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.