Don’t stop ’til you get enough

Brian Parish kicks off the 2011/12 season with a trip down to Craven Cottage to watch Martin Jol’s team start the long road to Bucharest.

A little under two years ago, myself and Dagenham Dan went to Fulham’s opening game in the 2009-10 Europa League campaign against FK Vetra. So impressed were we that night (despite the rain) that we decided that we would try and get to as many games as we could for however long the team remained in the competition. Little did we (or anyone) think that Fulham would eventually reach the final, only to lose to Atletico Madrid in Hamburg. That season, their league form suffered slightly while they performed their heroics in Europe; last year though, they finished in their second highest ever league placing of eighth, and despite Zoltan Gera’s red card in the last game of the season, they’ve qualified again but this time through the fair play league.

Since the end of last season, Fulham have lost the manager who got them into Europe, but appointed Martin Jol in the place of Mark Hughes. Training for the new season has only recently begun, but the early start to the season has meant that while most other players are finishing off their holidays, Fulham are already preparing to start their 2011-12 season.

Fulham’s opponents for the first qualifying round are a team that finished third in the Faroe Island league last season, and started off this year’s competition with just one point from their opening four games. However, NSI Runavik recovered and won their next six, to go from bottom of the ten team division to top. As they visit London though, they are back in fourth place, having played thirteen of their league games and are six points behind the leaders, B36 Torshavn. They clearly know where the goal is in their domestic league, having scored thirty seven goals so far, but at the weekend, they drew their last game 1-1 against B71, who presently prop up the division.

Proving that there is now no such thing as a close season in football, just forty three days ago, on a cool and breezy night in Dublin, Porto beat Braga 1-0 in the final of last season’s competition. And now, before June has even finished, the whole thing gets started again.

Thursday 30th June, Fulham v NSI Runavik, Craven Cottage

At the draw for the first two qualifying rounds of the Europa League, UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino said that the competition had become a “must-watch moment” for football fans. While it’s arguably more of an open competition than the Champions League, the idea that football fans find the competition a “must watch” is a bit hard to take, especially when games are shown on two terrestrial channels in the UK, and most of those seem to be in half empty stadiums.

Of course, daft kick off times (like 6pm in the UK to fit in with the television rights) don’t help, but if the competition is to be taken seriously, then the practice of allowing those teams that lose out in the Champions League must be stopped. And while they are at it, the idea of allowing a team to finish fourth in a league and still qualify for the “Champions” League is ridiculous. Michel Platini has said in the past that he would favour a return to the old straight knock out format for the European competitions, but while there is big money to be made, the current elongated group stage will remain. Sorry about that, rant over.

Of course this hasn’t stopped us from attending, and at only £10 for a seat anywhere in the ground, it’s most definitely one that must be filed under “it would be rude not to attend”. Plus, I’ve never seen a team from the Faroe Islands, so it’s another first for me.

We’ve bagged a couple of seats in the Riverside Stand, and this has meant that, not only do we get a view of the River Thames while eating a pie before the game, but we also get to see the Michael Jackson statue. It’s a sight to behold, it really is. There are quite a few people who have their pictures taken in front of the statue, but most of the regulars just walk straight past, not glancing up. Perhaps they’ve seen it before, or aren’t big fans. Or maybe they’ve cleared off to Chelsea.

The game kicks off on how a June evening should be; bright and sunny. There is a bit of a breeze off the Thames, but it’s not much. Fulham have named a strong line up, and our pre-match deliberations about what team they are likely to field is all for nothing. The home side are in their new all-white home kit, which sort of looks like New Zealand’s football kit (all white with bits of black) but the skin tight Kappa shirts are not football fan friendly to say the least. Prior to the game we had visited the stadium store, and the club are selling off the green and gold away shirt from last season. One helpful fan recommends getting a shirt that is normally two sizes too big; so if you normally wear a large, you will need an XXL at least. The presence of several sizes of shirt rarely seen (up to 5XL) would bear this out. Either that, or Fulham have a very toned following.

Fulham are a mere 1/50 to win the game, and are on the attack within the first thirty seconds, winning their first corner of the season from it. Dan reckons that they should have scored by now, but Runavik are parking the proverbial bus in front of the goal. We’ve seen this tactic before, having endured several England v Andorra games. Normally once the first has gone in, then the score-line just gets higher, but not tonight. Although they have only been in training about a week or so, Fulham are much quicker than their opponents, who use every break in play as an opportunity to take a drink. Ten minutes pass without a goal, then twenty. Most in the ground are patient, but one woman several rows behind us let’s everyone know her frustration with every misplaced pass. Perhaps she is making a bid to become the first female manager of an English League team; she certainly knows how to berate a linesman, who gives a close but correct offside decision against Zamora.

Just over half an hour has been played when Fulham finally make the break through. It hasn’t quite been the one sided game that most were expecting, but almost. Some good work and exchange of passes on the left hand side of the area results in the ball falling to Damien Duff who duly slots home Fulham’s first goal of the season and the relief around the ground is evident.

Half time arrives with the score still at 1-0. Runavik manage to get a late corner, when Aaron Hughes tries to deposit the ball into the Thames and doesn’t quite get enough on it, but there has been no threat from the visitors, which was probably to be expected.

The second half starts, and although Runavik kick off, the ball is firmly in their half of the pitch. Just before the hour, two shots go just wide, which has Dan advising that it’s going to end 1-0. Thankfully this isn’t the case. As 60 minutes ticks round on the stadium scoreboard, Davies is fouled in the area, and there is a couple of second’s hesitation from the Austrian referee before he finally points to the penalty spot. Danny Murphy is entrusted with the penalty, which he duly puts away, sending the ball to the keeper’s left which is unfortunate (for the goalie at least) as he has already dived the other way.

To be fair, Andras Gango is having a reasonable game, saving several times when it looks as though Fulham are going to score. Andrew Johnson finally finishes them off after 70 minutes following a flick by Zamora, and that’s the scoring done. There are a few substitutions made, but although we’ve been hoping for a big win, it hasn’t really looked like happening.

An additional four minutes are added, but people have seen enough; perhaps the tennis is still on. Once the whistle goes, there is a mass exodus, although some of the near fifteen thousand crowd stay behind to clap the team from the field. It’s been an interesting night, but Fulham are at least on their way, and only have another 21 games to play if they want to reach another European final. With any luck, we might be in Bucharest to see them as well.

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