Thursday, 24 August 2017

#56 Craven Cottage, Fulham

Fulham 0 Bristol Rovers 1
Tuesday 22nd August 2017, Football League Cup

Ah the Football League Cup. An annual opportunity for lower league clubs to book a tie at one of the more festooned stadiums of the 92. Also an opportunity for fans of the aforementioned festooned clubs to stay at home rearranging their sock drawer. Still, having enjoyed last season's high-profile trip to affluent West London powerhouse Chelsea, I thought it prudent to get involved in this season's second round away trip to affluent West London powerhouse: Fulham. Rovers qualified for this match in notably less dramatic fashion than the previous year's hard-fought 1-0 victory over Cardiff at the Mem, via a consummate 4-1 dismantling of Cambridge United, again at the Mem. The Cottagers *snort* are a team that the Gas have decent form in beating in recent cup history, emerging victorious over two legs after drawing 2-2 at Craven Cottage before a bore draw back in Bristol resulted in penalties which we won 5-3.

I decided to do my civic duty and drive to the game with Jack, Duke and Briony in tow, stopping only to apply parcel tape to the rear of my car as a piece of the bodywork began flapping about in the breeze due to my wife reversing into her brother's van the previous Saturday and failing to notify me. I'm glad I had friends along with me as slave to the sat nav that I am, I would have dutifully followed a strange one hour M3 detour via Staines that it barked at me as we neared the capital. Thankfully Jack was there to reprimand the wayward technology and we arrived in not-too-bad time. The route to the ground would give us an idea of the kind of club we were up against as we passed by a number of rubgy grounds including Chiswick, Harlequins and the national stadium, Twickenham Park. If Chelsea had been an example of voguish urban opulence, Fulham was very much it's sequestered leafy cousin, with fancy frieze-adorned townhouses as far as the eye could see.

Briony had pulled an absolute blinder by scouting out a place off Fulham Palace Road for us to park within walking distance from the stadium and so we did with just under an hour to spare. We were greeted into London in typical fashion by a van driver who, upon spotting us trying to work out which direction Craven Cottage was in shouted: "You've lost the ground have you?" to which we replied the affirmative, foolishly thinking friendly directions would be forthcoming but the driver just said "Oh" and drove off. After reorienting ourselves we set off down the suburban streets towards the ground which were without a shadow of a doubt the most peaceful I've ever seen around a football stadium. It was like Westbury-on-Trym had a Premier League/Championship yo-yo club.

We arrived at the turnstiles and I had to admire the very traditional exterior of the ground which was a large part of the reason I wanted to attend today. Obviously the first very noticeable thing is the cottage itself, a red-brick, black-roofed Victorian cottage with The Fulham Football Club painted on the side roof in big white letters. The whole exterior wall follows the theme of the cottage with it's red brick and occasional crowned point, punctuated by the same thin, black turnstile doors from the beginning of last century. This whole facade is one of the remaining examples of the work of influential Scottish stadium architect Archibald Leitch, who interestingly only built the cottage in the first place because he forgot to incorporate changing rooms into his original design. Adding even more to the blue-blooded nature of the club, the site of the stadium was once the personal hunting grounds of Anne Boleyn before becoming the home of author Edward Bulwer-Lytton who took up residency in the original cottage which legend has it was located on the centre circle of the pitch. The cottage pavilion is these days reserved for the family members of players.

Inside the ground feels vast with it's 25,700 capacity but much like it's West London cousin Stamford Bridge somehow you never feel too far removed from the action. Much of the interior is very modern now but the original 1905 barnlike design of the Johnny Haynes Stand is still standing proud as the oldest stand in the Football League and like the cottage is a Grade II listed building. The upper echelons of this stand still contain the original wooden seating alongside a montage of the career of club legend Johnny Haynes. I would go as far as to say Craven Cottage is my favourite league ground that I've visited so far. It's just littered with nice touches and history, like the flag that hangs from the cottage pavilion which reads "Still Believe", a reference to the 2009/10 Europa League semi-final when the fans, facing defeat at the hands of Hamburg SV rose as one to chants of "stand up if you still believe" before going on to win the game 2-1.

