Thursday, 18 March 2010
West London; a match-night, a moment in history
The Premiership years in the Craven Cottage home dug-out: first there was tooth-picking Jean Tigana. Then the admirable Chris Coleman who established Fulham FC as a top-flight cast-member. Briefly and bizarrely, a bedraggled Lawrie Sanchez struggled at the helm. And then on 28th December 2007, a long-absent Roy Hodgson returned from abroad with spoils and references and scouting links ripe for a rescue operation; an Odysseus setting up a splendid home for his winter years, he really did take control. OK, maybe there was no Scandinavian scouting system in Homer but it is true that Hodgson's words fall like snowflakes. He could shelve a library with the taught transcripts from his always-humble and insightful interviews. He walks to his dug-out in that picturesque old-fashioned ground politely acknowledging his support, forever radiating perspicacity and dignity.
This evening, in a historical moment for Fulham Football Club, they faced Juve in the second leg of their Round-of-16 Europa League tie, facing a 3-1 deficit after an encouraging display in Turin. This was supposed to be another fun night-out for the Fulham faithful, with little chance of turning the game on its head, even against a depleted Juventus in disarray. The likes of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Del Piero know how to fly around Europe and win football matches. But after Fulham went 1-0 down and the tie looked to be over, Bobby Zamora made Fabio Cannavaro look like Titus Bramble in the Juve box, and punished the pensioner with a precise equalizer. Things would only get worse for Cannavaro who was sent off, harshly, judged to be the last man when bringing down Zoltan Gera who was, perhaps, through on goal. But the two goals from Gera either side of half time were just rewards for Fulham's fluidity and determination, and for much of the second half, the score remained at 3-1. Then Dempsey, and history, struck.
Clint Dempsey's exquisite chip into the top corner to win the tie for Fulham is yet another ominous warning for England that our (generally) blinkered football press will no doubt overlook. Fantastic group, USA, no threat, was the unanimous reaction emerging from internet, radio and television broadcasts, immediately following the World Cup draw. And they may - I hope - prove correct. However, USA are, after all, a team not dissimilar to Fulham in their absolute unity and impressive work rate. They also beat (probably) the best team in the world, Spain, to reach the Confederations Cup Final last year, and if fit, they boast a player in Dempsey who ought to be dubbed a match-winner. It was his unexpected return from injury that lifted the Cottagers this evening, along with Etuhu's physical presence, Duff's best form, Konschesky's energy, Zamora and Gera's clinical finishing and their equally important industry. Hence Fulham, especially at home, really do defend from the front, right down to the magnificent Mark Schwarzer, whose ability and consistency between Premiership goalposts is bettered only by Jose Reina; for my money, Liverpool's best player.
With the limited resources and thin squad available to him, Roy Hodgson saved Fulham from relegation in a miracle escape in 2008, qualified for the Europa League in 09, and in 2010 Fulham have remained a top-half club while making (at least) the Quarter Finals of both the FA Cup and Europa League having beaten holders, Shaktar Donesk, and now Juventus. Considering the predictability and rigidity in 21st century football, I know from memory, and an understanding of sport, that Hodgson has achieved as much as any manager in my lifetime. There is a difference between achieving and winning though I imagine this goes over the heads of many a glory-hunting, or simply impatient, football fan. For Fulham, the dream of winning silverware is - unbelievable though it may seem - now a possibility. But the dream of winning the league for the historically successful Manchester United and Arsenal or for the financial-playdough champions, Blackburn (1995) and Chelsea (2005, 2006) was nothing like as glorious as Fulham's progress to within a game from Wembley, three games from lifting the FA Cup for the first time in their history, and three ties from lifting a European trophy, also, for the first time in their history. The oldest professional team in London at 131-years-old, Fulham are still yet to win a professional trophy.
On Tuesday night, a graceless footballing institution, proud of its poor-excuse-for-a-human-being captain, exited the Champions League, once again, amid scenes of deplorable sportsmanship and technical complacency. Tonight, in West London, one of the true towering institutions in world football was overcome. Beaten. Humiliated. And as a 62-year-old gentleman walked the touchline victorious, pointing his beak through the contiguous Thames-air, musked reassuringly on a match-night of pies and stale beer, he heard his name sung, his place in history secured, as fathers whispered into sons' ears: Remember This Night. But Roy Hodgson remained composed, simply smiled at the fathers and their sons, and waved a wave never intended for the rolling and flashing cameras of the press.