It was a poor game and one any discerning soccer enthusiast would surely rather forget. For once the BBC’s seemingly invariable editorial policy of showing any game involving Fulham and a Premier league team other than the ‘top four’, last or next to last on Match of the Day seemed wholly justified. Not that the BBC’s screening of selected incidents from the game, which lasted barely four minutes and went totally without comment, gave any impression of what us fortunate few Fulham supporters actually present saw and suffered.
True to our expectations, Stoke endeavoured to play to their physical strengths. All the ploys we anticipated were there, including: Delap’s exceptionally long, low trajectory, throws; lots of crosses unsuccessfully directed towards the far-post for the elongated expectant Crouch; and a general endeavour to boss the play in a manner appropriate to their abundance of large and combative players. Fulham’s response was also as expected, with the team for the most part retaining their shape, whilst not so successfully attempting to build a passing game. Only the referee Martin Atkinson acted throughout contrary to stereotype, appearing to be in his rare ‘consistent permissive mode’, (last seen in our cup game last year against Bolton Wanderers.) So as in the Bolton game it was again open season on Bobby Zamora, who was persistently clambered over whilst off-the-ball.
In the end Stoke got fortunate and Fulham fairly late on paid dearly for errors by conceding two goals. (The first goal came seconds after the injured Danny Murphy was subbed, when the area he would have marked was left uncovered.) From this game it is difficult to cite specific positives, though I would mention that the re-united central defender pairing of Hughes and Hangeland worked very well despite a severe testing. Also that Andrew Johnson never stopped chasing and harrying, to the continual disquiet of the Stoke defence. His acceleration and his reaction time now seem quicker than ever.
My abiding impression from the game was of the regrettable conduct of many most vocal Stoke fans who jeered Danny Murphy. He was loudly booed whenever he came into possession of the ball, and subjected to abusive chanting throughout the game. I understand the purported justification for the heated animosity displayed towards the Fulham captain throughout this game was the articles he wrote about a year ago, in which he put forward a reasoned and justifiable critique of teams, including Stoke, who at that time over-relied on physical aggression in their play.
The targeting of any player for abuse can never be justified whatever the perceived circumstances. The selection of Danny Murphy as a hate figure seems particularly perverse given that he personifies intelligence in football, both in the manner he plays with his focus on constructive passing and creative control, and from his perceptive comments on the game. As we always have at Fulham, players with such rare qualities should be cherished.
I spoke with Danny after the game. (It was very good of him to talk to me as he was then in process of applying two large ice packs to the knocks he had received, and was clearly still in some considerable discomfort.) I asked him whether he was, as has been rumoured, The Secret Footballer who writes a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper and who expressed similar views and the time. “I’m not the Secret Footballer” replied Danny. “I wouldn’t write anonymously. Anything I want to say goes out in my name………I think that is important.” Whilst we were speaking the atavistic faces of two Stoke (so called) fans appeared pressed up against the other side of the plate glass window, looking in and mouthing obscenities at Danny. This was a graphic reminder that not only is it important to be prepared to speak out and to be attributed for honest and intelligent opinions, but also that in soccer this can be a brave principal to live by. Sometimes our “beautiful game” has very ugly faces.