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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Seagulls brought down to earth by busy Boro


This week has once again seen the cost of watching the beautiful game hit the headlines with the release of the BBC’s annual cost of watching football survey.  Like last year (and the years before that) the results of the survey simply proved a platform of out-of-touch politicians to bleat about how unfair it was on the average fan and their family whilst not actually having the balls to do something about it.  Football clubs on the most part hid in a corner, not prepared to justify the true reasons behind the rise in the whole matchday experience.

The situation wasn’t helped by the comments of rent-a-gob Robbie Savage who added fuel to the flames by saying that “To be completely honest, during my 20-year playing career, I never once thought about how much it was costing fans to go to game”.  Why did he think that would be a good thing to say?  Why not just keep his mouth shut.  Comments like this just make him look even more out of touch.  His frequent responses on Radio5Live’s 606 to fans phoning in of “have you played the game?” to try and put down people’s valid opinions have simply added to the irritant factor that he developed as a player.  In all of the years I have been watching football I have never found anyone who has a good word about Savage.

The main reaction to the results for the English clubs was to compare it to watching football in Europe.  The BBC somehow managed to concoct a figure that 1,000 (an amazingly exact figure) watch Borussia Dortmund at every home game.  How on earth do they know that?  Having been a relatively regular visitor to the Bundesliga, you rarely hear an English voice.  With demand for Dortmund and Bayern Munich far outstripping supply, where these 1,000 tickets come from is still a mystery. Likewise, the mythical sub £100 season tickets are on available to those on a long waiting list.  Of course there are some English-based fans who do own season tickets with overseas clubs and make frequent trips overseas, but these are in the minority.

Arsenal came out of the survey poorly, once again, with their cheapest season ticket the most expensive in British football three-times more expensive than Premier League Champions Manchester City.  In their AGM, held just 24 hours after the result of the survey were released, the club tried to justify that paying over £1,000 for a season ticket or £97 for a seat was value for money.  After all, they did beat Wigan Athletic and Hull City in the FA Cup last season.  According to the survey, you can buy a ticket for West Ham for £20.  That is correct.  For the Leicester City game only.  For seven other games in the Premier League this season that same seat would cost between £50 and £60.

Nowadays my viewing pleasure is almost exclusively restricted to the Non-League game…and European matches.  But today I would be making a rare excursion in the SkyBet Championship.  According to the survey, a trip to watch Brighton & Hove Albion is the most expensive in the whole Football League, and five pounds more than a trip to Upton Park.  Exactly. That’s why some of the results of the survey cannot be taken on face value, a comment echoed in the match day programme by CEO Paul Barber.  What you cannot fault The Seagulls for though is the imagination they put into their match day catering.  For this game we had the choice of a Sausage with Cheezy Beans Pie and a pint of Hobgoblin.  Take that Pukka and Fosters!

IMG_3534Every couple of weeks I drive past the monument to the Seagulls on my way to The Dripping Pan. The Amex is one of the best new stadiums built in this country in the last fifty years.  A bold statement but one backed up by the views of the fans who flock there every two weeks. In the first season the “sold out” signs were a frequent occurance leading to the club increasing the capacity by adding an additional tier on the East Stand leading to the club having the highest average attendance in the Championship for the last two years.  Part of the reason for the growth has been the expectations set on the pitch – two consecutive appearances in the Play-offs have been bitter-sweet rewards for the fans who have experienced the pain of defeat and the subsequent loss of their manager.

The club will have looked on enviously as Leicester City, Burnley, Hull City and especially bitter rivals Crystal Palace move up into the land of milk and honey.  With the new TV deal in place for the lucky twenty clubs in the Premier League, The Seagulls acted quickly in the summer to bring in a manager with top league experience, recruiting ex-Bayer Leverkusen manager Sami Hyypiä.  Results haven’t so far been stellar, with four draws in their eleven league games so far.  Depending on how you look at results, they came into the game against Middlesbrough on a five game unbeaten run, including a win in the League Cup that has taken them into the last sixteen and a game against Spurs, or they had only won once in the last eight.  Football, eh!

The visitors also had their eye on the Premier League, having endured the last six seasons in the Championship and dispensed with the services of club legend Tony Mowbray last year, replacing him with Spaniard Aitor Karanka.  So far, so good this season as Boro’ arrived in East Sussex just one point of top spot.  Had a score draw written all over it.

Brighton & Hove Albion 1 Middlesbrough 2- The Amex – Saturday 18th October 2014
Despite the late, last-gasp rally by The Seagulls they were clearly the second best team on display at The Amex despite what the stats say.  Brighton had 62% of the possession and sixteen shots on target yet it Boro’ keeper Konstantopoulos hardly got his gloves dirty as the the visitors defence held firm and threw themselves at everything heading their way.

