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.

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Bigger than the Intertoto Cup


Being a Lewes and a West Ham fan doesn’t really give me many opportunities to watch my team play overseas.  Going continental means crossing the respective bridges for our league games in Canvey Island and Swansea City.  One of the great things about the “bigger teams” not taking the domestic cups seriously has been the opportunities presented to sides who may not have had a look in a a decade ago.  Hull City, Swansea City, Wigan Athletic – heck, even Arsenal, have benefited in the past few years, qualifying for Europe thanks to their cup exploits.  Am I jealous?  Absolutely.  Who doesn’t want to go on a European tour watching their team?

The last “proper” trip for West Ham fans was a short-lived UEFA Cup run back in 2006.  And when I say “run” I actually mean was a two-legged game against USC Palermo which will be remembered more for events off the field than anything that took place across the three hours of football.  Like many others, I paid £400 for a day trip to Sicily through West Ham’s official channels in order to get an official away ticket to watch a limp Pardew-inspired performance whilst the main talking point was the huge fight in the city centre the previous evening between locals and some of the more “old school” West Ham fans who had come out of retirement for the trip.

14629783778_99168a9a66_zChanges in the way that pre-season preparation are run has meant that English clubs tend to disappear to all four corners of the world in mid-July, returning just before the start of the season to play one “prestigous” friendly.  This used to be a slot reserved for a testimonial, but few players in the top leagues last five years at a club these days, let alone ten. In fact, the last West Ham player honoured in such a way was Steve Potts back in 1997.  Current first team squad player, Dan Potts, son of Steve was one of the mascots that day, aged three years old.  That is how rare these games are.

This year West Ham took in Australia, New Zealand, Stevenage and Germany for their warm up games before returning to play in the inaugural Marathon Bet Cup Final (formerly known as the Display Systems Trophy, the Bobby Moore Invitation and the “if you have the cash then you can sponsor it” Shield) against Sampdoria.  Germany though, eh.  A four team tournament hosted by Schalke 04 at their impressive Veltins Arena. Far too tempting to miss that one.

So that is why I was sitting in a Wetherspoon’s pub at London Stansted at 8am along with ten other football fans.  I blame my brother 100% for this.  Sitting alongside Stag Do’s, Hen Do’s, Grannies on a “sex tour of Shagaluf” (their words, not mine) and other football fans including Chelsea fans heading for Bremen and Newcastle fans also heading to Gelsenkirchen gives you an interesting slice of life.  My brother recently took redundancy from a job he had done for twenty five years.  His reward, a life of leisure hoping around the world, finding the most bizarre things to do, and arranging trips like this.

14626287460_c523315fbd_zIt didn’t take him long asking around his local pub to find seven other West Ham fans, plus Malcolm the Newcastle fan.  It took even longer to convince one of them, Nick, to splash out on a box for the day in the Veltins Arena.  All the beer and bratwurst we could consume, hence why we were taking it easy so early in the morning by only drinking Carling.  One short fifty five minute flight later and we were disembarking into the sunshine of Dortmund (officially hotter than Greece at that moment), ready for the day, and night ahead.

Schalke 0 West Ham United 0 – Saturday 2nd August 2014 – The Veltins Arena
You can dress up the fact that West Ham won this game on penalties all you like but in truth it was a terrible exhibition of football.  You would have hoped that with a bit of silverware on offer, West Ham would have at least tried to get the ball out of their half.  Having seen a picture of the Veltins Cup, it would have at least been more impressive to have in the trophy cabinet than the thumbnail-sized Intertoto Cup that we won back in 1999. It was a good job that penalties were used to decide after ninety minutes rather than extra time, to stop the majority of fans falling asleep.  Yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, but surely this should be the time when the manager is being brave, trying out things that could work.  So far this season we have seen very little of that in the draws against Stevenage and Ipswich Town and the defeats against Sydney FC and Wellington in New Zealand.  With just two weeks ago before the Premier League starts, the club are still desperately trying to bring in some more firepower.

14626366469_6123008bbc_zWe arrived at the stadium just in time to see Newcastle fall behind to Malaga in the first game.  I’d been to the Veltins Arena a few times before – yet never seen the home side play.  Tickets are incredibly difficult to come by so I had been forced to experience one of the best new build stadiums in Europe during the Champions League Final in 2004 and then in the 2006 World Cup Finals.  However, it seems that the locals weren’t particularly interested in the Veltins Cup either.  A handful of Malaga fans, a smattering of Schalke fans on the huge terrace and in the far upper corner, around 500 Newcastle fans who were already realising in the same way the West Ham fans had, that this Premier League season may be “problematic”.

