Stoke. It’s one of those fabled places in footballing lore. It’s not a particularly pleasant place to go at the best of times, but on a cold, damp, foggy December day there were plenty of other things I’d much rather have done. I made the trip up back in September for the League Cup game, which considering the scoreline and the injury to Moussa Dembélé, wasn’t one of the highlights of 2010 so I was loathe to return anyway, but following the quite frankly disastrous attempt to get to Liverpool on the 18th (and spending a total of 17 ½ hours on the coach – longer than it took to get to Hamburg in May) I was in a small state of flux. Do I… Don’t I…?
I did. Accompanied by Gatesy and his homemade brownies, I made it up there with no huge dramas other than a lack of coffee. The Britannia Stadium always strikes me as a reasonably sensible stadium. It’s a decent layout and I’ve been lucky enough to get decent seats whenever I go meaning I get a good view of the match which, as a short person, is always a bonus, plus they sell Mini Oreos. Top marks there. Nil points for the tea though, apparently.
I rarely check the starting line-up on the internets, preferring to watch the warm-up and play Guess Who. It’s much more entertaining, especially with the cold weather and the extra layers. Kagisho Dikgacoi clearly isn’t a fan of the English winters. It looked at those Etuhu was going to start which, if I’m honest, came as a bit of a surprise after his little whoopsy against West Ham and Sparky’s no-nonsense attitude to dropping players if they mess up. But what’s this? Chris Baird starting? At left back in place of Carlos Salcido? Crikey, we really do need to find some decent cover for that position don’t we? Oh well, it’s Stoke, it’s away from home, what do we really expect to take away from here? (Nothing bad about Bairdy, incidentally, I think he’s excellent but I do worry about players playing out of position)
A quarter of a tub of Mini Oreos later, the game kicks off. Then, all of a sudden, up the other end of the pitch, Baird strikes. There was a slight pause as the travelling fans stood up to work out whether or not the ball had gone in the net and then, all of sudden, a roar of realisation. We were leading after 4 minutes. That’ll never last, everyone thought. Then five minutes later, the referee awarded a free kick to Fulham just outside the area. Baird shoots, he scores. What a blinder. And we were leading by two goals. Away from home.
The next 35 minutes passed in a bit of a blur. The Stoke fans were baying for Murphy’s blood, there was clearly a lot of passion on the pitch and the referee made some interesting decisions. Half time came and went with no confirmation of any other half-time scores, and a slight mix-up on the music for the dance troupe waiting patiently in front of the dugouts. The second half was more of the same, only foggier. On more than one occasion I turned to Gatesy and told him I’d never go to Stoke again, such was the moaning and the booing from the fans. The Fulham faithful repeatedly craned their necks to check the time on the screen to the right of the stand. 30 minutes left…. 25 minutes left… The tension was unbearable and there were times I actually couldn’t watch what was happening on the pitch.
Then, with 85 minutes on the clock, the travelling fans start making their way to the front of the stands singing Christmas songs…. Oh no, hang on, the words are different. “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…. oh what fun it is to see Fulham win away”. Shirts come off and there was the most brilliant party atmosphere. In our end anyway – the other stands were emptying rapidly. The Fourth Official indicates a minimum of four – FOUR! – added minutes. That can’t be good, I thought, refusing to get too caught up in the festival in front of me. Then finally the ref blows his whistle. Relief. And we’d won. For the first time in 27 games, we’d scored 3 points away from home. What’s more, the goals were brilliant and we damn well deserved it.
There are times, mostly when I look at my frankly terrifying purchase history on fulhamfc.com, when I question why I follow Fulham away given our record. Then there are times such as on Tuesday when it all makes perfect sense.