I’ll level with you now. My appetite for writing about football, Fulham and – almost anything – diminished beyond compare as coronavirus gripped the country. I was in two minds over whether to write this, on account of it being much more emotional than the measured offerings we usually like to put before you. But, in the pained aftermath of Danny Fullbrook’s passing a few years ago, I promised that this site would endure in his memory, so here goes.
Football – and the resumption of a promotion push – seems rather trite when you consider the human cost of a pandemic that has challenged us all. Unfortunately, there are people who won’t celebrate another last-gasp win, savour another walk through Bishop’s Park or a gasp at one more piece of frankly Fulhamish defending. There are more who are still fighting the disease – or shielding in their homes to prevent themselves and others from catching it. The concept of heroes is overused in modern society (we are as guilty of it here when discussing the boys in black and white), but the sacrifices made by our carers, cleaners, nurses, doctors, surgeons, paramedics, ambulance staff, police officers, teachers and so many more key workers underline who the most deserving in society are. We should never forget the people who stepped up – and put themselves in harms way – when the rest of us stayed at home.
At its most prosaic, football – indeed, all organised sport – is something of a distraction from the stresses and strains of modern life. We are waited for its return patiently and there is still an argument about whether it is right to play now. Nobody knows whether there will be a second wave – when the culmination of a Championship season will seem a pretty silly thing to be bothered about – or even how long the virus will be with us. All we know is that life will be considerably different for sometime to come.
That means our experience as supporters will be an alien one probably well into next season. All our usual routines are indefinitely suspended. For me, that means that a Saturday will be sent in front of the television or the computer when I would have been at the ground. When it comes to a venue as unique as Craven Cottage, you will feel that sense of loss a little more acutely. We know there’s very little to match our own little piece of history – even though we’ll have to smile as the wags assert that there might be as much atmosphere tomorrow inside the ground as they would be with it full to capacity.
Football is more than just the ninety minutes, of course. For me, they’ll be no catching up with my group of mates at the Chancellors, just a Tom Cairney pass away from the Thames. I’m usually in there quite early to catch up with people I’ve not seen for a while, wondering what the line-up will be over a pint and a burger and chips. I won’t have the chance to say hello to David Lloyd in TOOFIF corner before heading into the Hammersmith End and hoping for three points. All your own pre-match rituals will be replaced by new ones for the weeks ahead.
Hopefully, everyone will stay safe and at home tomorrow, which will make for an eerie early kick-off as the Championship resumes. Nobody quite knows how things could pan out after such a prolonged break – it will probably make even one of Europe’s most unpredictable divisions susceptible to yet more unfathomable twists and turns. Scott Parker’s talked a good game in the lead-up, suggesting that his squad are as ready as they can be after a few weeks training, even if Cairney himself has admitted that Fulham’s margin for error should they wish to catch the top two is almost nil.
One of the things the Jokanovic side did brilliantly in that ridiculous run at the end of our last promotion season was not to look too far ahead. Right now that means focusing only on our next opponents. Brentford are an excellent side, who play lovely football, and have a potent forward line (Benrahma, Mbeumo and Watkins are a serious handful). They also hold something of an Indian sign over Fulham – having not lost at Craven Cottage since April 1990, some nine meetings. The Bees will arrive full of heart and having arrested an alarming blip that might have jeopardised their own promotion ambitions.
Despite the poor omens from recent history and an understandable nervousness about how a side who rarely hit top gear under Parker might shape up after such a lengthy lay-off, there are real reasons to be positive. Fulham appear a far sturdier defensive proposition than they were at the start of the season. Marek Rodak looks like one of the league’s leading goalkeepers having usurped Marcus Bettinelli as Fulham’s number one – a new contract is just reward for his outstanding displays – and Michael Hector has made an assured start since slotting in so impressively at centre back in January.
Fulham still possess the division’s most eye-catching playmaker in Cairney, whose timely equaliser at Bristol City reminded everybody of an eye for goal that is just as unerring as his ability to unlock the tightest of defences. Perhaps the trump card remains Aleksandar Mitrovic, who still appears far too good for this level. The Serbian has scored a league goal every 133 minutes – notching 23 times in his last 33 appearances, whilst being in a rich vein of form for his country as well. His ability to grab a goal from nowhere could prove vital when it comes to settling even contests.
Who knows what will happen tomorrow lunchtime? Fulham could do a derby day success to at least put some pressure on the top two, but achieving a rare victory over the Bees will be far easier said than done. Football might be back, but we should take a moment to remember all those who won’t be watching what they love.