The first game of a new season is always a special one in any football fan’s calendar. When you haven’t seen your team play competitively for nearly eighteen months having missed both their promotion and subsequent relegation from the Premier League during that period, having to wait another 24 hours for a 1.30pm kick off on a Sunday feels like a low blow. I suppose we should be thankful that at least we didn’t have to travel down from Teesside for that same kick-off time.
Arriving into Hammersmith the vast majority of fans were robbed of undoubtedly the greatest walk to any football ground in the country by London transport and its “planned engineering works” rendering the district line and subsequently Putney Bridge useless on this wet and windy Sunday morning. The lunch time kick-off gave even the keenest of drinkers minimal time to consume the adequate amount needed to face the prospect of having to play Neil Warnock on the opening day especially when discovering the majority of local pubs weren’t due to open until noon.
My associate on this Sunday an Arsenal fan so disillusioned with life at the Emirates he was hoping a trip to the Cottage would jump start his love for the game prior to their season opener against Brentford next week. Sporting a Black and White Rage against the machine shirt in an effort to fit the colour scheme the irony that the vast majority of Fulham fans would be Arsenal supporters next week wasn’t lost on me. The pre match meal was a time appropriate fried breakfast on the Fulham Palace Road. The torrential rain only seemed to worsen as we swapped the café for a pub and didn’t relent during the albeit less scenic route to the stadium until the turnstiles were almost in sight.
The season tickets having arrived with barely a day to spare actually worked first time on the turnstiles granting access to the rear of the Hammersmith End and shelter from the now thinning rainfall. The hustle and bustle of the concourse was a sight for sore eyes and the chance for one final beer stood by the river with a close up view of the new Riverside stand was an opportunity not to be missed. My designated seats in H5 were adorned with the infamous clappers on arrival but even ten minutes prior to kick off it was clear to all that they wouldn’t be required to create a raucous atmosphere. The sight of away fans crammed into the Putney end coupled with being shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers signalled that football for the fans was finally back.
Fulham’s line up sprung a few surprises with the game coming too soon for Marek Rodak, so Paulo Gazzaniga continued in goal. Antonee Robinson seems to have edged out Joe Bryan at left back while clearly Tim Ream is being given a chance to bring some experience to a young backline. That youth theme continued through the midfield with the likes of Reed, Anguissa and Cairney all absent while Wilson and Kebano were selected to support Mitrovic in attack.
My reservations around Robinson and Gazzaniga certainly didn’t dissipate when in the first ten minutes the former nearly managed to wrongfoot his own goalkeeper with a backpass leaving half the Hammersmith End with hearts in mouths. Middlesbrough, whose new shirt looked like a nineties throwback to the Ravanelli era offered very little going forward, although despite the statistics showing we registered a total of 16 shots, I don’t remember us creating all that much either.
Wilson’s goal on the half hour mark was certainly the highlight and hopefully signs of things to come from the Welshman. Mitrovic again suffered from any sort of real service and for all his shortcomings defensively Robinson offered very little going forward. The stark contrast between our left and right side in terms of quality was there for all to see.
What was refreshing was Fulham taking the occasional long goal kick. We all want beautiful passing football but over complicating things from the back seemed to become our trademark under Parker. It was nice to get to half time with a lead intact and some sense of optimism among the crowd. Led Zeppelin’s – (Rock and roll) blasting out “It’s been a long time” said what we were all feeling.
The second half was a familiar story in terms of us enjoying possession without ever really threatening to kill the game off or carve out any meaningful chances. With the exception of a Kebano header straight at him I don’t remember Lumley ever having to make a save in anger.
The beauty of sitting in the Hammersmith End always comes in the second half with the anticipation of every attack unanimously lifting fans to their feet as we enter the final third. The counter balance to this is the complete and utter helplessness and disconnect you feel as the opposition attacks the other end. Something so far away seems so out of your control you can only hope the back four and keeper can perform their duties without having you in earshot to offer your uninformed advice and guidance. Predictably Middlesbrough scored with their only chance and as is the nature of being directly opposite the away fans we had a perfect view of their sickening ecstasy. There may still have been fifteen minutes to go but it never felt like we would be capable of creating that second goal. The introduction of Kamara left me wondering how is he still here and why we desperately need that second striker for the remainder of the season.
A second half downpour ceased just as the final whistle blew. The long forgotten halftime optimism had been dampened by our inability to hold on to a lead but at least we could now look forward to a dry walk home. Clearly Silva will be given time to build and to judge a man on a team missing so many key players would be harsh but equally it did feel that being back at the Cottage amongst friends somewhat papered over the cracks on a fairly average performance. Whether the combination of being in a stadium full of fans and seeing Luis Boa Morte in the flesh was enough to rekindle my Arsenal supporting acquaintance’s love for the game remains to be seen but his pre-match bet on Wilson as first goalscorer and a 1-1 draw couldn’t have hurt.
Here’s looking forward to a Saturday three o’clock kick-off when the District line and pubs are open but the Heavens are not.
I’m a Boro fan but I much enjoyed this well written and accurate piece. It captures, first of all, the complications in getting to the ground with such a lot of TFL shutdowns, and secondly a match which Fulham might have won – and it would not have been undeserved – three or four nil but almost lost 2-1. Boro’s challenge, as it was last season, will not be defying defeat against good teams like Fulham, but winning games against the lesser but obdurate teams which also play and can invariably defend Warnock’s unsophisticated tactics.