Championship reputation

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.

unnamedSome things never change though as this Friday night season opener proved:-

  1. 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;
  2. Despite point 1, Newcastle still filled the whole of the Putney End;
  3. The only beer you could get in the ground was Carlsberg;
  4. At the age of 35 Scott Parker is still as mobile as he was when he joined West Ham back in 2007;
  5. 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.

unnamed (3)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.

unnamed (1)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.

You are only as good as your next game

Four months ago Leyton Orient found themselves 2-0 up going into the dressing rooms at Wembley in the League One Play-Off Final.  They O’s were just 45 minutes away from their first visit to the Championship and sticking one over on the Rotherham United manager, Steve Evans.  Nobody wants to see that these days do they?  Ninety minutes later and the players lay distraught on the pitch, having lost the game 4-3 on penalties.  After a forty nine match league campaign, their fate had been settled by one missed spot-kick.  Harsh.

IMG_1120A few months later and the O’s were looking up the table rather than down it. Amazingly, after those exploits last season, manager Russell Slade was under pressure.  The fickle nature of football, combined with a new owner who had bought the club in the summer from Barry Hearn, means that a manager is only as good as his last match, irrespective of what has gone on before.  Slade’s achievements in finishing third last season were impressive, especially with clubs with much bigger resources, and of course, budgets in the division such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Preston North End and the anti-club, Milton Keynes Dons.

Whilst The Mighty Rooks would be starting their FA Cup campaign down on the south coast at Bognor Regis Town, I would be in London.  Westfield Shopping City, Stratford to be precise.  Sometimes even I have to compromise between football and family time, and this was a promised treat for the Littlest Fuller.  But then a cunning plan started to emerge.  Get to the Shopping mecca early doors, take family to nice restaurant for lunch and then walk across the Olympic Park for some football.  Genius.  So clever that they agreed to come with me.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Orient, as they always were when I was growing up.  My Dad often used to bring me to Brisbane Road when I was young as the Dad of one of my best school friends, Derek Possee,  used to play for them and so we didn’t used to pay to get in.  I remember seeing a couple of classic games against West Ham here, including the FA Cup 4th Round back in January 1980 when the Hammers edged a thriller 3-2 on their way to Wembley (proper FA Cup Final Wembley, not money-making Semi-Final Wembley), standing on a milk crate at the front of the West Stand.  I remember that stand well, with the tea bar at the back and the rust falling from the roof whenever the ball hit it.  I stood on it for the last time in December 1996 to see Peter Shilton make his 1,000 appearance against Brighton & Hove Albion.

IMG_1105Since then the ground has been totally transformed.  The old West Stand is now a unique-looking stand with steep obstruction free seating and then a huge wall behind it, with various local community facilities inside – a great and innovative use of the space.  In each corner there are the privately owned flats with their balconies that openly flaunt their ability to disregard the Taylor Report with spectators able to stand (STAND!) and drink beer (BEER!) in view of the pitch.  How many of them do you think cause problems each home game? Exactly!

Leyton Orient 0 Colchester United 2 – The Matchroom Stadium – Saturday 13th September 2014
Sometimes things just don’t go your way, and that will be the sentiment of the majority of Leyton Orient fans as they reflect on the defeat to Colchester United. It was a decent game of football, with the home side peppering the visitors goal (16 shots) but failing to really test Walker in the Colchester goal.  There was one incident in the second half where from the view we had in the North Stand, Watt appeared to handle the ball on the line, although most of the crowds view would have been of the keeper diving in front of him.  May be just the angle but looked like a penalty from where I was sitting.

There were a few familiar names in the starting line up for both sides.  Leyton Orient had Jobi McAnuff on the bench, a player who showed considerable promise at West Ham under Pardew but was shipped out far too early. Colchester lined up with Freddie “The new Tony Cottee” and George “son of John” Moncur.  Sears problem was, like Cottee, he was a small, in your face striker.  He, like Cottee, scored on his debut for the Hammers and was then seen as the saviour.  Unlike Cottee, he never really repeated that high and was released by the Hammers.

