Tales From Sixth Place

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2012.

It was Easter Bank Holiday Monday 2012 and the Fulham versus Chelsea derby game was due up in the evening. Normally, I would try to do something of note during the day, but I awoke with an annoying headache and sore throat. As Parky had been rough with similar symptoms over the past week, I soon blamed him. Since 1979, my village has hosted an Easter Fair on every Bank Holiday Monday and I intended to spend a little time amongst the attractions. However, as the morning drew on, the weather deteriorated with an increasingly blustery wind and worsening showers. I saw a few visitors heading into the centre of the village; coats buttoned with hats and scarves to the fore. They didn’t seem to be enjoying the bracing wind or rain. However, I decided to brave the elements and strolled down, past children’s fair rides, food stalls, arts and crafts stands, hog roasts, bric-a-brac stalls and trade stands. I made it as far as the village shop and picked up a few items of food for lunch. I soon realised that my cold-like symptoms were getting worse. By the time I had returned home, my jacket was soaked.

Great.

The time soon passed and I reluctantly gathered my things together ahead of the drive to London. I will admit that there was a certain element of drudgery about all of this. I threw some headache tablets down my neck and battled the elements as I headed out to the car. As the centre of the village was closed off to vehicular access, I had to head out to the west rather than the east. What a dreary day. Heading past Faulkland, past the village green with the stocks, then past the Tucker’s Grave Inn (one of the last remaining scrumpy pubs in the area), the weather was truly awful; a lifeless sky and incessant rain.

I reached Parky Towers at just after 3pm. We were both coughing and spluttering in unison as I pulled out of his road. Parky and Jill had visited the village fair last Easter – when the weather was much more enticing – and so I soon chatted about my grim walk through the wet streets a few hours earlier.

“It was pretty pathetic mate. It wasn’t too bad for me I suppose, because I live in the village. But I have to wonder why people would want to travel over especially and traipse about in the rain…”

My voice trailed off. I soon realised what I was saying. I was mocking the people I had seen at the fair, but here we were, the two of us suffering with colds, about to drive 100 miles to watch a game of football.

I recognised the irony and chuckled to myself.

Why was I going to Craven Cottage? I guess the £49 ticket was burning a hole in my pocket…especially since we missed the game just after Christmas last year when we both felt ropey. There was some vague notion of “duty” to the team I suppose, but neither of us has to prove anything in our support of the boys. I suppose, the reason was straightforward; it’s what we do. I guess the question never really needs to be asked, let alone answered.

I pulled into Melksham for a coffee and I immediately felt chirpier. My mate Steve texted me to say that Frome Town (aka the Mighty Dodge) were drawing 0-0 down on the seaside in Weymouth, but the weather was cold and blustery there too. If truth be known, I was pretty dismayed that I was missing Frome’s game against the biggest club in their division.

As we headed east, we listened to the exploits of both Newcastle and Tottenham on the radio. We were both elated to hear of Spurs’ 2-1 loss and we were soon chattering about us finishing up in fourth place at the final whistle at Craven Cottage. On Friday, the gap was a massive five points. Later in the day, we could be level.

Easter weekend is a long time in football

Parky threw a Stiff Records compilation on the CD player as I headed into The Smoke. I especially enjoyed the thunder of “Destination Zulu Land” by King Kurt, a song I hadn’t heard for a good 25 years. As we zipped through the twee side streets of Barnes and Putney, songs from The Pogues, Tracey Ullman and The Belle Stars sent us down memory lane. We left Memory Lane and parked up just a few hundred yards from the River Thames. Good news from Weymouth; Steve texted me to say The Dodge won 3-0.

We strolled into “The Duke’s Head” bang on 6pm and settled down alongside the stalwarts Alan and Gary, plus Mike from NYC and his son Matthew. Within a short period of time, Matt from NYC joined us and then Jesus and his cousin Darlene; she had just flown in to London and the Fulham vs. Chelsea derby game would be her first ever footy game. They have tickets for the F.A. Cup semi-final on Sunday, too, and Jesus has been teaching her a few songs. The less said about those the better…wink. By the time of that game next Sunday, Jesus will have added Paris and Amsterdam to his list of European cities visited during the past three months.

Alan and Parky exchanged jokes and the Heineken was going down well. A few familiar Chelsea faces were spotted at the bar. Mike and I spoke about the massive game against Tottenham at Wembley, but we both expressed dismay and concern that our 31,500 tickets sold so poorly that during the last window for sales, both season ticket holders and members alike could buy an additional two tickets. This suggests to me that our fan base as a whole is not as “up for it” as it should be. Surely the Spurs’ followers will take up their 31,500 more readily. Worrying signs…

“Another pint, boys?”

I can well remember a conversation that a few of us had on the pavement outside this pub ahead of our game with Fulham in March 2006. This was, of course, during the closing stages of our second championship season under Jose Mourinho; there was a certain amount of pomp in the way that our club was perceived by the media at the time and we were seen as almost unbeatable domestically. Looking back, they were the very best of times. And yet, the five or six of us on that Sunday lunchtime were far from happy; we had noticed chinks in our armour and were not completely happy in the way that we were playing of late. Question marks were raised about manager and players alike. The fact that we lost the game 1-0 added a little gravitas to our typically pessimistic appraisal of the team six years ago.