After the third Malaga goal went in just before half-time (The Daily Mail summed it up by saying that “even” ex-Man Utd flop Obertan got on the score sheet) a few of us headed out of the stadium to where a few hundred West Ham fans were drinking.  Few seemed particularly interested in the game, here for a weekend away and experiencing a more “grown up” footballing experience (terracing, beer, sausages and no heavy-handed policing or stewards).

14629751869_7ab7ceb2d5_zWest Ham lined up with three up front, although you can hardly ever call Stewart Downing, with four goals to his name in the last four seasons.  Carlton Cole, maligned by many outside of the club (and some inside it), was also in the starting XI.  You know where you stand with Carlton and if we had players with the same work ethic we would have a lot less to worry about.  But it mattered very little.  The game was tame, with Schalke coming the closest to breaking the deadlock when they hit the post twice.  The five hundred or so West Ham fans spread out across SudTribune tried to rally the Hammers but it seemed penalties were inevitable.

Fortunately, 39 year old Jaaskerlainen was still awake and made two excellent saves in the shoot-out, the final one from Borgmann in sudden death to win the game for West Ham, meaning the game 24 hours later against Malaga would determine the first ever winners of the Veltins Cups.

The night was young for us.  We were one of the last groups to leave the stadium, getting our full money’s worth of Veltins beer before heading to the bright lights of Dortmund.  It was only a pre-season friendly, but it did give us a taste of how the other half, well top seven Premier League clubs, live.  It’s only August.  Who knows, this year could be our year….please?

The greatest day of the football season


7957317982_f2ce831010_bFor all the commercialisation of our beautiful game, there is still something magical about the FA Cup Third Round weekend. Whilst the FA have done all they can to milk the competition dry with selling off the competition naming rights, auctioning off the TV rights and moving the semi-finals to Wembley, it is one weekend in the footballing calendar that still belongs to the fans. Every lower league club starts the season with the hope that this will be their year when they make the Third Round and draw one of the big boys, setting themselves financially up for years to come. Never has the feeling of disappointment hit so hard when you get knocked out of the cup “too early”. In my official role at Lewes I felt that pain only too sharply when fellow Ryman Premier League Hendon knocked us out this year, then went on a run to the First Round. They managed to knock out two Blue Square Bet teams before losing away at Aldershot Town, playing three divisions higher, earning some decent money along the way.

Unfortunately, giant killings have been diluted over the last few years as even mediocre nPower Championship sides have put weakened teams out in the FA Cup, preferring to concentrating on finishing in tenth place in the second tier of English football, than risking anything on the FA Cup.  Consequently, when they lose, the manager will trot out a line about “wanting to concentrate on the league anyway” as mitigation to the embarrassed fans. But there is still some magic drifting in the air this year. Continue reading

Swansea silence the Sports Direct Arena at St James Park


Christmas shopping?  Not on your nelly…Abi Davies boarded the Swansea fun bus and headed as far north as you can in the Premier League with a visit to the St James, errr Sports Direct Arena.

Swansea City made the long journey North on Saturday in the midst of a busy Christmas period looking to capitalise on Newcastle’s current poor form which sees them without a win in their last 4 fixtures, in order to record their first away victory of the campaign.

Alan Pardew’s much depleted back line has left him with little resources at his disposal over recent weeks so it would have come as much relief that he had both Coloccini and Williamson back to bolster Newcastle’s defence.

Swansea had Joe Allen available again after the midfielder sat out last weekend’s victory over Fulham due to a one match suspension. He returned to the starting line up in place of Luke Moore who may have felt aggrieved to have to settle for a place amongst the substitutes given the magnitude of his performances in Swansea’s last two fixtures.

The only other change made by Brendan Rodgers saw Danny Graham restored to the starting XI to make his 250th career league appearance in place of Leroy Lita who has also delivered outstanding performances of late, looking hungry and eager in front of goal. Continue reading

My first game – Michael Hudson


Many thanks to Historical Kits for picture

Newcastle United 0 Coventry City 1
St. James’ Park
April 17th 1985
Attendance: 19,577

I had just turned nine years old, it was a sunny, end-of-season Wednesday evening, and Newcastle United were playing at home to Coventry City. It was the day that Manchester United beat Liverpool to reach the final of the FA Cup, exactly a week before Everton made the Cup Winners Cup Final, and just under a month until Heysel and the Bradford Fire. Not that I knew any of this at the time. Besides, I had enough to think about just trying to stay upright on a concrete crash-barrier.

We arrived before kick-off, climbing the zig-zag steps up from outside The Strawberry Pub, the doors of which men would famously topple out of five minutes before the game began. There was the smell of cooking hops and barley from the brewery next door, mixed in with open-air urinals, cigarette smoke, watery onions, eggy farts and beer breath. We found a place under the Gallowgate scoreboard, halfway up the open terrace, a little to the left of the goal. Continue reading