It's a big day for the home team as they unveil ground improvements against Premier League opposition. The Londoners face a stern test but everyone goes home smiling. Robbie Meredith reports
The last time I went to a Fulham game was on a dull and cold night in Hamburg last year, when a late extra-time goal from Diego Forlán denied them an unlikely European trophy. Watching the team at Seaview, the compact home of Irish League part-timers Crusaders, I wonder if any of the players involved against Atlético Madrid allow themselves to think that tonight's game could be an early step to a similar occasion next May. Do they, in the words of their supporters' song, still believe?
Not if their warm-up is anything to go by. While the assorted postmen, window cleaners and civil servants in the Crusaders squad complete a series of sprints followed by an energetic keep-ball game, most of the Fulham team take it in turns to lash shots at Mark Schwarzer. Meanwhile, Damien Duff and Philippe Senderos indulge in some ball juggling in the centre circle. While Duff looks like he could keep going all night, the former Arsenal giant struggles to muster more than five touches before the ball falls to the turf.
However, there is probably method behind this Sunday league approach. Crusaders play on a plastic pitch and it is evident that Fulham's players are making the ball bounce in front of their goalkeeper as they shoot, enabling him to judge the pace of the surface. Though not to everyone's liking, the 4G surface makes financial sense for the home club. While a number of local teams went for weeks without a game during January's big freeze, the Crues cleared the snow and played on, and they also rent out the pitch on a regular basis to teams from the surrounding community.
And it is those ties to their north Belfast locale which make it so heartening to see a Premier League club at Seaview for a competitive game. Just over a decade ago, a ferociously competitive Crusaders side, known accurately as "the Hatchet Men", broke the stranglehold of Glentoran and Linfield on the Irish League title. Some of their players then would have scared Mike Tyson, never mind opposing teams, but success was not sustained and a period of struggle followed.
In the last couple of years, however, Crusaders have progressed on and off the pitch. Managed by their former striker Stephen Baxter, a young and exciting team has emerged, while, despite threadbare finances, the club have put enormous effort into promoting good community relations in north Belfast, one of the most troubled and deprived areas of Northern Ireland.
Walking across the pitch before the match, I meet Mark Langhammer. A former Labour councillor whose Belfast home was once attacked with a pipe bomb, he is now the club's treasurer. He has ambitious plans to build a new stadium which will be shared by Crusaders, who draw the majority of their support from the Unionist Shore Road area, and an amateur side from the Nationalist Ardoyne area nearby.
But for the last couple of days, he has been busy with other volunteers putting the finishing touches to the new covered stands behind both goals at Seaview, and he proudly tells me that they increase the capacity of the ground to 2,800. While watching games at Old Trafford or the Emirates has its attractions, I imagine that the couple of hundred Fulham supporters who have made the journey to Belfast enjoy the chance to see their side in much more intimate surroundings.
Before the game a blind lifelong Crues fan formally opens the new stands with the help of the local MP, and some recalcitrant red, white and black balloons stubbornly refuse to fly from their net. The teams then line up in front of the main stand to the sound of, bizarrely, the Crusaders anthem: "We're red, we're black, the hatchet men are back". But it is the men in white who look intimidating tonight.
In games like this, it is always noticeable just how much bigger Premier League players are than part-timers. Even relatively slight figures like Danny Murphy and Andy Johnson look like boxers compared to their opponents, while, as the teams shake hands, Brede Hangeland actually has to stoop to reach down to some of the Crusaders team. Only Jordan Owens, the home side's bull-necked centre-forward, who could kindly be described as big-boned, is of a similar build.
The home team begin at a ferocious pace, harrying Murphy and Dickson Etuhu in midfield, giving them little space or time on the ball. The home supporters applaud whenever Fulham's Northern Ireland internationals Chris Baird or Aaron Hughes get a touch, but there are loud cheers whenever Duff, from the other national team on the island, is dumped onto his backside by Crusaders full-back Gareth McKeown.
Encouraged, the most vocal home fans, in the stand next to the M2 motorway to the city centre, remind Fulham that they're "just a small part of Chelsea", before launching into their own version of Erasure's A Little Respect, complete with a falsetto "please" which would do Andy Bell proud.
On the pitch, Crusaders make the first chance when McKeown and teenage winger David McMaster combine on the left to send in a dangerous cross which Etuhu just clears. But, after around ten minutes, Fulham settle and things begin to look ominous for the home team. Martin Jol has put out a strong side and Murphy, especially, becomes more prominent.
