It was springtime, and my wonderful wife and I were vacationing in London. We'd never had the pleasure before, so we were bound and determined to do and experience everything we could in our short, four-day stay. We had a great time doing all of the standard tourist activities, like getting completely confounded by the tube station maps, eating mushy fish and chips at the Tower of London, hopping on and off the Big Red Bus tours, and ogling the sights in Piccadilly Circus.
Several months earlier, when we found out we were going to be heading across the pond, I had asked my wife to search online for a football match in London on Saturday, our last full day there. After some browsing, she informed me that it looked like the only Premiership club playing nearby that day was Fulham. With a sigh, I said okay, I guessed it would do, although I had hoped for better.
The date of the match was May 8th, 2008.
To be honest, I didn't know all that much about the club back then, good or bad. In 2008 we could only see one or two matches on television each Saturday here in the States, and most of the bandwidth was taken up by the two Manchesters, Liverpool, Arsenal, that other SW London team in blue, and a handful of others. I might have seen Fulham twice that year when they played one of the bigger teams, but that was it. Also, still being honest, I'd been a little pissed off at the club earlier since they had stolen one of my favorite players of all time, Brian McBride, from my very own Columbus Crew. But the prospect of seeing McBride in action again was a huge bonus, and we rightly figured it was our only shot at watching two Premiership clubs battle it out. And anyway, the Fulham roster was so chock full of American players that it was almost like watching the USA Men's National team in action. It was, indeed, Fulamerica.
We couldn't get Fulham's online ticket system to work correctly from the States, so I ended up calling the booking office directly. I instructed them that we were looking forward to an awesome Craven Cottage experience, meaning a great view of the pitch, a roof over our heads, and no structural poles to block our view. The exchange rate at the time was not favorable for American dollars, so I think we paid around $80.00 or $90.00 (£45) for each one. The nice gentleman on the other end of a remarkably clear line assured me that they were wonderful seats, and that we wouldn't be disappointed. I passed over my credit card number, and the deal was done.
The day of the match came, and my wife and I gamely set out. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warmer than we thought possible for London that time of the year. We knew enough to get off at the Putney Bridge tube station, but after that we simply followed the mass of people moving along the Thames, hoping we were headed in the right direction. The crowd grew as we went, and as we got closer they began singing songs and having a merry old time. The atmosphere was fun, loud, and boisterous, which was likely fueled in part by pre-match pints at the local pubs. We kept strolling along the wide walkway, and before we knew it, there was Craven Cottage, tucked away in the middle of what looked like a quaint residential neighborhood. We hadn't been expecting that at all.
I had done a little more digging before the game that day, and had discovered what dire shape the club was in, and what this match with Birmingham City meant to the Fulham faithful: if the team lost, they would be relegated. If they won, they might still be relegated the following week at Portsmouth, depending on their result and the results of others. It was a desperate time, which you could sense in the brittle nerves and anxious laughs of anyone sporting white and black.
As we squeezed through the turnstiles and entered the Cottage grounds, we were handed a cardboard banner that read proudly "Come on, you whites!", which could also be folded up like an accordion and used as a noisemaker. We were a little early, so we made our way to the Riverside Stand and took our seats, numbers 32 and 33 of Block Z, Row D. And no, the seats weren't exactly as "wonderful" as our gentleman had promised, since we were all the way down near the travelling Birmingham City fans at the Putney End - but they weren't bad. We settled in as the rest of the faithful began to fill in around us. I think "London Calling" was playing over the loudspeakers, but I can't remember for sure. I do recall that I was wearing a white Columbus Crew T-shirt, on the off chance that McBride might spot a fellow Yank from his former team. And no, he never did.
The clubs made their way out of the Cottage and walked across the immaculate pitch and toward the Premier League banner. The starting elevens lined up, with Fulham in their traditional white and black kits, and Birmingham City in an eye-searing red. The Whites started out attacking the Putney End, and since our seats were almost even with the penalty spot down there, that suited me just fine. The whistle blew, and we were underway.
