Saturday afternoon at ‘the Cottage’

It has been a busy week or so since returning from Rwanda. Over the last ten days I’ve caught up with family and friends in Bristol, Nottingham, London and Birmingham.

I spent the last weekend in London. This enabled me to visit Gem in Balham and catch up with her journalistic exploits. She has penned the lead article for the bumper Christmas issue of Love It!

It was also an opportunity to attend the annual Book Bus reunion, held at Adulis – an Eritrean restaurant in the Oval area, and meet up with the colleagues I worked with in Zambia during May.

In between morning coffee on the Balham High Road and an evening out on the Brixton Road I spent a chilly winter afternoon in the Johnny Haynes Stand, at Craven Cottage, watching the Premiership game between Fulham and Sunderland.

In truth it was a disappointing game (a nil –nil draw), so much so that the reporter in the Independent on Sunday awarded the man of the match award to referee Neil Swarbrick!

I have to say it did cross my mind that if  the level of play I saw on saw on Saturday was typical of that in the middle to lower reaches of the Premier League then perhaps the current Forest team wouldn’t be out-of-place should they gain promotion.   

I first visited Craven Cottage for the opening game of the 1976-7 season. It was a warm and sunny August day and Fulham were entertaining a Forest side in the old second division. It finished 2-2 and Forest’s scorers were the lively winger Terry Curran and old stager John O’Hare.

Little did I suspect at the time that this would be the first game of an incredible four-year period that would see Cloughie’s Forest team win promotion to the 1st division  followed by the league championship and back to back European Cups!

Craven Cottage is always a  joy to visit, even in the fading light of a grey December day. From Putney Bridge tube station there is a lovely walk through Bishops Park to the riverside stadium which has managed to successfully merge early 20th century architecture with 21st century amenities.

The Johnny Haynes stand, named after ‘the maestro’ – an elegant midfield player for England during the late 1950’s and early 60’s, still sports a classic gable, labelled Fulham Football Club, and my seat was an original of the wooden tip up variety.

The players still enter the pitch from the unique pavilion building, referred to as ‘the cottage,’ which stands in the corner of the ground between the Johnny Haynes Stand and the Putney End.

I have always had a soft spot for Fulham, a homely club in a fashionable part of London. When I first started to follow football they were permanently in the lower reaches of the 1st division. 

Their chairman was music hall comedian Tommy Trinder and the star player was the afore-mentioned Haynes.

There was also a promising attacking full back, George Cohen, who would go on to pick up a World Cup Winners medal.

Bobby Moore and George Best briefly illuminated the Craven Cottage pitch in the twilight of their careers, and Malcolm MacDonald began his goal scoring exploits on the bank of the Thames, but as the years passed by Fulham began a slow descent towards the basement of English football.

Fortunately for them, under the ownership of the Harrods boss Mohammed Al Fayed, they once more returned to the top-level, in 2001, where they have gradually re-established themselves over the last nine years.

Last year, under manager Roy Hodgson (now at Liverpool), Fulham enjoyed a fairy tale run in the Europa Cup reaching the final, in Hamburg, where they eventually lost to Atletico Madrid.  

Al Fayed was at the game on Saturday. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and too many more performances like the one I witnessed could lead to current manager Mark ‘Sparky’ Hughes being shown the door.

Fulham are perilously close to the relegation places, only goal difference separating them from the bottom three, but I hope they will survive.

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