Many of the quirkier features are sadly no more, such as the tradition of hanging a flag representing the nationality of each squad member on the Putney End (replaced by a digital scoreboard) or the infamous statue of Michael Jackson, requested by his personal friend the eccentric former Fulham chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed. The statue was met with many a raised eyebrow as Jackson was neither a Fulham fan nor a football fan but did say of the club when he visited "Fulham fans were like people at my concerts. I wanted to jump up and start dancing." This wasn't enough to appease the fans however and Al-Fayed removed the statue in 2013 many years after the singer's untimely death. However the club does still feature the only remaining living tree inside a senior British football ground and the option to watch people rowing along the River Thames which runs directly behind the stadium should you get bored.

As we loitered around the away stand saying our hellos to the familiar travelling faces, it became clear that we weren't in for a repeat of the famous 7200 away following of the aforementioned FA cup match of yore. I'd put today's attendance at closer to 800. Our seats were located near the front of the stand but most of the singing was taking place in the upper echelons so we opted to make our way up there. Just before this decision I'd taken a misplaced warm-up shot to the arse whilst turning round to shake someone's hand so I was quite keen to get away from all the laughter anyway. A mere thirteen minutes had passed before Rovers had stunned the home side as Liam Sercombe played Ellis Harrison into a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper on the right wing. With the last defender in hot pursuit, Ellis calmly took the ball round the Fulham keeper and slotted the ball into the net with the side of his foot just before Tayo Edun finally caught up to him and put in a futile slide tackle. A wonderfully composed goal that'll do wonders for the confidence of occasionally-maligned Harrison.

Rovers narrowly had the best of a tight first half which could have resulted in us doubling our lead through Billy Bodin, who poked a defensive header from a Fulham player past his marker and ran onto the ball in a tempting center of goal position but shot well wide. Not to mention a Rovers free-kick in an attacking position that fell to Tom Lockyer just outside the 6-yard box. His angled effort was parried away by Bettinelli but only as far as Byron Moore who was denied a tap-in by some incredibly quick reactions from Ryan Sessegnon, who eventually wrestled the ball away and out of danger. We entered the second half hoping we wouldn't rue those missed chances as Fulham began to turn the screws and a tired looking Rovers sat back relied on punting the ball long whenever they took possession. In the end we were very lucky that all of these chances we were inviting were blasted over the bar by a Fulham side that looked pretty weak in front of goal all told. Fulham's closest effort was in the second minute of extra time as Aboubakar Kamara headed just wide of goal from a worrying Fulham break. After what felt like an eternity of nervous chin-holding the referee blew the whistle for full time and Rovers recorded another unexpected victory over Fulham. Just the tonic for a rather disappointing few months for us on and off the pitch.


Monday, 21 August 2017

#55 Ďolíček, Bohemians 1905

Bohemians 1905 2 MFK Karviná 1
Saturday 5th August 2017, Czech First League

Just under two years have passed since my first visit to the fine city of Prague. With my newly-retired parents wanting to spread their wings and have a holiday somewhere that isn't Majorca for once, Becky and I suggested the Czech capital would be a safe bet as we know it quite well and could show them around. At the back of my mind also was my personal stretch goal of someday visiting all five of the traditonal professional Prague clubs; Sparta, Slavia, Bohemians, Dukla and Viktoria Žižkov who I'd already visited on my last trip to Prague. My wife Becky had admirably (considering she's not a football fan) accompanied me to the then third division Žižkov but this time my Dad, Roger would be coming along. 

Formed in, you guessed it, 1905 as AFK Vršovice the Klokani (Kangaroos) play in Prague 10 alongside their much larger rivals Slavia Prague. The club has spent most of it's existence hopping between the first and second divisions, winning the first division in 1982/83. Historic low points were their break with sports franchise TJ Bohemians Praha in 1993 which resulted in the company acquiring a third tier team called FC Střížkov Praha 9 and using then to form an imposter club FK Bohemians Prague (Střížkov) in 2005 when the original club, beset with financial problems, were relegated to the third division and forced to sell the rights to their name, reforming thereafter as Bohemians 1905. Confused? You will be. The imposter club quickly rose to the first division as TJ poured the money in but the fans by and large stayed loyal to the original club resulting in their eventual return to the top flight and the new club's decline and dissolution in 2016, triggered many would argue by the 15 point deduction and 6 million koruna fine they received when they refused to play Bohemians 1905 in the league.