IMG_1122Colchester were forced to start the game with 10 men, as the referee wasn’t happy with the black ankle pads that George Moncur had on over his socks.  The U’s were wearing a black and yellow kit, with striped socks.  Quite what was wrong with that I don’t know.  Good to see he was so hot on those laws of the game but let so many very physical fouls by the away team go unpunished in the first half.  It’s all about priorities, after all.  It did seem that Colchester had been sent out to simply use brute force to stop any Orient attack and it was a surprise that it took twenty minutes for the first name to go into the book, that of Moncur. Like father, like son.

Colchester seemed happy to hoof the ball into the corners for Sears to chase.  They weren’t in the game at all, appearing to have come for the draw.  Just before half time Magnus Okuounghae rash challenge on David Mooney saw him see red and the most ludicrous “stand off” between two aging, plump fans in the East Stand, gesticulating to each other that frankly made them both look very silly.

However, come the second half and Colchester realised that if they played on the counter-attack, using the pace of Sears and Watt, playing it to feet then they may have some success.  Twice they broke, twice they scored.  The first, was less than 10 seconds after Leyton Orient had taken a corner, with Sears the creator.  Five minutes of injury time were announced but still the O’s couldn’t hit the target.  “We’re only playing against ten men” shouted the chap next to me.  True, but with Orient always keeping two men on the half-way line to counter the attacking threat, they lost that numerical advantage.

IMG_1124The defeat meant that Slade could be soon looking for another job.  Director Mauro Milanese was the man to pass the message on to Slade from ‘President’ Francesco Becchetti after the 2-0 loss to Colchester.  “The president has been honest enough via Mauro Milanese to tell me we have got one game to sort it out so hopefully we get a response on Tuesday,” said Slade, “That’s in terms of my future, obviously today’s result is not a great one for the football club, these things can happen but obviously the president will want better than that.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why football will one day eat itself.  Senseless decisions made by people who believe they can be the next Manchester City or Chelsea, spending peanuts along the way.  As a neutral it was a very enjoyable afternoon, watching a decent game of football. One game can change the course of a season and I hope for all that Slade has done for the O’s it comes on Tuesday night.

Getting a leg(acy) up

Here is a little secret for West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur awaiting the decision on who will get the Olympic Stadium next week.  Whisper it quietly, but football fans rarely want to watch football in an Olympic Stadium.  Why do I say that? Well a simple look at similar structures around the world, built for non-football events reveals quite a bit.  The prospect of an Olympic Games being awarded to a city sends them into construction meltdown, over promising and in most cases under delivering on the legacy of the games.  The whole story of whether a stadium will have an athletics track or not is not a new thing.  We all know that at the end of the day politics will win the day, and we have seen all sorts of stories in the past few weeks about who will do what when/if they win the bid.

Below we have analysed the stadiums used in the last ten games, and what has happened since.  And what does history tell us?  Well, lets start back in 1972 shall we?

The Olympiastadion – Munich (1972 Olympic Games)
The games that transformed a nation, both before but also during with the events of Black September.  The stadium was built literally with rubble cleared from the city after the post war rebuilding effort.  It was a very futuristic structure when it opened in 1971 with its translucent wavy roof and a capacity of 69,00. Both Munich teams moved in to start, regularly playing in front of sell out crowds before TSV got bored and moved away back to their spiritual home nearer the city centre.   The stadium retained its running track which meant some fans behind the goals were nearly 40 metres from the action.  Both Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 were unhappy playing there – 1860 for many years played at their original Grünwalderstrasse ground.  Despite hosting a World Cup, a European Championship and three Champions League Finals both clubs jumped at the opportunity to move to a stadium of the same size when the Allianz Arena was opened prior to the 2006 World Cup.  The stadium today is still used for athletics. Continue reading