While Fulham are now established in the Premier League, Neil Hurden has fond memories of older matchday customs, despite the prevailing chaos at the club for much of the 1980s and 1990s

Happiness is such an awkward bastard to pin down, isn’t it? We are told that think-tankers, politicians and philosophers spend countless hours of valuable research time pondering why we’re not as happy as we were in 1948 when we now have about ten times more food to eat, infinitely more sources of entertainment to occupy us and clothes that are startlingly less beige.

Surely it’s a truism to say, though, that the tortured and restless human soul craves something more than just material comfort. Witness the very existence of the following debate, tellingly common among Fulham fans. Are we happier now that we have a smart, renovated stadium, which is full every week and plays host to a well-established Premier League team, or did we actually have more fun in the late 1980s and 1990s when the whole club was endearingly hopeless in virtually all respects?

It seems churlish in a way even to enter this debate. How can we hanker after the days of insecurity on and off the pitch, when we now have what we all surely aspired to for so long, a team to be proud of and the promise, if sadly not yet quite the reality, of silverware? (It’s unlikely that the Intertoto Cup was made out of any recognisable form of metal.)

For some, this is a question of excitement, liberally sprinkled with nostalgia. The huge affection with which Micky Adams’s promotion team of 1996-97 is still held is objectively curious, given the scale of the club’s achievements since they gained Premier League status in 2001. But it’s inspired because it represented such a vital step forward after years of failure and stagnation.

Whereas arguably, with the splendid exceptions of last year’s Europa Cup run and the “Great Escape” of May 2008, more recent achievements have been less satisfying because they’ve largely been the product of financial investment by our eccentric yet hugely generous chairman rather than of more natural or organic growth. There is sometimes a sense that comfort has taken over from the raw excitement and tension of survival in the lower divisions; that there have been too many 13th- or 14th-placed finishes, dooming us to a seemingly perpetual second-last slot on Match of the Day.

Greater comfort on the pitch has been mirrored to a large extent by an increased regimentation in the atmosphere and environment of matchdays at the Cottage, a feature common to many clubs over the last quarter of a century. Given that this has coincided with probably the most successful period in our history, it almost seems that there is something of a Faustian pact going on here – a deal which isn’t always easy for the more romantically inclined Fulham fan to feel truly at home with.

The greatest change in this period has probably been the loss of flexibility and spontaneity in the matchday experience. Having just endured a process of Kafka-esque complexity to get a ticket for our last match of the season, I yearn for the simplicity of turning up at five to three on a Saturday and having the run of half the ground. Compared with the modern experience of being stuck next to the same person, crowded intimately into neighbouring plastic – or, in our case, wooden – seats, the greatest joy of all in the days of terracing was the freedom of movement. And at Craven Cottage this had the added attraction of entry into Enclosure World.

In 1986, a time of impending decline in SW6, the point of going to games could often be as much for the surrounding experience as for the football itself. Following the sad demise and gradual disappearance of Malcolm Macdonald’s highly promising young team of 1983, one began to expect less and less from the players and to spend longer appreciating the contributions from the terraces.

The much-loved enclosure running along the Stevenage Road side of the ground, under the famous Archibald Leitch stand now named after Johnny Haynes, was a sort of sociological petri dish. Ranging from the pathologically cynical and bitter to the manically optimistic, each of the regulars in this thin strip of terracing, perhaps 15 or 20 steps deep, developed a routine of their own.

Some indulged in catchphrases or whole streams of Minder-esque banter. Others specialised in the arcane world of manager abuse. Even though I never agreed with him, you had to admire the man who chanted “Lewington out!” as a kind of desperately un-Buddhist mantra for an entire season – I forget which. And then there were the renaissance men of vitriol, purveyors of elaborate and often conspiracy-laden campaigns of invective randomly addressed to linesmen or visiting wingers or full-backs. Or, come to that, to several of our own who were unfortunate enough to play in these highly vulnerable positions.

The relative emptiness of this area of terracing also enabled another important ritual, the half-time transfer of fans to the end we were attacking in the second half. This always struck me as a charming and naive trait, a triumph of optimism, as a tiny wave of deluded mankind trudged along the side of the ground dreaming of impossible glories yet to come.

Yet for all the frustrations of the modern day – the lack of mobility, the ticket restrictions, the growing influence of marketing and the portentous hype of Premier League nonsense – there is fortunately still charm enough in watching football at Craven Cottage. The walk to the ground is still the best in the capital, the traditional elements of the ground, though now partially overshadowed by new development, are still evident, and the long-overdue honouring of Johnny Haynes still connects the club to the best of its past.

Add the presence of football that is often well worth watching and I think Mephistopheles is probably offering us a reasonable deal.

From WSC 292 June 2011

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