The away match is something truly unique in football. Traveling to the lion's den of the opposition, vastly outnumbered by home supporters, a siege mentality sets in. Huddled in the worst part of the stadium with a select thousand of diehard supporters, the away match is football at its purest.
But on this March day in 2013 in North London, the match seems a bygone conclusion. For starters, Fulham are abysmal away from the confines of SW6. The Whites had just won two away matches all season by the time they travelled to White Hart Lane. But Fulham chose the right occasion to conjure up a performance for the ages.
The Spurs-Fulham match was positively dripping with subplots and tension. First off, Fulham manager Martin Jol was returning to the club he had managed for 3 years, and which had sacked him in acrimonious circumstances. Dimitar Berbatov was also facing his former club, who had given him his first chance in England. In addition, two former Fulham players were squaring up against their old employers, in the form of Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey. The close ties between the two sides meant there would be no love lost in the ensuing 90 minutes.
The match also had massive significance for Tottenham's Champions League hopes. After participating in the 2010/11 season, Spurs had failed to qualify in the following seasons. The 2012/13 season looked like a perfect opportunity for Tottenham to get back into Europe's premier competition, and they sat in 3rd position that afternoon. Yet their participation in the Europa League was beginning to take its toll on their league campaign. The preceding Thursday night Spurs had endured a brutal 120 minute match at the San Siro against Inter, and the fatigue would be evident on Sunday.
Fulham had entered the match on a decent run of form, unbeaten in their last three. Dimitar Berbatov had scored a wondrous volley two matches prior in a win over Stoke, and the languid Bulgarian was enjoying an impressive debut season. The Whites were comfortably mid table, and relegation was firmly out of the question.
Although Spurs had played a grueling midweek fixture and Fulham had the week off, I was still nervous making my way to the match. Tottenham possessed the best player in England, and perhaps in the world at that time, Gareth Bale. Bale had taken the league by storm that season, scoring 26 goals in all competitions in one of the most dominant single season performances in recent memory. Couple that with Fulham's notorious lack of away success, and the fact that I had seen the Whites fall to Spurs away the last two seasons, and it seemed as though the match would be a fruitless endeavour.
But the beautiful thing about football is that it is not rational. And I held this thought in my mind as I passed through the rundown turnstiles of White Hart Lane. We had a chance, I thought. This might just be our day.
The first half was a decidedly cagey affair, with both sides seeming sluggish and off the pace. But the most important aspect was that the match remained scoreless going into halftime, despite the best efforts of Bale, who went close with a header in the opening moments. As the half wore on the away end grew in voice, and it became clear that this was a disciplined performance from the Whites. As the halftime whistle blew, I took a look at the score and smiled. This might just be our day.
The first thing in my mind as the second half kicked off was that Fulham needed to keep their focus. Spurs were bound to be motivated coming out of the dressing room, and we had to weather the inevitable onslaught. Little did I know that we were to do much more than that.
Just seven minutes into the second half, Bale drove a low strike straight into the arms of Mark Schwarzer. The Australian keeper quickly rolled the ball to full back Sascha Riether, who played a pass to the feet of Ashkan Dejagah. As Dejagah did well to hold up the ball in the middle, Riether made a superb overlapping run down the wing. Dejagah calmly found the surging German on the right touchline, and Riether whipped in a low ball to the feet of Berbatov. What happened next can only be described as pandemonium.
There are some moments in life that are simply unparalleled. Moments of pure, unadulterated joy. Moments where you lose yourself in the present, so filled with exultation that you forget all your troubles in life. As Dimitar Berbatov connected with Riether's cross and coolly slotted the ball into the back of the net, all 2500 Fulham fans in the away end experienced this magnificent moment.
The goal was particularly sweet considering who was on the pitch for Spurs. Clint Dempsey had been my idol for many years, and made me fall in love with football. One of the most hardworking and dedicated players I have ever seen play, the American would always fight for the cause and was capable of moments of magic. Few will forget his 2011/12 season, in which he scored 23 goals and was a strong player of the year contender. Yet all this changed at the start of the 2012/13 season, when Dempsey infamously sat out the season opener against Norwich to force a move away. In the end, he transferred to Tottenham Hotspur, leaving Fulham supporters hurt and confused. The big question before the match was whether or not I would boo Dempsey when he came on. This was my former idol, a player who had done so much for the club, yet had left in such acrimonious circumstances.
When Dempsey came on at halftime, I booed just as vigorously as the other thousands of Fulham fans. The dream was dead. As Spurs kicked off after conceding, I glanced at the clock. A solid 35 minutes remained in the match. I took a deep breath. This was going to be nerve-racking.
But much to my surprise, the Whites didn't immediately go on the back foot. Just a few minutes later, centrehalf Brede Hangeland narrowly missed a free header at the back post after a great set piece. In the back of the mind, I hoped this wouldn't come back to haunt us come full time.
And it so nearly did. The next half hour was pure hell. Attack upon Spurs attacks rained down on the Fulham backline. The introduction of Jermain Defoe added pace and purpose to Tottenham's front line, causing the tiring Fulham defence problems. And Defoe would have equalized if it was not for the brilliance of Schwarzer. In the 90th minute Bale cut in from the right flank and unleashed a dangerous fizzing ball across the six yard box. The Fulham fans craned their neck from the other side of the pitch to catch a glance. To our horror, Defoe was unmarked in the middle. Yet Schwarzer stood tall and just about clawed the ball out, keeping the three points intact.
Moments later, the final whistle blew, unleashing what felt like a lifetime's worth of weight off my back. The away end went berserk, singing the praises of our well drilled Fulham side. The victory was immensely satisfying, and was our first in over 10 years away at Tottenham. And for me, it might just be the best result in football. There is something to be said for the resolute away performances, when a side travels to the lion's den, sits back, defends with passion, follows the game plan to perfection, and comes away with a well deserved win.
And on that March day three years ago, I was reminded of the joys of supporting Fulham Football Club. It is rarely an easy ride, as shown by the inexplicable struggles of the past two years, yet the side always manages to produce moments of brilliance. Moments that keep you coming back week after week, moments that remind you why you fell in love with football. Although the club situation appears bleak now, I am confident that there will be many more of these moments to follow for Fulham FC.