Looking back now, many of the names Fulham fielded that day will certainly be synonymous with success, such as Hangeland, Davies, Hughes, and Bullard. A select few, such as Dempsey, McBride, and Murphy, might even be revered as legends. Even the substitutes' bench was overflowing with talent with the likes of Bocanegra, Healy, and Nevland. I wish I had known then what I know now, that Roy and the core of this team would propel the Whites to some of their finest seasons in the Premiership, not to mention the Europa League thriller several years later.
The first 45 minutes simply flew by, and at the end of the first half the score was stubbornly stuck at 0-0. One young lady next to my wife just kept yelling, "Come on, you lads!!" over and over, and the crowd around us was up on their feet a dozen times. There were lots of groans and gasps as the match moved end to end with several chances, but nothing ended up in back of the net. I don't remember many specifics from that first half, except that the higher the clock ticked, the more nervous everyone around us became. But I'll tell you this - by the time the whistle blew at the end of the first 45 minutes, both my wife and I were hooked, completely and totally. We may have been the two newest Fulham fans at Craven Cottage that day, but we were screaming and shouting as loudly as any life-long veteran.
At halftime, we hurried behind the Riverside Stand and grabbed a bite to eat, and I bought a black and white Fulham scarf, which I still wear on match-days once in a while. I think of it as my lucky scarf, especially considering what happened in the next half.
When the referee got the game back underway, we were attacking the Hammersmith End. After only seven minutes, Fulham were awarded a free kick from outside the box. Jimmy Bullard stepped up to swing it in, and Brian McBride smashed a header into the left side of the net. I can't come up with enough adjectives to properly describe what happened at the Cottage then: it erupted, it exploded, it went completely bonkers. Every single fan jumped to their feet and were hugging and high-fiving anyone and everyone. I've never seen such passion, relief, and exhaustion, all at the same time.
Around the hour mark, Roy made his first substitution by swapping out Kamara for Erik Nevland. There were still 30 minutes to go, and it was an incredibly tense half-hour. Being up a single goal was not enough, not with the season Fulham had been having, and not against Birmingham City, who were also fighting for their Premiership life. Knuckles were chewed, breaths were held, and most fans decided that standing was the only option since their frayed nerves wouldn't permit them to sit.
And then, in the 87th minute, Nevland dribbled through their defense and somehow tucked the ball into the back of the net. Like before, the Cottage went crazy, especially now that we felt assured of all three points. We couldn't see the goal very well from our seats, but we didn't need to.
A few minutes later the final whistle blew, the match was over, and Fulham were just one step away from Premiership salvation. The crowd went nuts a third and final time. There may have been tears. While we waited to leave the Cottage, the Fulham players and their families came out onto the pitch to say their goodbyes and to thank the fans. I remember Hangeland, Bullard, McBride, and the rest of the squad holding their kids and waving to the applauding crowd. And to be honest, every one of them looked as relieved as we did that this rocky season was nearly over.
The rest, as they say, is history. My wife and I were back home for the final match against Portsmouth, and of course it wasn't on television in the States. But thanks to that Danny Murphy header, we were safe for another year.
My wife and I have said ever since then that our one match at Craven Cottage was our favorite part of the entire trip, and the most exciting sporting event we've ever witnessed in person. It had everything we could have hoped for: great goals, legendary players, a healthy dose of desperation, and a thrilling finish. What more could you want?
Which brings us to this season. During this International Break, we all know that Fulham are in a very tight spot, although not as dire as that time in 2008. With a few more wins, a little luck, and dedication by the players, I'm certain we'll survive this season in the Championship. Then comes the summer, and a chance for Slavisa to form a team more to his - and our - liking, one that can hopefully challenge for promotion next season.
And if that's the case, then my wife and I will have to consider another trip across the pond, this time to watch them earn promotion. And don't worry - I'll be sure to bring my lucky black and white Fulham scarf.