­orientated by mixed signals. Only three days before, Fulham performed heroics in the St Jakob stadium in Basel, hanging on to win 3-2 and to secure a last 32 draw against UEFA Cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk in the Europa League, the financially poor but spiritually enriched man’s Champions League.

In itself this is clearly a good sign but it’s had the unfortunate knock-on effect of almost gushing media coverage. And, beset as I am by years of ingrained superstition, this does not appear to be an unalloyed good thing. Traditionally, the greater the number of column inches and the more airy, Football Focus-style comments about how well the club is progressing, the greater the likelihood of subsequent disappointment. Combined with the fact that Man Utd are seeking to “bounce back” after their previous home defeat to Villa, this can surely only lead to a natural reversion to the status quo. Experiencing two League victories in a row over the reigning champions is looking about as likely as regaining sensation in my feet.

As I emerge from Putney Bridge tube station, however, past the scurrying, rodent-like ranks of whispering touts and into the icy draft coming from the Thames, the fates seem to re-establish some sort of equilibrium. As with all clubs, the walk to the ground is an essential part of the experience, particularly so at Fulham where even in deepest winter the ten minute stroll along the river path through Bishop’s Park is one of the unique joys of visiting London’s oldest club; on occasions, it has to be said, the only one. Additionally (and crucially unbeknown to visiting managers) the river can give important clues about team performance. It’s not an invariable rule but decades of gazing into the river before matches has taught me that Fulham fare considerably better at high tide; ideally, when the river is just approaching maximum height. As I peer nervously over the ironwork embankment barriers, the dark, foreboding Thames surges in full flood beneath the arches of Putney Bridge. Things begin to look up again and an unusual sensation of optimism carries me through the icy chill.

Outside the ground the usual bizarre rituals of a Man Utd away match play themselves out – the preponderance of away team flags, scarves and other paraphernalia on sale; one trader even loudly proclaiming the merits of a Man Utd song book, intriguingly containing “all the words”. Down the road towards the Hammersmith End, more familiar scenes open up. Snatches of over-heard conversation reveal a pervasive sense of optimism about the game and the new- look Fulham, with its glossy, though reassuringly still cramped, club shop and its electronic turnstiles, takes shape.

In the Johnny Haynes Stand, I take an early seat at the Hammersmith end of the ground and watch a young boy a few seats down, perhaps six or seven years old, stare up in awe at the giant pictures of the Maestro that now adorn either end of the historic stand. Fans greet each other warmly, people say “thank you” when you stand to let them pass and bonhomie reigns unabated. The old wooden seats don’t feel quite as uncomfortable as usual. David Hamilton says something quite amusing before kick-off. Clearly something is up.

The immediate issue of the day is the lack of a Man Utd defence. Astonishingly for the world’s biggest club, they don’t seem to have more than a couple of reserve defenders. Unusually the home fans pay detailed attention to the away team sheet and it soon transpires that a Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher central defence stands between us and glory. Bobby Zamora, lately in splendidly grumpy form, seems even at a distance to have a malevolent glint in his eye from the start. Paul Scholes is there, as is Wayne Rooney, and Patrice Evra, playing a sort of left-back, left-midfield hybrid role, is captain for some reason. The usual sense of impending doom when one hears the champions’ team read out is oddly missing.

For the first ten minutes or so of the match, my original fears seem well grounded and it appears that the tide must have turned already. Rooney looks sharp, though playing reassuringly deep, and Antonio Valencia, looking considerably more powerful close to than on television, surges worryingly past Paul Konchesky down the right wing, though fails to take advantage. A couple of years or so ago, this initial hint of menace would have intimidated Fulham. We would have fallen asleep at a set piece and been 1‑0 down at half time, before seeing the game run away from us in the second half. Today, this simply does not happen. Our midfield takes a grip, with Danny Murphy at the heart of things, prompting, passing, keeping cool. Chris Baird, one of the unsung heroes of the season to date, protects the back line and Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff start running and stretching the increasingly harassed Man Utd midfield.

