London has fourteen professional football clubs, five of which compete in the top level English Premier League. My older son suggested that I try to see a game while in London, and mentioned that Fulham was playing Blackpool at Craven Cottage stadium on Sunday. Neither team is tearing up the league right now (Fulham’s current slogan is “Still Believe”) so tickets might be available. What better way to experience football-mad London than by attending a match?
I couldn’t manage to buy a ticket online Saturday night and so took the London Underground from Holborn to the Putney Bridge stop, which is about 1/3 mile from the stadium. I saw tube stops that were familiar from books I’ve read (Covent Garden, Hyde Park) and Dickensian others that were not (Cockfosters, Barking). There were ticket scalpers at the Putney stop but I wanted to try the ticket office first so walked along the Thames River to the stadium. From the outside the stadium looks small, and it sits in a residential neighborhood straight across from a posh row of houses. It is also old, having been built originally more than 100 years ago. It seats about 25,000.
An attendant helped me buy a ticket for £35, for a seat located behind the visitor’s goal. It was a half hour before the gate opened at noon for the 1:30 game so we chatted a bit. She said that two Americans were playing for Fulham, including Clint Dempsey. I remembered him playing well for the US team in the World Cup and said so, which was a mistake since it was Dempsey’s shot that was fumbled by the England keeper leading to a 1-1 draw and this infamous New York Post banner head. “We don’t like to remember that” she said, “But we’ve forgiven him.”
Just before the game team owner Mohamed Al Fayed unveiled a Michael Jackson statue that now mars the stately Craven Cottage grounds. As one columnist wrote, speaking in the universal, “everybody agrees that they hate the thing more than Fascism.” Al Fayed was pugnacious about his decision:
“Why is it bizarre? Football fans love it. If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift they can go to hell. I don’t want them to be fans. If they don’t understand and don’t believe in things I believe in they can go to Chelsea. They can go to anywhere else.”
Those are your choices Fulham fans, hell or Chelsea. (Even now rival fans must be cooking up a mocking song based on Elvis Costello’s (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea).
There are no jumbotrons in the stadium, and hence no replays. Advertising is held to a minimum. From my seat I couldn’t even see a scoreboard or a clock. It is a sedate atmosphere that puts your attention on the match itself. Fulham won handily 3-0.
The days of English soccer hooliganism described in Bill Buford’s 1990 book Among The Thugs are over. The long route back to the tube station is edged with London cops, some on horseback. The game was played at 1:30 on a Sunday, making it less likely to attract rowdies. We were searched at the gate going in and beer, while available, must be drunk outside the stands. There are no terraces for standing, only assigned seats, and smoking is not permitted anywhere in the stadium. Signs urge fans to drive racism from football and warn that racial harassment will result in permanent banishment.