Why do I mention this? It just proves that football fans, in general, are never happy. We were soon to be crowned English champions for the second successive season, but there was still room for improvement in our collective minds.

We left the boozer at 7.15pm and wrapped ourselves up against the cold before walking over the exposed Putney Bridge, with the bright lights of Craven Cottage shining like beacons to our west. We hurriedly walked through the park which abuts the river and were soon outside the red brick turnstiles of the Putney End. The others entered the away end, but I spent a few moments taking a few photographs of the relatively new Johnny Haynes statue. However, the rain was falling and the light was poor. The photos weren’t great. I didn’t even bother looking for the allegedly hideous Michael Jackson statue. True Fulham fans must hate the presence of it outside the Johnny Haynes stand.

I wouldn’t mind a Raquel Welch statue outside The Shed though; it would be, at least, somewhere to shelter in the rain.

Underneath the away stand, I soon stumbled into Darlene, Parky and Jesus supping “one last pint.” Craven Cottage is a lovely stadium – one of my favourites. Its setting is unique. I love the façade of the main stand. Top marks. However, it does contain the infamous “neutral area” alongside the 3,000 seats officially allotted to away fans in the Putney End. Once inside the seats, I soon realised that my seat – on the aisle – was right on the boundary between the “away” and “neutral” zones. I chatted to Alan about this; if truly neutral, one wonders if it would be appropriate to encounter Liverpool, Leicester City, Leeds United and Lincoln City shirts amongst the neutrals. It is truly a weird concept. I quickly spotted a few Chelsea shirts and scarves in this area, but also some Fulham ones.

Bizarre.

It was noticeable that the 3,000 away fans stood for the entire game and provided some of the most vocal singing of the season so far. In contrast, the 3,500 fans in the neutral zone remained seated throughout and did not utter a single word of song during the evening’s entertainment. The home fans were pretty docile, too. However, I scanned the stadium and there were hardly any empty seats. The teams walked across the pitch.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50789675197658

I caught a glimpse of some white signs being held up by a section of home fans in the Hammersmith End and I groaned; I suspected that these doubled as the equally infamous “Fulham noise-makers / clappers / thundersticks” (also spotted at Wembley amongst the plebs at England games.)

The future of football? Heave.

I’m not really sure why Fulham have disregarded their black shorts; I have a passing dislike for teams who meddle with their kit design.

The game began and we were soon singing –

“Six days till Tottenham, there’s only six days till Tottenham – six days till Tottenham.”

“We don’t hate you, we don’t hate you, we don’t hate you – ‘cus you’re s***.”

“You can stick your fucking clappers up your arse.”

“Who the fuck are Barcelona, who the fuck are Barcelona, who the fuck are Barcelona? As the Blues go marching on, on, on.”

It was a cold and wet night by the banks of The Thames.The game wasn’t great at all, though we kept singing all of the way through. Ryan Bertrand pleased my eye throughout the game and he has fared well over the past two games. Gary Cahill created a strong barrier alongside John Terry. Ivanovic was his usual self. The problems came in the attacking positions really. We all said that Ramires is best used when he wins the ball centrally and drives on. He is not so effective when he receives the ball wide and then has to create for others. Lampard covered ground but wasn’t the driving force of old. Up top, Torres was quiet, Kalou also.

Clint Dempsey had a few strong chances in the first-half, but Petr Cech kept him at bay. I like the look of the buzzing winger Frei . Damien Duff, as always these days, flattered to deceive.

The foul on Kalou which lead to the penalty took place, of course, up the other end and so my sighting was not great. Frank struck the ball low and it just evaded Schwarzer’s dive. Phew.

In the first ten minutes of the second period, we enjoyed three or four gilt-edged chances to increase our lead but the chances went begging. I can still see the look of pain on Fernando Torres’ face after his neat lay-off for Meireles resulted in a wild blast over. Slowly, our play deteriorated and Fulham began to bother Petr Cech. A few half-chances peppered our goal. A stunning point-blank save from Petr was met with tumultuous applause from the standing loyalists in the Putney End. From the resulting corner, though, our hearts were broken when Clint Dempsey – yes, him – rose to head home.

In the last cameo of the night, we broke forward but Frank Lampard stumbled after a tackle inside the box. The referee Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle, leaving a frustrated Lampard sitting on the pitch, bemused.

We scuttled back to the car and were soon away. There was little to bring us any cheer to be honest. Another evening, another game, another night of song. Our chance to leapfrog ahead of Tottenham had been missed – and with it, a timely boost ahead of the cup semi-final. Still, Fulham away is never an easy game these days. We still have a shot at fourth place, but we will see.

We returned to the Stiff Records compilation as I took the reverse route out of south-west London. I drove right past the spot where T-Rex lead singer Marc Bolan met his untimely death in 1977. All those years ago, his mini slammed into a tree-trunk and I noted that it was festooned with pictures and mementos of the iconic singer, whose “Children Of The Revolution” is one of my favourite songs of my very early childhood.

As I headed home, Parky soon fell asleep and I soon realised that my sore throat had returned; looking back this was hardly surprising since I had unthinkingly joined in at every opportunity to bellow support for the boys.

Let’s hope that all 31,500 of us have equally sore throats next Sunday evening.

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