The visitors, starting the game with just one up front, could have possibly been down to ten men in the first fifteen seconds when George Friend’s “welcome” to Brighton’s Teixeira was late and high.  Ref Andy D’Urso (remember him?  The stress of refereeing has turned him grey) elected not to play the advantage despite Teixeira’s pass having sent one of his colleagues free on goal.  D’Urso adopted the “well, it’s early in the game” rule meaning Friend escaped any censorship at all.  Fifteen minutes he finally went in the book after another “robust” challenge.  Teixeira would only go on to last half an hour.

The visitors took the lead in the 7th minute when a well-worked move saw Tomlin sweep the ball high into the Seagulls net after Brighton had failed to clear any danger.  Whilst Albion huffed and puffed around the edge of the box they lacked the cutting edge that put the Boro goal under pressure.  The half-time break couldn’t have come quick enough for Hyypiä, nor by the look of the queue for beer on the concourse the vast majority of the Seagulls fans.DCIM100GOPROHyypiä made a change at half-time and for the first few minutes they played with some pace, but then in the 52nd minute they were undonw by a Middlesbrough counter-attack and when the ball was played into the danger area Adomah reacted quickest.  Although his first effort was well saved down at the near post, he Boro’ forward was on hand to squeeze the rebound home from a tight angle.  Two-nil and it appeared game over.

With just ten points separating the promotion from relegation positions in the Championship, teams can move up and down the table quickly and the in-play score saw Middlesbrough heading to the summit whilst Brighton headed towards the League One trap door.  Some fans around us high in the West Stand started to vent their frustration and headed for the exits…although in truth they were really going to the bar and would watch the rest of the game on the TV screens.  There’s almost 3/4th of the season to play for – plenty of time for things to go right (or wrong).

A late spell of pressure on the Boro’ goal resulted in Greer heading home after a spell of aerial pinball to give Albion hope but even with five added minutes to play they never really looked, or in truth, deserved an equaliser against a very well marshalled Middlesbrough team.

To relate back to the BBC survey – had we had value for money?  Absolutely.  Whilst the cold, hard stats suggest The Amex is not the cheapest place to visit, it certainly is one of the best in the Football League and certainly a favourite among away fans, especially when they don’t have to work too hard to come away with three points.

F in Fulham


“Let’s all laugh at Fulham” was one song I thought I’d never hear in England (apart from at Loftus Road) but it seems that the Cottagers are quickly becoming the butt of jokes due to the going’s on at Craven Cottage.  Our roving reporter, Mike Miles, took the short trip to West London last week to see what was going on.

Fulham 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 – Craven Cottage – Saturday 20th August 2014
Craven Cottage is only a 40-minute walk alongside the Thames from my Chiswick home, and for that reason alone has long been one of my favourite grounds to visit. Fulham were the last team to have standing accommodation in the Premier League, as Craven Cottage included terraces as late as the 2001/02 season-eight years after the Taylor Report outlawed terraces at that level. I have a fond memory of seeing Freddie Kanoute score a winner for West Ham whilst standing at the Putney End.

8431476952_3bbe5b4b42_zAs with terracing, the statue of Michael Jackson, like its subject, is alas no longer with us. The original Craven Cottage site was covered in woodlands, and allegedly, one plane tree survives today in a corner of the Putney End, the sole tree to be found in any senior British senior football stadium. Not the least of Craven Cottage’s continuing charms is the Johnny Haynes Stand. This wonderful structure is the oldest remaining football stand in the Football League, originally built in 1905 , designed by Archibald Leitch,  and is even a Grade 11 listed building. It even features the original wooden seating. You may not be as comfortable as in say The Emirates, but you are sitting on history.

Alas the current team show no signs of matching their historical surroundings. Pointless and ponderous, this is not how the season was meant to begin for Fulham. The club that slipped out of the Premier League in May are now joint bottom of the Championship after three matches, the latest defeat inflicted by an accomplished Wolves side who secured victory thanks to Bakary Sako’s early effort.

A penny for the thoughts of Shahid Khan the Fulham owner who was making one of his infrequent visits to the Cottage. It has been a summer of upheaval at the Cottage – skipper Scott Parker was the only player to start here who featured on the day Fulham were relegated at Stoke – and the results so far have been disappointing. £11 million was spent on Ross McCormack, but he was a pale imitation of the striker who had scored 29 goals for Leeds United last season.

There were some glimpses of quality but the new players and many youngsters have yet to gel. This division is no place for rookies to learn their game. In the end, Sako’s goal was enough but Fulham were in more danger of conceding again than scoring an equaliser, surviving a late penalty miss from Sako who hit the post in injury time.

Predictable cries of “Felix Out” (Fulham fans are a very polite lot) greeted the final whistle. And though I would willingly make that 40-minute walk to the Cottage again, I have a feeling it will be to see a Fulham team playing under yet another manager. Since Roy Hodgson took the Cottagers to the Europa Cup Final in 2010 they have had four managers, including three in 2013/14 alone, and the cumulative effect of all this chopping and changing was relegation to the Championship. Based on tonight’s abject performance they could be taking a similar downward trajectory to that once experienced by tonight’s visitors.