25 February ~ Cramming myself into a busy tube carriage last Thursday evening, I had to wonder – is the Europa League really this uninspiring? I'm within a few stops of Craven Cottage, about an hour before Fulham play UEFA Cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk, and I expected a more obviously match-going crowd. From previous experience, you know you're on the way to a match when you see the first stragglers in polyester shirts, carrying scarves or walking with that quick nervy gait symptomatic of pre-match tension.
Instead I'm surrounded by glum-looking women, carrying bags from River Island or Iceland, and men in suits and dark coats, trying to read their books and avoid the jutting elbows. Your average commuters. Nobody is singing. I see no black and white scarves. There isn't the palpable tension you'd expect considering Fulham are about to resume their longest-ever European campaign. Eventually I spot a few replica shirts on a group of lads behind me, but when I eavesdrop on their conversation they express relief, in American accents, that they booked their hotels in Paris and Rome ahead of time. It's clear they're not quite regulars at the Cottage.
Fulham's leap from lower-league struggles to European nights is remarkable. As recently as 1996 any pre-match tension on the District Line would have been attributable to the prospect of the club dropping into the Conference. But it hasn't quite turned the Cottagers into the "Manchester United of the south", as Mohamed al-Fayed promised around the turn of the century. Fulham's attendances are certainly respectable considering their sudden ascension to the top flight but it'll be a long time before they can muster a local following to compete with Chelsea's. When the club returned to the redeveloped Craven Cottage in 2004 after a brief groundshare at QPR, they applied to FIFA for permission to introduce a neutral's section, next to the away fans in the Putney End, going on the assumption that within London are plenty of rootless fans (like me) who want to see a game of football. Despite being in a game steeped in a culture of fierce parochialism and an us-against-them mentality, Fulham are selling themselves as the outsider's choice.
That's not to say Fulham don't have a fanbase of their own, of course, and it was reassuring to leave the train station and see the familiar street-clogging clot of fans. Those fans made an impressive racket during the 2-1 win over an impressive Shakhtar who – despite a heavy Brazillian contingent – were the very embodiment of that half-forgotten cliche from European ties of old, the crack eastern European outfit. The Shakhtar game was nominally of the traditional segregated home-and-away-only model, but still the crowd was more cosmopolitan than usual. Walking through the park from tube station to ground I had to skip past a group of Japanese girls excited at the sight of floodlights. One of the first genuine London accents I heard on the walk to the stadium was that of a Del Boy-type character selling tickets for £25 (it was a fiver less to get in on the gate) and during the second half, I witnessed a young couple posing for mobile phone pictures taken by an obliging home fan.
It's to the credit of Fulham's fanbase that a neutral section works. On the club website there's an optimistic-looking claim that the section is also for "home and away fans who don't mind sitting together". It sounds like a recipe for trouble but there have been no significant incidents at the Cottage since the scheme began and Fulham fans were bottom of last season's Premier League arrests table. At the risk of edging into archaic stereotypes, it's hard to think of many clubs who could operate a similar scheme. If Fulham's location means the club are disadvantaged by their proximity to Chelsea (let alone Arsenal, Tottenham, QPR, Brentford...), it also offers an advantage, in the sheer volume of nearby non-Londoners who want to see top-flight football. At a time when many mid-ranking Premier League clubs seem to be losing match-going supporters (how must those rows of sparse stands play in the Far East?), Fulham seem to have found their own way of cutting down on empty seats. Karl Sturgeon