29 July ~ As a Northerner who recently moved to west London, I'm still fairly new to the capital's complicated network of rivalries and derbies. I was aware, naturally, that Arsenal and Tottenham don't get on. I knew that nobody much likes Millwall (as they like to sing) or Chelsea, and I understood that some of the fiercest rivalries are intercity – QPR are about as unpopular in Cardiff as Crystal Palace are in Brighton.
One misconception I had was that no one seemed to have any beef with Fulham. Perhaps it was the city being caught up in the Cottagers' Europa League run but there seemed remarkably little ill-will towards a club that – aside perhaps from Mohamed Fayed's brief "Manchester United of the South" ambitions a decade ago – has always seemed grounded and likeable. Even my housemate, a QPR fan, bears no malice towards a club that leapfrogged Rangers in the west London hierarchy a few years back, and then spent a few seasons lodging at Loftus Road. "They're just a nice club," he said, and that seemed a common opinion.
Recently, I attended Griffin Park for Kevin O'Connor's testimonial. Brentford's opponents were Fulham, playing their first game since the double trauma of losing the Europa League final to Atlético Madrid and Roy Hodgson to Liverpool. Pre-Fayed, the clubs were regular sparring partners in the lower leagues for a few years and Brentford fans have not forgotten this. For the first half I sat near the away stand that Fulham, to their credit, had done a good job of filling, and I left the ground well aware that Fulham are not as universally liked as I may have thought.
"Where were you in 92?" the Brentford fans around me sang. From what I could see, most of the away end dribbled through 1992 in prams and highchairs – the Fulham contingent seemed downright pubescent – and their anti-Brentford songs contained none of the malice the home fans were sending their way. The rapid series of promotions that Fulham won in the late 1990s mean these younger fans must feel disconnected from their traditional rivals, something that leaves them a little adrift. QPR never really had it in for Fulham, even when the sides briefly shared the First Division, and the modern Chelsea are too worried about the rest of the Champions League teams to give much mind to their closest neighbours.
Relatively sudden success like Fulham's is obviously no bad thing but it can leave a team's supporters feeling a little disconnected from the rivalries that make football so interesting – to use an example from further north, Burnley's promotion to the Premier League last year meant the resumption of their feud with Blackburn. The two East Lancashire clubs were on a relatively even keel until Jack Walker's money propelled Rovers up the league, but after the money went and Rovers drifted back into mid-table, there were surely a fair few Rovers fans who longed to meet the old enemy again.
Back at Griffin Park (where when they once held a competition to find a slogan to write on the roof of the main stand, readable to anyone flying into nearby Heathrow airport, one of the suggestions received was "Flush Over Fulham"), Fulham returned to action with an easy victory, racing into a 3-0 half-time lead and eventually winning by five. The atmosphere turned a little sour during that first half, when the Brentford fans took out their frustration by informing the away fans that "You'll never make the station". The Fulham support, perhaps unused to this kind of anger being directed their way, didn't know to react. But in the second half, as the game slowed to testimonial pace, even those angry home fans calmed down. The away fans made the station. There must be some older Fulham followers, however, who (though they might not like to admit it) lament the current gap between the clubs. Success is fleeting but it's reassuring to know your enemies will always be there. Karl Sturgeon