Tourist attraction

Dan Callow travelled to the biggest game in Fulham's history and enjoyed the matchday experience away from the Premier League

It may seem a little churlish, stood in a fabulous stadium shortly before the start of the biggest game in your club’s history, to start remembering some of the awful matchday experiences you have suffered in the past. But as fans of about 87 other League clubs will attest, when it comes to following your team then the glass is always very much half empty even, so it seems, when stood on the threshold of possible European glory. Besides, it’s all bound to go wrong and we’ll be back in League Two in three years anyway.

So, on the evening of May 12 I stood in the Fulham end of the cavernous HSH Nord­bank Arena in Hamburg. I was watching what appeared to be a duel between two mounted, motorised Marie Antoinettes powered by fireworks embedded in their backsides by way of a pre-match ceremony for the Europa League final, drinking in the atmosphere in the manner of one who knows that he is unlikely to pass this way again and wondering why more football watching experiences couldn’t be like this.

For Fulham fans, despite some memorable trips on the way there, Hamburg was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the ultimate awayday, a view borne out by the fact that we took just 142 fans to Everton for a reasonably important Premier League match a few weeks before, yet were then able to sell 12,500 tickets for the Europa League final in a matter of six hours.

Of course, a quite shocking southern softie record of ten losses in ten seasons at Goodison Park since arriving in the Premier League may also have had some impact on our travelling numbers at Everton that day. Nor is this to suggest that Goodison Park is a worse matchday experience for us than anywhere else in the Premier League, except on the pitch obviously, but Hamburg was definitely different.

What struck me as I was welcomed at Hamburg airport by smiling UEFA officials offering information booklets and maps bearing the Fulham club crest, drank with Atlético Madrid fans before the game, sang with more Atlético fans while squashed against them in the packed U-Bahn train on the way to the stadium and shared a laugh and a joke with the friendliest steward who ever frisked me, was that while Premier League football may measure up in Europe, the Premier League matchday experience definitely does not.

In England, I regularly experience the oppressive force of aggressive stewarding forcing me to go here, sit there, don’t stand up, don’t sing so loudly and so on by people who appear to view the high-visibility jacket as a badge of honour. I recently watched in bemusement at Villa Park as the local stewards were still trying to force a small, excitable (no, really) section of our away support to sit down in the 87th minute of the game, through the innovative tactic of standing in front of them to block their view of the game and pushing them backwards.

In Hamburg, a steward smiled when he talked to me. Yes he did. In fact, they all did. And at the quarter-final in Wolfsburg, a steward even went off to find programmes for us at half-time and was then waiting to give them to us, free, at the end of the game. No, I didn’t know what to say either.

I could go on. For instance, German stewards tend to sit out of the way on small folding stools and only get up if you ask for help or look lost, in direct contrast to their English counterparts who, as we know, love nothing better than standing around in clumps in the middle of gangways so that everyone has to walk around them.

But while being killed by the kindness of the stewards is a notable improvement on home, the whole atmosphere felt bigger, more exciting, unfeasibly continental and cosmopolitan, and part of a whole world of football we were sadly only briefly gatecrashing. There was a wonderful view of the pitch without the need to peer around the obligatory fluorescent jacket, room for your knees to join you if you choose to sit down and a man moving among us throughout the game selling giant pretzels. What more can you reasonably ask?

Of course, hardened fans of the Champions League perennials may scoff at this childlike wonderment of a night out in Europe, but for an evening I had a tantalising glimpse of another footballing world and I liked it.

Inevitably, though, no matter how high the highs, the glass will always return to half empty and so it was no surprise that as Atlético sang rude songs about Real Madrid, after a short pause to register their red and white striped shirts, 12,500 Fulham fans rose as one and filled the Hamburg night air with a deafening chorus of: “Are you Brentford in disguise?”

From WSC 281 July 2010