Fulham vs. Chelsea : 1 March 2014.
Has there ever been a more dramatic contrast between consecutive away games in the history of Chelsea Football Club? On Wednesday, there was the electric and intimidating atmosphere of an encounter against Galatasaray in Istanbul, that alien city on the banks of the Bosphorus, amid acrid fumes from flares and festering vitriol from fans. Then, just three days later, a match against our benign close neighbours Fulham at Craven Cottage, nestled alongside comfortable town houses and the River Thames, just across the water from the chattering middle classes of Putney and Barnes.
It was no surprise that my head had been full of memories from my short spell in Turkey since my return. The vault of recollections was plundered at regular moments; it was a rich seam. The time that I spent in Istanbul will stay with me for a long time. However, time waits for no man in the world of football and the West London Derby was to soon occupy my thoughts.
The drive into London – I took the southern route for a change, which took me past Stonehenge, and then over the hills of Hampshire and through leafy Surrey before zipping past Twickenham and into the centre – was a joyous affair. There were laughs-a-plenty from my co-passengers Brian and Parky. The time flew. Before I had time to blink, I was edging my car through the highly desirable area just south of the snaking Thames. I was parked-up just off the Lower Richmond Road at around 12.15pm. We soon embarked on a little pub-crawl which was centered on the area just to the south of the river in Putney. First up was the familiar Duke’s Head; a regular meeting-point for our forays to Craven Cottage over the past ten years. It’s a fine Victorian boozer. However, the fact that our Peronis were served in plastic glasses was met by frowns. On non-football days, I am sure that the beers and lagers would be served in proper glasses. This attitude annoyed me; there was little likelihood of any trouble “kicking-off” in this pub. There is no place for plastics at football; this extends to beer glasses too.
This would be my seventh trip to Craven Cottage with Chelsea. My very first visit to the ground was way back in 1985, when I was in London visiting a friend from my home town who was at college at Middlesex Poly. Chelsea were elsewhere and I was keen to visit a new football stadium. I steadfastly refused to go to Arsenal and talked my mate into watching the Fulham vs. Charlton Athletic Second Division match. We endured a dour 0-0 draw from the terraces of the home Hammersmith End on that March afternoon twenty-nine years ago. I remember absolutely nothing about the game.
Our paths rarely crossed until Fulham gained promotion to the top flight in 2002. Our dominance over them has continued, though; an infamous 1-0 defeat at Fulham in 2005-2006 is our only defeat at the hands of our pesky neighbours since 1980. On that Sunday afternoon, when Joe Cole was memorably substituted by Jose Mourinho after just twenty minutes, the Fulham fans celebrated as if they had won the league.
Next, we popped into The Spotted Horse; another Peroni, this time – thankfully – in a proper glass. A few familiar Chelsea fans were inside. Our last port of call was The Railway, which was a large public house with bars on two floors. Here, even more Chelsea fans, including many who had been in Istanbul. Alan and Gary were sat towards the rear and we soon joined them. There was a mix of both Fulham and Chelsea fans inside and not a hint of animosity between the two.
As soon as we sat, Alan asked us to raise our glasses –
Our legendary centre-forward was taken from us eight years ago to the day. How we miss him.
In the back room of that Putney boozer, Istanbul was fondly remembered and our performance quickly analysed. But we soon moved on. This season is racing past. Alan and Gal were pleased to see Brian once again; Brian used to attend many home games a few years ago, but this would be one of only a small amount of away games that I had attended with him. It would be his first visit to Craven Cottage.
As we left The Railway and walked north, over Putney Bridge – stopping for a few photographs with the Thames behind – Brian’s excitement was palpable. He had recently heard that Fulham were planning to expand their stadium and was keen to visit Craven Cottage before these possible changes might take place. I had remembered seeing these plans a few years ago. Fulham aimed to throw another tier on the Riverside Stand, allied with a very pleasing new walkway abutting the river, bringing the capacity up to around 30,000, but I think plans have stalled.
We walked through Bishop’s Park alongside hundreds of other match-goers; it is always one of the nicest approaches to any stadium in these isles. On the river, several rowing crews flew past. The starting point of the Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race is at Putney Bridge every Easter.
