There can’t be many fans who dislike Fulham. OK, perhaps apart from Queens Park Rangers fans and a smattering of Chelsea supporters, although the vast majority of the “new blues” probably have no idea where their nearest neighbours actually play. The club has tried to retain a sense of history and tradition whilst a maelstrom of off the field activities have directly impacted on the field performances. But coming into the new 2016/17 Football League season (hashtag EFL for those down with the kids) there was a sense of optimism that things could be different this term.
- Despite the travel logistics, Sky felt that it was justifiable in ensuring that Newcastle fans couldn’t get back to Tyneside after the game by public transport;
- Despite point 1, Newcastle still filled the whole of the Putney End;
- The only beer you could get in the ground was Carlsberg;
- At the age of 35 Scott Parker is still as mobile as he was when he joined West Ham back in 2007;
- The police still haven’t worked out how to manage the crowds at Putney Bridge tube station;
Prior to the game, which had seen an eventful tube journey where football fans had been called into action to prevent a fight on the train between a heavily pregnant woman and a young “lady” with attitude who felt it was her right to stand blocking the doors “to get some air”, I chatted with a member of Fulham’s new marketing team. It seems that owner Shahid Khan was now in action not words mode and wanted to press ahead with an ambitious development of the Riverside Stand that would see it built up and back into the Thames, supported by a man-made island. Fans would then be literally shipped into the ground. Not the craziest plan I’ve heard and actually one that would have been more than ideal for The Boleyn Ground (swap River Thames for access road leading to bus garage). The current capacity of just under 26,000 with limited space for corporate hospitality simply does not allow the club to increase the ever-important match day revenues.
By retaining Benitez, a significant number of players from last year and boosting the squad with some new signings, the bookies unsurprisingly have made Newcastle favourites for an immediate return. From experience of West Ham’s foray’s into the Championship you know that the novelty of visiting grounds you haven’t been to in a while soon rubs off when you are losing though.
The atmosphere had been turned up at the Cottage as kick off approached. Newcastle were being backed by 6,000 fans, an outstanding achievement considering the kick off time and distance. Fulham fans in the Stevenage Road stand were making quite a din themselves, fueled by those card clappers and the acoustics of the metal roof. One noticeable fact was the lack of home fans wearing replica shirts. Perhaps I’d just been accustomed to seeing virtually every fan in one during the European Championships or that the new ones, complete with the statement “VisitFlorida” on the front weren’t yet on sale.
Fulham 1 Newcastle United 0 – Craven Cottage – Friday 5th August 2016
After 10 minutes of this game I turned to Tall Tom and pointed out the Newcastle game plan. “Every time the right back gets the ball he hits it diagonally behind the Fulham left back”. I hadn’t even finished the sentence before another ball was hoofed up field for Perez to chase. On this occasion he did earn a free-kick on the edge of the box as Odoi pushed him over but if we could see their tactic from the stands so quickly then I’d have hoped Fulham boss Slaviša Jokanović (described by Wikipedia as a “physical player”) would have too.
The game was played at a good pace although neither team seemed willing to progress further than the edge of the penalty area. Newcastle should have had a penalty when Ritchie’s cross is punched away for a corner by Tunnicliffe. New season, better technology, same basic decisions being missed. Ten minutes later Fulham went ahead when Matt Smith rose the highest to head home a corner. Men on the posts? That’s so 2015/16.
The second half saw more of the same from both teams. Newcastle’s fans seemed to be permanently on edge every time the ball was played towards their goal, whilst the Fulham back line opted for a no-nonsense approach in defending. They had another decent shout for a penalty when a last-minute shot appeared to hit a Fulham arm but rarely threatened the home team’s goal. I can only assume they have neglected to work on set pieces in the pre-season based on the efforts of Perez and Shelvey (or as Sky refered to him “England’s Jonjo Shelvey” which still gives me hope of an international call up).
Full time saw Benitez stride purposefully towards the referee although the Spaniard kept his dignity and simply shook hands. He had a right to feel aggrieved but this would have been a harsh lesson for him and the team. The Championship is a brutal league where pre-season odds and reputations count for nothing. Teams will raise their game at home to Newcastle and will park the bus at St James’ Park.
For the thousands of Fulham fans disappearing into the London night the dreams of a return to the promised land may just remain a little while longer.