In the same week that the truth about the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989 was finally revealed officially, I took Adam to his second Premier League football match (the first was Man United v Aston Villa at Old Trafford a number of years ago), not long after his first match at Wembley (Japan v Mexico, Olympic semi-final), though I’ve taken him to a variety of other lesser grounds too.
Football is not like it used to be, where at any stadium you could queue up at the turnstiles just before kick-off and get yourself a prime view on the terraces for a small price. These days you have to be a member or season ticket holder if you want to go regularly, and if you’re just turning up as an interested neutral it’s wise to look for offers. In this case, it was an offer via my mobile phone network to get two tickets for the price of one to see Fulham v West Brom, cost £30. Adam was chuffed!
The difficult bit came with actually getting there and back. Post-Olympics, all the rail and tube engineering works are back with a vengeance, so our route began with a drive to Kelvedon, a train to Witham, then a replacement bus service to Billericay before catching the connection to Liverpool Street. Circle and District lines were down so we took Central line to Notting Hill Gate and eventually two buses to Putney Bridge, before walking the rest of the way. Three hours plus each way did not exactly endear me to London transport!
Ah, but what a wonderfully picturesque little stadium Craven Cottage proved to be! Bang on the banks of the Thames, with a glorious park next door. First thing we noticed there was the cottage – the Craven Cottage. I don’t know the history behind it, but it is indeed a small Victorian villa with a football ground built around it. The downstairs appears to house player changing rooms, and the upstairs has a verandah with viewing for the cognoscenti. Different and quite charming, to be sure. The remainder of the ground is modern, reasonably well appointed, with a capacity enhanced through major refurbishments to 30,000. But it still contrives to look more like a Championship ground in comparison with some of the PL palaces of football, bearing in mind that Stamford Bridge is but a short hop from the Cottage.
Next stop: refreshments. In my youth this was a pie and a bovril for about a quid all in. These days the catering concessions will sell you a mediocre pint for £4.50 and a hot drink at least £2. Average pies are £3.50 and an unappetising cheeseburger £4.50. The one concession to the location is the “Craven Cottage Pie” for £4.50… except they had sold out. Ho hum. Bottom line is that going to football is certainly not cheap, and security stops you bringing in bottles and cans of drink.
Our seats were behind the goal in the Putney end, labelled for away supporters and neutrals, so we shared with a lot of people with Brummie accents who chanted a lot about how much they hated the Villa, despite Villa being elsewhere. It was quite amiable and perfectly safe, though I get really irritated by the tendency of everyone to stand when the ball came within a radius of 20 yards of goal and to stay upright for some time afterwards. Nothing much you can do about that other than join in – assuming you want to see the action.
Talking of which, the two teams were well organised and played in a modern style, which is to say they did not follow the old-fashioned “kick and rush” tactics typically associated with British football of the past. But then, since all PL teams are a League of Nations, perhaps that is not surprising. They attempt to play possession football, pass, play in triangles, work an opening gradually, tire their opponents out with chasing. The main issue with this style is that it gets pretty dull after a while, particularly since the ball tends to go sideways and backwards far more than it goes forwards. You missed the incisive, probing ball, the defence-splitting pass, but no midfield general seemed capable of working such an opening. Attacks were cancelled out by well-drilled defences. Were this sex, you would have said it was all foreplay and no penetration.
But then, a goal, scored by Dimitar Berbatov no less, Fulham’s new signing from Manchester United. Berbatov has a tendency to score hat tricks or go AWOL for long periods. This being his Fulham debut he was obviously putting in more effort than usual, though in the first half hour he had mostly misfired, fallen over the ball, passed to nobody in particular and looked generally out of sorts. On this occasion the winger (whose name I won’t even try to pronounce) found a way past a statuesque defender, Billy Jones, allowing Berbatov to stroke the ball elegantly into the top corner and look more like the thoroughbred he was once considered to be. Berbatov also finished the first half with a cool penalty, after the self same winger was clumsily tripped by the self-same Billy Jones, a man who looked as if he would be more at home in the Conference Premier League than surrounded by the high and mighty. Thereafter he was chasing, but did not quite achieve, said hat trick.
Inbetween came a calamity for the Baggies: their star Nigerian striker, Peter Odemwingie, a modest and shy man, saw a flash of red, kicked out at a German Fulham defender’s kneecaps, then saw another flash of red as the ref waved a card to send him off. Not terribly sensible, and he will now pay the penalty by cooling his heels for a 3-game suspension. The Brummies around me went silent, though some grumbled that it was not a sending off offence and that it wasn’t fair. In fact, I thought for a moment that he had chopped the guy’s leg off at the knee, a feat more closely associated with the one-time Chelsea favourite Ron “Chopper” Harris, than lean and honed strikers.
Nevertheless, with manager Steve Clarke’s half time rocket still ringing in their ears, West Brom came out fighting, and, incidentally, playing far more directly. They had brought on their new Belgian striker on loan from Chelsea, Romelu Lukaku, the man Adam calls “the beast”. I felt somewhat sorry for Mr Lukaku, who was ploughing something of a lonely furrow and seeing barely any of the ball. All passes heading upwards seemed to be sprayed randomly 50 yards from where he was standing. He chased gamely but didn’t seem to be getting any chance to test out Fulham keeper Mark Schwartzer (Aussie.) After the first 10 minutes, Ben Foster in the WBA goal was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers. Schwartzer could easily have leaned against his goalpost and had a doze.
And then, in the dying seconds came the Fulham third, as WBA sacrificed their defensive midfield guru in favour of another attacker. A good move through the stretched defence (Mr Jones again), a save but the ball sitting up invitingly for ex-Chelsea midfield player Steve Sidwell (one of two redheads in the Fulham team) to volley home and kill the game off. The Brummies trudged off in their droves, ready to catch a train home.
Adam was happy and I got home – eventually. But would I pay the premium to watch PL football again? I’m far from convinced that it’s more entertaining to watch than lesser divisions, and the class of the teams at the very pinnacle was for the most part notably lacking, even with Berbatov in place. Got it – next time I’ll take Adam to see Braintree Town of the Conference Premier League!!