I was somewhere around Stevenage Road at the ridiculously early time of 1.25pm on Saturday when the anticipation began to take hold. The clean slate of a new season coupled with the fact I hadn’t seen a live game in eighteen months had led me to grossly overestimating my time of arrival.
With the exception of programme sellers setting up shop and a few souls clearly as desperate as me to return to a place that inadvertently causes us such pain and suffering, the outside of the stadium remained deserted.
I attempted to waste time with the obligatory purchase of a new home shirt, size small in a bid to stave off any weight gain throughout the season but achieving this feat within a few minutes left me with a good ninety more before a ball would be kicked in anger.
Glancing towards the Cottage gates Charlton had just arrived on their coach with plenty of time to spare. I decided to join the handful of fans eagerly awaiting the home team but gave up after forty minutes as the overcast skies finally delivered on what they had been threatening for a while and hosed it down, with little sign of Marco Silva’s arrival.
This seemed an appropriate moment to slip through the turnstiles and source refreshments before adjourning to my seat for a read of the programme. Just as I am informed that Cottage pies are not available today the paper bag containing my new home shirt perishes from its exposure to the downpour and dumps the pristine white on the dirty floor. I hope this is not an omen for the season ahead and seek solace in my second choice pastry… a Chicken Balti.
The decision to sit in the Johnny Haynes stand is a treat only for pre-season. I suspect I’m one of many displaced fans today finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. The opportunity to view a match side on rather than from behind a goal feels a little strange with the only familiarity being the cold black plastic of the seat having not risked splinters by pitching further back on the wooden ones. I sit a perfectly measured distance to get a smell of the turf and manicured bowling green with the added bonus of shelter above from the elements.
The announcement of a delayed kick-off from 3 to 4pm was to be expected given the coach’s no show earlier on. This allowed more time to appreciate the progress made on the new towering Riverside stand. Much of the seating and structure now in place, it occurred that glimpses of the river through the glass on the lower tier may soon be the only way the Thames can be seen from inside the stadium. As the corners are gradually filled in those of us in the Hammersmith end will no longer be able to seek comfort staring at passing rowers on those days when things aren’t going so well on the pitch. The only thing steeper than the Riverside stand in fact is the £3 I was charged for a Diet Coke (minus the lid) .. Oh how we missed this.
The rain ceased as we crept closer to the revised kick off. Fulham’s line up offered a blend of familiar faces, young prospects and players who we all fully expect not to be here for much longer. In Fabio Carvalho and Tyrese Francois we see glimpses of the riches that exist within our under utilised youth system while the likes of Tim Ream and Anthony Knockaert may again get the chance to prove their worth having been previously discarded. New signing Paulo Gazzaniga in goal gave us two “man buns” in the back line, something that inspired about as much confidence as Gabor Kiraly’s tracksuit trousers.
Aside from the only goal of the game which came courtesy of beautiful combination from Francois and Carvalho around the 30 minute mark, the highlight of the first half was the enthusiasm and banter brought by Charlton’s travelling band of fans, approximately three hundred of whom had made the trip. Naturally the atmosphere was flatter than usual, lone voices trumping anything in the way of a collective sing-a-long. Some would argue that many in attendance were as plastic as the coverings adorning the new seating in the Riverside stand. A point best illustrated by the number of people committing the cardinal sin of trying to drink alcohol at their seat. Something that would suggest they are not perhaps regular attendees but rather there for a nice day out. The inevitable “This is a library” and “We forgot that you were here” seemed fully justified although I will take my hat off and say that “Your ground’s too big for you” was particularly inspired. I draw a line at “Your just a bus stop in Chelsea” though as any cartophile will know Chelsea is very much a club IN Fulham.
To say the performance was a breath of fresh air from last season would be a stretch. Fulham certainly looked lively at times, neat passing from the back but as usual our crossing ability and cutting edge in the final third was predictably woeful. A season at Nottingham Forest has done little to dampen Anthony Knockaert’s enthusiasm but if he had been half as good as the digger currently situated between the Hammersmith and Riverside stands at burying things then Fulham’s advantage would have been much more commanding
Although Charlton gave a good account of themselves, Gazzaniga didn’t really have a save to make. Mitrovic certainly looked leaner than last season, but struggled to splutter out of first gear. The obligatory “Mitro’s on fire” was sung to inspire him, but the man himself barely got warm.
Fulham were in control for most of the second half without really ever exciting. The final twenty minutes were littered with substitutions and, with ten to go, Silva sent on Bryan and Mawson for Robinson and Ream leaving my preferred back four to play out time. I wouldn’t expect that to be the case against Middlesbrough, with Mawson’s previous fitness injury, but Robinson’s defensive shortcomings should at least bring Bryan into the conversation.
Predictably the game was over bang on the ninety minutes. The advantage of the Johnny Haynes Stand is the swift exit in to Stevenage Road, providing a prompt arrival at my dinner engagement despite the delay to kick off. It certainly wasn’t a game that will live long in the memory, an appetiser for what is to follow next week but one welcomed with open arms by fans who have been desperately hungry for a taste of seeing Fulham in the flesh once again.
Here’s to another season of dreaming #COYW