There was the usual scrum at the red brick turnstiles on Stevenage Road. My timing wasn’t bad; I reached my seat between Alan and Gal a matter of seconds before the game kicked-off. The stadium was virtually full; I noted just a handful of empty seats in the Riverside Stand to my left and two patches of empty seats behind the two roof supports in the Hammersmith Stand opposite. Since my visit in 1985, the stadium has changed, but its ambiance has survived. The cottage – more a pavilion – in the corner to my right is its defining motif. It’s a lovely sight. The Johnny Haynes Stand to my right – I am sure I have mentioned this in every one of my match reports from Fulham – is exactly the same size as the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge which lasted from 1905 to 1972.
Our end – The Putney End – was full of boisterous away fans. There always seems to be a good sing-song at Fulham. The sun shone brightly and there was anticipation for a fine Chelsea performance.
I hoped for good things as the first-half began.
Ha. What a let-down.
Despite some strong vocal support, Chelsea were as poor in the first-half as we have seen this season. I almost feel as if I shouldn’t waste too much time in reporting our failings.
We were dire.
An early chance fell to Fulham – a Clint Dempsey header, from a Kasami cross, but Cech untroubled – and the home team certainly looked the more likely to score as the entire Chelsea team struggled to get a foothold. The support from the away contingent soon fell away and I found myself looking out at the Thames in desperation at our poor showing. Passes were wayward, there was poor movement off the ball, little industry, a lack of width down our right, scant desire and a general malaise which dumbfounded me and plenty of others.
However – this is the worst part. Rather than get behind the team, many Chelsea fans within earshot chose to signal out individual players for personal abuse.
“Oscar – you are shit. You ain’t played well for months.”
“Crap Torres. Get him off.”
“Cech’s past it. Get Courtois back.”
“We need two new full backs.”
“Schurrle – rubbish.”
“Ramires – awful.”
“Hazard has been crap since his hat-trick.”
If the football was poor, the atmosphere inside the Putney End was worse. Of course, every spectator who attends Chelsea games has their own take on what supporting Chelsea – on match day – means. I just felt dismayed at the screams of negativity. There were shouts of frustration at every poor pass and wayward shot – I get that – but it just annoys me when fellow fans show a greater willingness to be negative than to be positive.
A couple of shots – one well saved, the other poor – from Torres were the only hints during the entire half that our fortunes might change. In our defence, I thought that Gary Cahill was our best player, closing and blocking well. It had been a half of few chances for either side. A couple of Fulham chances at the end of the break were thankfully spurned.
As the teams slouched off the pitch at the break, my eyes were centered on a quiet and contemplative Jose Mourinho as he walked alone towards the changing rooms beneath the cottage in the corner.
I wondered what our manager might say to the players.
At the break, I slumped in my seat. I looked out at the River Thames again. The waters sped past.
“Well, surely we can’t play as poorly in the second-half.”
The Chelsea crowd sensed a greater drive from our players in the opening few moments of the second period. The volume, thankfully, was a lot better. We were soon rewarded. The talismanic Hazard, showing a lot more verve, spotted the fine run of Schurrle. His lofted ball was perfect. Schurrle steadied himself and slotted past Stekelenburg. I had time too; I captured his goal on film.
The Chelsea support roared.
It was supremely ironic that the one player who had drawn most disdain in the first-half had opened the scoring. Soon after, the buzzing Hazard’s perfect rabona found the leaping Torres but his header spun wide. Within a few minutes, Hazard picked out Schurrle’s subtle run behind the sleeping Fulham defence. The German forward tucked the ball in. And another goal captured by my camera.
Again, a euphoric scream from us all.
Only minutes later, a lofted ball to Torres was nicely played into the path of – guess who? – Schurrle and he adroitly slammed the ball in.
An Andrea Schurrle hat-trick. Unbelievable, eh?
We boomed –
“DA DA DA DA DA – ANDRE SCHURRLE – DA DA DA DA DA – ANDRE SCHURRLE.”
Smiles all over the Putney End. What a transformation. Fulham were chasing shadows during this period, but caused us a little anxiety when Heitinga turned in a corner after we momentarily went to sleep. Sound familiar? Thankfully, we showed enough shape and resilience to resist any further Fulham attacks. At the time of the final whistle, the Chelsea end was buoyant.
“WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE. SAY – WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE.”
And four points clear.
What a strange season. At times, we have struggled. There have been brief flashes of brilliance. In general, there have been periods of dogged pragmatism interspersed with moments of pure joy. Deep down, I still need a little convincing that we might end up winning the league this season. Arsenal are fading fast, as they always do; how we enjoyed their demise at Stoke City. Of course, I still fear Manchester City. And whisper it, Liverpool scare me too. However, two words surely bring optimism to the Chelsea ranks.
See you there.