Ďolíček has been Bohemians permanent home since 1930, discounting the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons where the first team played at Slavia's Eden Arena and only the B team played at Ďolíček. This arrangement came into place because the ground didn't match first league regulations at the time but the club were able to move back upon relegation in 2012. However they have since returned to the first division and not been asked to move again so I don't know what's up with that. I believe first division rules state that stadiums must be all-seater but Bohemians have a large section of open terracing behind the near goal. I imagine that they let in only enough people to correspond with the number of seats in the ground but don't police people who don't take their seats, which would explain both the fairly paltry capacity of 5000 and the fact that during this opening home fixture with it's 4192 attendance the seats remained sparsely used and the middle terrace was bustling with activity. A lovely two-fingered salute to the control freakery of modern top-level football.

Contrary to most other Czech Republic clubs which tend to be either right-wing or apolitical, Bohemians have developed a noticeably left-wing stance, which can be noted by their anti-fascist flags and stickers and the overpowering smell of weed that hangs over Sector B, the ultras area behind the goal. Despite the relative ramshackle state of the Ďolíček (meaning the Dimple in Czech), the fans are totally dedicated to the modest ground, with even club president and club legend Antionín Paneka remarking:

"Dolicek definitely belongs to this club and Bohemians actually belongs to Dolicek. Everybody involved in football here knows what Dolicek means. If we say 'Dolicek' everyone knows we are talking about Bohemians. If we say 'Bohemians', people automatically think of 'Dolicek'. They belong to each other, like conjoined twins." 

This punk-rock ethos gained them the admiration of the ng of cult clubs St Pauli and they also maintain relationships with Irish club Bohemians FC. The club get their odd "Kangaroos" nickname from an incident that came after a 1927 tour of Australia, where they were presented with two live Kangaroos by their perhaps over gracious hosts. The beasts were promptly donated to Prague zoo but the nickname stuck.

Dad and I caught the tram into Vršovice, the district that Bohemians share with Slavia who are separated from their local rivals by a mere kilometre. It was a particularly hot and sticky morning, the start of an impertinently-timed heatwave in the Czech capital. Needless to say we were in need of a beer after traipsing round the streets for a while. The Czech model of city pubs is quite different to ours and to be honest a little baffling as a pre-match experience. Imagine a small English boutique cafe, full of wooden furniture and houseplants with capacity for no more than 30 but with pumps and fridges instead of burr mills and cakes. It was one of these establishments, just over the road from the stadium, that we dived into about an hour before kick-off.

Now imagine us sat in the corner by the cigarette machine, enjoying our beverages next to some old boys perusing their programmes, whilst on a table less than five meters away home ultras are bellowing club songs at the top of their lungs. A vastly more compact experience than the traditional British pub invasion! Noting my bemused delight at the chants, one of the old boys begins speaking to me in Czech. Judging by his frequent use of the word Slavia, I assume he was telling me what the chants were about but not knowing a single word of Czech I was reduced to smiling and nodding politely. He kept coming back to me though so either he thought I was the smiliest mute in the world or knew I couldn't understand him and didn't care. Either way my Dad spilled his pint all over the man's bag shortly after this so we beat a hasty retreat.

Ďolíček is a stadium of great contrast and charm. Weather-beaten and asymmetrical as anything but certainly not a place you could describe as boring and very welcoming. It's a three-sided stadium with the side behind the far goal currently undeveloped. The main stand to the west is by far the most grand part of the stadium, a covered seated stand with one large tier. Opposite this is a very thin bit of terracing against a haggard stone wall which has had seats bolted to it in the classic Czech Viktoria Žižkov style. This stand is segregated which affords the away supporters a tiny gaggle of seats towards the empty end. 

I previously touched upon the terrace behind the goal, Sektor B, the choice of the more boisterous Klokani. Originally a massive standing terrace, there are now two banks of seating either side of an open middle portion which is (officially or not) used as a standing section. One thing I'd never seen before was the massive metal frame that stands before the terrace. I presume this once supported a fence separating the rowdy fans from the pitch, the kind some will remember from 70s British football and which is still common on the continent and in South America. No fence hangs off the frame today and it's main use was to help the home fans hoist their flags.

The ground's compact surroundings have meant that past redevelopment plans have proven difficult to bring to fruition. This means that most of the amenities in the old parts of the ground are in the open-air, in hut or dingy portaloo format. Just like being at the Rovers! The Czech Republic is one of those countries that allows drinking in the stands and Sektor B is serviced by a little bar on wheels under a pub umbrella. Buying a pint from there will secure you a fancy Bohemians 1905 Plastic Pint Mug With Handle™ which I hung from my pocket between sips like a practical stylish gentleman. The area around the big modern stand is much the same but with a much larger wooden bar and a shed next to the steps to the stand which was spraying a fine mist of cold water into the air. I have no earthly idea what this was in aid of but I did cool myself down by walking through it a few times.