Earlier in the year, in last season’s Old Trafford match, Paul Scholes gave a commanding performance of precision passing as we were swept aside 3-0. The intervening months seem to have taken their toll on him, however. He announces his presence early on with a scything tackle but then fails disastrously to live up to the more positive side of his game, spraying passes in all directions and getting nimbly robbed by Murphy who promptly bounces a shot into the bottom left hand corner of the net from the edge of the area. As befits his assumed role of perfectly controlled midfield general, the Fulham captain nonchalantly turns away from his many fans in the away end, deciding to enjoy his latest personal triumph over Man Utd in impeccably understated style.

We await punishment for this impertinence but for the remaining 20 minutes of the first half, United are contained with an ease that would have felt embarrassing if it wasn’t so impressive to watch. Rooney paces around looking agitated but he’s still too deep to give major concern and Michael Owen looks abjectly lost. There’s not even a pre-half-time flurry. Instead the highlight of this quieter section of the game is one of those gorgeously subdued winter sunsets turning the sky over the river a watery crimson before the day fades away.

Merriment abounds at half-time but it’s matched with a characteristic sense of caution, a necessary psychological self-defence mechanism for any Fulham supporter. Even this is blown away less than 30 seconds after the restart. What follows should surely go down as one of the great Fulham moments. Not because the goal is a beautiful thing in itself; it isn’t built on pure skill and certainly isn’t subtle. It is, however, somehow just perfect. Duff outpaces Evra down the right wing, crossing the ball improbably well with his weaker right foot from just by the corner flag. Dempsey soars above everyone else, nodding it down for Zamora to lash it into the net from the edge of the box. The Hammersmith End and the two side stands go seasonally berserk, any residual anxiety largely dissipates and we regain our composure sufficiently to begin the work of enjoying the rest of the match. And the astonishing thing is that we do, every last minute.

Alex Ferguson’s attempts to remould the team have little effect and the only redeeming element of Owen’s performance is that his replacement, the less than ferociously motivated Dimitar Berbatov, is even worse. Mark Schwarzer seems like the goalie in the best school team who never gets a touch of the ball, and any hint of danger, posed primarily by Rooney, is elegantly rebuffed by Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes. With 15 minutes to go the proverbial cherry is placed deftly on the cake. Zamora, outmuscling Carrick throughout and showing sublime touch too, chests the ball sideways to Duff who slices the ball deliberately with the outside of his left foot into the bottom left-hand corner. Only weeks before Duff had trudged disconsolately off the pitch in Paris in tears of frustration. Now he looks like he’s having more fun than he’s had in years.

In the away end gallows humour seems to prevail, as a section of unabashed United fans continue to sing. The most striking refrain, though, comes from a delirious Hammersmith End. Hardly original, of course, but the chant of “we want four” seems like a moment frozen in football history. I’m reminded of one of those inane, “if you’d known ten years ago that...” questions that sports reporters specialise in. Losing at Torquay to go second bottom of the Football League, managing to lose 5-0 and 6-0 at home to Chester and Port Vale in the space of two months, spending several years in the late Eighties yearning for a crowd of more than 5,000. And now watching as we calmly and methodically outplay Man Utd, even feeling a little disappointed that the fourth goal does not arrive in the end.

The final whistle goes. There’s an explosion of joy but the really striking thing is that the celebration is not over the top. Amazingly, this is not the massive surprise that the record books suggest it should be – at least not for the players and the architect of all this, Uncle Roy, who acknowledge the crowd, as they stride off towards the Cottage looking perfectly in control of their emotions. Only John Pantsil indulges in his habitual galloping lap of honour, though Hangeland too strolls appreciatively half way towards the Hammersmith End.

Outside the ground there’s a quiet and contented hum of appreciation suspended in the freezing air. I walk back along the river path overhearing snippets of conversations debating the merits of individual performances and pre-empting later message board discussions of whether this is the best ever Fulham team. I’m beginning to debate this internally when a bloke comes up beside me and says in a friendly, bemused tone: “That’s never happened before, has it?” This is London, complete strangers do not just come up and talk to you. But, as if to accentuate the special nature of the day, we talk all the way to the bridge, trying to come to terms with what’s just happened and struggling to put it all into a familiar, Fulham-ish context.

From WSC 276 February 2010

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