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

Comments (8)
Comment by Houdi Elbow 2010-02-25 12:24:18

I was also at the game as a neutral of sorts (Donetsk is/ used to be Sheffield's twin city) and was struck by the unusual demographic. On the row in front were 4 wealthy looking teenagers who occasionally stood up to make masturbatory gestures towards the Shakhtar fans, presumably because that's what football fans do.

Comment by George: Hofmeister bear 2010-02-25 13:08:56

I'm pretty sure there's still a road sign in Sheffield (near Crystal Peaks) which proudly proclaims the twinning with 'Donetsk, Soviet Union/USSR'.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2010-02-25 14:37:27

Even without the Neutral End (which works surprisingly well) there are plenty of non-traditional Fulham fans at Craven Cottage every game. The low cost of season tickets (although they are starting to rise a bit it still is around £20 a game - which is what it cost me to stand in the home end of a League 1 Brentford match) and that fact that Fulham are a 'nice' team means there are lots of 'dislocated' fans of other teams prepared to attend the Cottage and get behind Fulham. We've been doing it for three seasons now and been blogging it here:
We even made a European away game. There are still empty seats though and there never seem to be the same faces in consecutive games in the seats around us, but competitive pricing (some matches cost just £5 for friends of season ticket holders) has improved attendances against some of the division's even smaller teams and, despite the ground being full of 'tourists', the atmosphere is boosted by bodies rather than empty seats.

Comment by Peyton 2010-02-25 15:22:56

With the long standing fanbase of the Premier Leagues other London clubs to contend with the fact that we are pretty much selling out most games suggests that our fanbase is growing and the club has done something right. With a couple more seasons in the top flight and more of the proper football that we enjoy inder Roy Hodgson I can see us filling the stadium without a neutral area before too long.

Comment by Mackburn_Rovers 2010-02-25 15:49:13

I've attended a couple of games at Craven Cottage recently, including the Shakhtar Donetsk game, mainly because of the good value tickets in the neutral area. Still find it amazing it's cheaper for me to watch Fulham in European competition that it was for me to watch Brentford take on Southampton in League 1.

The only problem with the neutral area is you invariably find yourself surrounded by other neutrals, which doesn't make for the most exciting atmosphere. For the Shakhtar game I took a friend who's never been to a football game before. In theory the neutral zone is perfect for someone like that, but as good as the game was, I could tell he was distinctly underwhelmed by the experience.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-02-25 16:25:14

Lived in London since September 2006. Went to Fulham v Charlton and got a free cottage card. It let me get priority on tickets to watch Arsenal, Man Utd and Liverpool. Been a member ever since and get my mates down from the North to watch the games. I have been to Pompey and Roma this season. I am a Lincoln fan first and foremost but midweek I'll come and watch Fulham. The main reason for me is simply availability of tickets and lack of shouty, myopic fans/idiots. The only incident I have seen there was 3 middle aged country dressed gents rolling around on the floor fighting at the end of a game. As comical as it was scary.

Comment by Cal Alamein 2010-02-26 00:18:02

Watched my first Premier League game last season at Craven Cottage v. Tottenham -- it was great fun and I was at the neutral area of the Putney End. Loved the walk from the pub through the park - beautiful ground - hope to visit it again.

Comment by madmickyf 2010-03-02 03:17:19

I remember going to a game at Craven Cottage in 1997 and hearing the supporters opposite regale us with a 'delightful' chant of "Luton's full of Pakis". Unsurprisingly I haven't held much affection for Fulham since. Do you suppose that was the home fans or the neutrals?

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