It is noticeable how his team-mates always seem to look for him when they have the ball, and he rarely gives it away. A Fulham-supporting friend tells me that, while Murphy's still a terrific player, he thinks that the pace of the Premier League is telling on him and he got caught in possession more last season. Tonight, though, given extra space, he plays like Xavi and any advantage Crusaders had in being used to the playing surface begins to look irrelevant.
Bobby Zamora looks good too, bullying David Magowan and Paul Leeman in the home defence, and Crusaders soon struggle to get out of their own half. Both Duff and the teenage debutant Kerim Frei skip inside their full-backs to test Sean O'Neill in the Crues goal, and Fulham's imposing left-back Matthew Briggs flattens the tiny McMaster on the half-way line, like a sixth-former swatting a primary school pupil aside.
By contrast, Owens and Timmy Adamson are forced to chase long punts upfield which Hangeland and Hughes deal with easily. Owens competes well, but becomes increasingly red-faced, as if he has had too much cider round one of the traditional July 11 bonfires. Only when the teenage Northern Ireland international Stuart Dallas gets the ball in midfield do Crusaders look dangerous, but he is often crowded out.
Duff passes up a good chance by hesitating in the box and Hangeland makes a mess of a header from a Murphy free-kick, planting it into Owens' ample back rather than the goal. But Fulham take a deserved lead from the resulting corner-kick, Briggs taking advantage of a poor clearance to wallop a shot into the top corner from 20 yards. It is a really cracking strike and, having seen off Carlos Salcido, you wonder how the home-grown defender feels about Jol signing John Arne Riise. Tonight, energetic and powerful, he has a good game. Crusaders do well to make it to the interval only one goal down, and they look physically shattered coming off.
The half-time entertainment is unusual and unexpectedly captivating. A falconer stands in the centre-circle and lets his bird of prey loose to chase pigeons from the stands. The crowd watch transfixed as the feathered missile sweeps over our heads, putting their hands over their burgers in case it is tempted to swoop down for a bite. Meanwhile, Schwarzer and David Stockdale come back on to the pitch after only five minutes of the break, alternating between handling exercises and having their photographs taken with supporters.
Perhaps their relaxed mood infects their team-mates, as Crusaders create most of the chances in the opening ten minutes of the new half. Adamson drags a shot wide from the edge of the box, before McMaster, free of Briggs's clutches for once, really should score from eight yards out, but takes an extra touch instead of shooting. Then Crusaders level with a terrific goal. Adamson does a passable impression of Dennis Bergkamp, controlling a high ball before flicking it past Baird and Hughes and volleying into the corner of Schwarzer's net. The entire Crusaders team chase him to the corner flag, prompting the supporters into another Erasure cover version.
Fulham respond by forcing a number of corners but the game is much more even now. Dallas, a target for several cross-channel clubs, skins Baird, who isn't having a good trip home, a couple of times. He then beats Hughes to set up a great chance for Adamson, but the striker's earlier composure deserts him and he lashes the ball against the bar rather than into the Fulham goal. Crusaders, incredibly, should be 2-1 up.
Finally, Fulham realise that they are going to have to play a bit. Johnson may have more speed than control but he begins to run at the Crusaders defence, while the impressive Frei beats players at will, if not always getting the final pass right. Just after Dallas is forced to limp off with a calf strain Fulham's pressure tells as Zamora glances in a Duff corner. Then, with 15 minutes to go, the tie is over. Leeman's hands are up as Johnson shoots and it is a clear penalty.
Even the Crusaders players offer little in the way of protest. Murphy's penalty is at the archetypal "good height for the keeper", but it is whipped about two millimetres inside O'Neill's left-hand post. The home fans signal their surrender by chanting that they will win 4-3, but Fulham come closest to another goal, when Steve Sidwell, a late substitute for Etuhu, misses a sitter by heading against the bar from three yards out.
Rarely, everyone seems happy at the final whistle. Jol and Baird say nice things about Crusaders' performance, while the home side have played well enough to suggest that they may emulate the original "Hatchet Men" and challenge Belfast's big two for the title this season, even if their trip to Craven Cottage for the second leg is now a matter of experience only. On the way back out on to the Shore Road, I meet some Fulham supporters trying to hail a taxi back into the city centre. They tell me what a lovely little ground Seaview is and how much they have enjoyed being here. I wonder how often they think that when they travel away in the Premier League.
From WSC 295 September