Just before kick-off I finally got to experience something I've wanted to experience since I started groundhopping: a big, mad European ultras display with about half a dozen green flares and a big flag lifted over the crowd, which obviously I couldn't see because I was stood behind it but never mind. The smoke hung thick in the air for a long time afterwards and perhaps vindicating the FA's stance on pyrotechnics, approximately eight people died of consumption on the spot. Happily though, my generously-proportioned asthmatic father survived the sick madness. Perhaps to avoid identification as they performed their disgusting, criminal acts, the flare-bearing ultras wore jaunty woollen balaclavas in the club's colours of green and white, which I thought made them look a bit like members of Pussy Riot.

You'll have to forgive the upcoming match report for being sparing in the minute-to-minute detail you're accustomed to but I was enjoying the atmosphere/beer too much to be paying too much attention. I can say that as you might expect the quality was a lot better than the Czech Third Division fare I'd witnessed at Viktoria Žižkov two years ago. Whilst far from being top-tier European football, due to what I perceived as an over-reliance on the capitalisation of opposition mistakes rather than creativity, the physicality and willingness to get forward kept the match exciting for the whole 90 minutes. 

First to draw blood were the home side as a Bohemians player outran his marker and gathered a well-timed through ball on the right-wing pinging it low into the box for midfielder David Bartek to neatly fire past the keeper in the 30th minute. Karviná hit back just eight minutes later through Tomas Wagner who found himself in the path of a neat pass from another another striker who was facing away from goal. Wagner's shot was half intercepted by Bohemians keeper Tomáš Fryšták but the power of it caused him to fumble it up and over himself and into the net. At this point we learned that a ritual in Czech football (or at least at Bohemians) was to create a swell of noise as your own goalkeeper lines up to take his goal kick, followed by his name rather than "you're shit ahhh!" A nice bit of encouragement for the unlucky Fryšták.

Half-time came around, Dad disappeared for a bit then reappeared with a pair of what I can only describe as deconstructed hot dogs. A large sausage on a paper plate with two bits of bread to the side and two large puddles of ketchup and mustard. Very tasty indeed once reassembled. The pink-haired punk lady who was working the bar at the back of the terrace was having a pretty hard time pouring pints by half time due to a very waste not, want not attitude  from the club which involved filling a cup half way with overly frothy beer, shaking the crap out of the nearly-empty barrel and repeating until you were left with a pint with only the traditional Czech 8 inches of head. This wasn't an issue as I could continue watching the match while this performance went on.

As the second half began and Bohemians began to turn the screw, the home fans started to get into the swing of things chant-wise and Dad and I discovered to our immense delight that one of the chants seemed to be based off Mike Oldfield's Moonlight Shadow. Can't fault the creativity. Again this may have been the alcohol talking but the atmosphere at Bohemians really got to me and I found myself mumbling bullshit along to the Czech language chants that I couldn't hope to understand then bellowing out the handful of words that I had managed to discern like a proper British tourist. Mind you it didn't look like we were the only Brits along for the ride as I spotted a man in a Plymouth Argyle top at one point. Perhaps he was lost. 

With time running out for the home team to net that all-important first win of the season, a particularly frantic and hilarious goal was scored by Milan Jirasek in the 85th minute. The ball was lobbed into the area from the right wing and began bouncing temptingly in front of goal. At first a Bohemians player who was being tightly marked couldn't get a head to it but despite him not connecting with the stray ball at all, none of Karviná's defenders thought to do anything about it as it continued to bounce into acres of space for a gleeful and unmarked Jirasek to run onto and slot past the reach of the opposition keeper. Cue confetti and more flares.

The day was won for Bohemians and their Klokani were on cloud nine, singing and waving their scarfs for about 10 minutes after the final whistle. The last remarkable gesture Czech football had to offer us came at this point as the Bohemians players came and stood in a line in front of their fans and proceeded to do theatre style bows to rapturous applause. What a country, what a league. The connection the fans and the players clearly have at Bohemians is a wonderful thing to behold and it became obvious to me after just one visit why the Klokani are so dedicated to the club and ground, even at times when they both faced very uncertain futures. Another great day out in Prague and other team to add to my ever-growing soft-spot list.