This FA Cup tie was a Sunday lunchtime kick-off, so I was at the train station early. The path outside the kebab shop with littered with Saturday night detritus. A puddle had hardened with off-white fat, a gift for any passing dog. Outside the station entrance, a teenage lad in a Fulham scarf was tucking into a styrofoam tray full of chips smothered in burger sauce. It wasn’t yet 9:30.
I took the opportunity to use the facilities on the train. Passably clean. But the taps weren’t working, thus creating filthy enemies of my fingertips. I could never adopt dad’s mantra of I didn’t piss on my hands in regard to carrying on without washing one’s hands. And certainly, I was positively repelled by his claim of I didn’t piss on the floor when it came to eating food he’d taken into the toilet with him.
As such, I passed the remainder of the train journey, and the walk to the stadium, with my arms bent rigidly into right angles; forearms leading me on, fingers splayed cautiously wide.
Fulham has long been burdened with a leafy, riverside image. No one’s rivals, forever plucky. It seems to suffer because it’s nice; it’s picturesque and welcoming. To football fans – you know, real men, men who are a man’s man – it’s crap. No atmosphere. They’ve got a neutral zone. It’s a tourist magnet. What’s wrong with having a stadium in an industrial estate?
Personally, I like nice things.
The walk was delightful, even in winter. Crossing Putney Bridge, the low tide Thames flowed by as rowing teams practiced their strokes. Fans bustled here and there, chatting amiably, looking warily at my protruding arms.
Up the cottagers, I cried to put them at ease. Up the lilywhites.
From the outside, all of Craven Cottage’s charm is channelled into one stand. The Johnny Haynes stand, along with the cottage beside it, are sublime by football ground standards. Built in 1905, it’s the oldest stand in use in English professional football. Its gorgeous brick facade is detailed with the club’s old crest and adorned with turnstiles that are little more than narrows slipways directly off the street.
This beauty is just as well because the rest of the ground is blander than a Starbucks latte.
With hands still out in front of me, I hurried through the turnstile and straight to the toilet where I finally washed them clean. I could finally tuck into my homemade organic peanut butter and ground almond protein slices topped with melted fairtrade dark chocolate.
My seat in the Riverside Stand was in the back row, reasonably close to the halfway line. It soon became apparent that the man sat beside me was fond of sighing. He sighed when the first ball was sent long, he sighed when Fulham kept possession with slick passes (stop going backwards!), and he sighed when Chris Martin missed a decent chance.
That’s what nine million gets you these days, he sighed.
He doesn’t want to stay, anyway. Sigh.
He left after 35 minutes. Sigh. I truly hope that wherever he is, he finds something he enjoys. It’s ok to admit that that thing isn’t football.
Craven Cottage is a delightful stadium inside. It’s neat and tidy, and oozes charm. Not to mention there’s an actual house in the corner. It was far from full, and the atmosphere was distinctly lacking, but that’s an FA Cup issue that desperately needs sorting.
Hull were shocking and offered nothing bar their goal, which brought the tie level at 1-1. Fulham deservedly pulled away into a 4-1 lead, which only served as a platform for one of the most extraordinary pieces of play I’ve yet to see.
Hull were awarded a late penalty. Abel Hernández stepped up and took the kind of weak, timid effort that makes fans’ rants about deluded, distanced millionaires seem entirely accurate. The shot was saved, inevitably, but the keeper couldn’t hold the ball. As Hernández charged in for the rebound, the keeper’s outstretched arms brought him down for another penalty. This time Hernández hammered it, but still, the keeper guessed right and pushed it high over the bar.
Sigh, said the Hull fans.
After the game, fans from both teams filed out together. No animosity, no balls out posturing, no idiots in anoraks bouncing up and down on tip toes shouting come on! to their mirror images. Just chatter; lovely, warm chatter.
On the walk back to Putney station I was drawn into Putney Pantry, a cafe in a riverside church. Hands down, the flat white there was, to date, the best football coffee I have ever had; rich, textured and full of flavour.
A member of staff asked me how it was as I stood up to leave.
That’s one cup that will never lose it’s magic, I said.
Is that really going to be your sign off?, he asked.