Saturday afternoon’s scoreline at Ashton Gate was disappointing. Fulham created enough chances to win a couple of games and Aleksandar Mitrovic had more shots than five Championship sides. But any lingering frustration paled into insignificance when you saw how the Whites celebrated the goal that the Serbian striker did score. As one, the visiting players ran to join Rhys Porter, the teenage supporter with cerebral palsy, whose response to horrid social media abuse has been so inspiring. It cemented the feeling that we follow a special football club.
I’ve wrestled with whether to write about this since I first read about Rhys’s story. It is immensely personal to me. This exceptionally brave and eloquent young man and I have the same disability. When I was very young, sport was an outlet for me to enjoy myself. School – and social situations in general – were particularly difficult. There were questions, mockery and bullying about the way I stood, walked and looked. My neighbours, knowing how much I loved football, took me to Craven Cottage. I was hooked immediately.
I soon discovered that one of the players, Micky Adams, had a brother with cerebral palsy. The first season that I really travelled to away games coincided with the magnificent year when Adams, now managing the side on a shoestring budget, guided Fulham to promotion from the Football League basement in his first full season in charge. ‘Micky Adams’ black and white army’ had an extra special meaning to me. I was accepted on the terraces, looked after by people who remain friends and, probably for the first time, I felt like I belonged.
In many ways, I count my blessings that I grew up before social media was a thing. Comments still come my way, both online and in person, but I’m strong enough to shrug them off with a smile these days. Hearing Rhys explain so impressively why he has redoubled his efforts to fundraise for Scope at Craven Cottage during the recent home game with Reading was remarkably inspiring. His passion is infectious and I am sure he will go on to great things.
Such a remarkable young man shouldn’t have to put up with the shameful comments and discrimination that he has. We all hope for better, but we know that society – and sport – remains troublingly unequal. But seeing the way Fulham embraced Rhys last week – inviting him to Motspur Park for a full day’s training, and putting him on the website as a first team goalkeeper, recognising the value of both his brilliant saves and his unstinting advocacy, was wonderful. That the players then took it upon themselves to give him another memory he won’t forget at Bristol City made me proud to follow Fulham.
Some of those friends I mentioned earlier encouraged me to put my thoughts about the matches down on paper. Their suggestions led to a journalistic career – and, indirectly, to the formation of this website as a forum for all things Fulham. As Fulham fans, we’ve come to terms with the fact that the result isn’t the be all and end all. It’s about the Cottage, a storied history, the camaraderie and enjoying the journey. Being able to be part of it together has never been more important.
Rhys’ own words are powerful. Inclusion matters. Hate won’t win. We are Fulham.
If you can donate to Rhys Porter’s Make It Count fund with Scope, I’d greatly appreciate it.