Writing the article that has been in my head for the last eight months is proving quite difficult. After a season of consistent and ever more discombobulating failure the appropriate way to sum it all up has somewhat escaped my grasp. Instead I will tell my story from last Saturday.
Unable to be at the Britannia Stadium for our capitulation to Mark Hughes’ annoyingly not awful Stoke side, news of our insipid performance (apt given the trend of our season) percolated through to me 900 miles away on the streets of Nice in south west France.
In the company of 12 of my best friends in the world, I had spent the better part of Saturday afternoon watching Toulon play Stade Francais in Top 14 rugby action as the centrepiece of my own stag weekend at OGC Nice’s spectacular new stadium the Allianz Riviera [built in preparation for France 2016]. The fervent atmosphere aside, the match was notable for the palpations suffered by one of my groomsmen, a Birmingham City supporter who heard his team go 2-0 down to Bolton only to then survive in the Championship against all odds via a 93rd minute equaliser.
As news of his relief swept through our party, the grim reality of Fulham’s impending doom crept up on me. Fortunately there was enough distraction from events in Staffordshire in the short term.
Once the match was over and we began our passage back to Nice city centre, phones were checked with the benefit of restored 3G service and the news was not good. The searing high of the afternoon’s erstwhile action we had witnessed ourselves was slowly making way to a gathering darkness.
As the journey wore on news took a turn for the worse. Sunderland were winning at Old Trafford while Stoke were enjoying themselves to an ever increasing degree. As we disembarked our bus, news of Sunderland remained silent. They must still hold the lead against Manchester United. Worse still Fulham were at it again playing their prized role as a meek cat rolling over and accepting defeat, goal after goal serving nothing but to provide emphasis to the full stop on our Premier League career.
Finally, in the shadow of deserted French streets, twitter refreshed for that final time. Fulham were relegated. For the first time ever we had to say goodbye to the Premier League.
At this point I was hit with a wave of sadness. The melancholy of reality hit me. A silent hug from a friend and nod of genuine remorse from another. This is not a feeling anyone wants to have, and not something one wishes on his friends.
At this point practicality set in, we crossed the street into a handily located Carrefour convenience store, bought a bag of chocolate chip brioche, and used baked goods as a way to eat away my sadness.
After a few pity-laden bites a fresh emotion washed over me. And then another. And another. Relief, excitement, intrigue. At last a year of discontent and endless worrying what if was over. Where there had been false hope or no hope there was now something. If not hope itself, there was a new feeling of possibility. The condemnation of relegation finally released the shackles of negativity that have entombed the rhetoric of this season. Exaltation for the future set itself upon me.
If there was any place I’d have wanted to be when Fulham were relegated, it would have been surrounded by my friends (knowledgeable football fans in their own right) in a place full of ample distraction. There is great honour in being one of the near 3,000 who travelled to Stoke and those fans deserve respect and thanks, but that feeling of hopelessness as our team give them no reason to believe must have been awful. We all deserved more from this Fulham team, but they deserve medals. Many of those at the Britannia will have also been at our 6-0 loss to Hull.
The performances of this team have not instilled any pride or honour, instead that feeling in the pit of the stomach has become an overwhelming desire for the ground to swallow you whole. Tell me the Championship might not be a better experience as long as we don’t get worse.
Spending the days following our relegation discussing Fulham’s downfall ad infinitum was catharsis in action. There is plenty to still smile about as a Fulham fan. Only by smashing all the bricks to the floor can you see which ones you need to rebuild. Our house is now at that point where the bricks must fall and only those that will build us back stronger can remain.
There is time to hypothesise what that might mean in practice. For whom should the metaphorical axeman cometh? After a year of attempting to mask the catalogue of problems with haphazard incremental manoeuvres, Fulham must embolden real change both on and off the field. For now though, we can look at next season as a new horizon. We have an academy glowing with praise and littered with talent. Whilst it may take until a cold midweek night in Huddersfield for the grim reality of relegation to really settle in, I for one am genuinely delighted to have my season ticket already renewed. Craven Cottage may even become a fortress again.
Of course there are no guarantees in the Championship save for the fact that we will be the prized horse with a target strapped to our backs. Football is a game of what have you done for me lately. When we visit the likes of Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday next season it won’t matter who’s trophy room has what in it. We must play our role as the Premiership club in temporary exile, it would be all too easy to become the Football League club that lives in the past.
Hopefully though, brick by brick, Fulham will be rebuilt stronger than ever. With our house soon to be cleaned and our prized future stars let loose on the Football League there is every reason to anticipate August with a smile, not a frown.
On Sunday, let’s celebrate what Fulham have achieved over the last 13 years. Let’s show the team we will be there for them on the way back up even if some of them will hopefully not be. For his part, I hope Felix Magath has the sense to use Sunday as an opportunity to signal the start of a new era. One of youthful intent and positivity.
The first book on Fulham’s Premier League history is about to finish its final chapter. Let’s hope the club now takes us on a journey to write the next one.