Adorned with rustic oak seats and weathered wooden columns, the upper section of the Johnny Haynes stand at Craven Cottage nestles itself between sleepy SW6 and the meandering Thames. The Cottage is a piece of football nostalgia, a nod to the days of flat caps and noisemakers. It is difficult to find another ground like it, especially in an era when highly glazed facades and architectural statements have become the norm in modern stadia design.
Craven Cottage has always had a magical lure for me. The size, the style, the setting – all attributes that stir up my inner football romantic. The craft pubs may have moved in and brought the fashionable mashed avocado with them but fear not, a hearty cup of Bovril is only a catering facility away.
Sitting in the stands you can’t help but feel that you are somewhere special. The amber rays of the sun peer high over the Riverside Stand, creeping through the March fog and applying a crimson tint to the cheeks of the eager spectators. Bristol City are in town and the cries of “Come on you Reds!” fill the air. Fulham are a club in decline; gone are the nights of Europa League, the charisma of Jimmy Bullard, the humour of Tommy Trinder. The prospect of an away trip to Fleetwood next season looks ever more likely. Three minutes in and the cries have changed, as white drowns out red. Ross McCormack - 1-0. The pathetic fallacy is apparent – does the first sunny day of the year depict a brighter Fulham future?
Walking down the steps into the compact innards of the Cottage at half time you can’t help but again be transfixed with the setting. The white-washed walls, high arched windows and black detailing give the impression that you are entering a medieval banquet, except at this banquet you won’t find any kings or queens - instead you are greeted by the parched Fulham faithful.
Fans play a major role in the match day atmosphere. This was something that I had wanted to sample for myself at the Cottage. The setting is idyllic, but is the entire experience something special; does the ambience ripple down into your footballing soul? The simple answer is no. For a ground smothered in history and nostalgia, the atmosphere is as flat as the caps that once occupied the terraces.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any passion from the stands; it’s all just a bit too civilised. The cohort sitting on the cottage veranda with cashmere blankets (mementos possibly left over from the Al Fayed regime) draped across their knees compounds this, further giving the impression that we are all watching a cosy kickabout in Hyde Park rather than a scrappy relegation battle deep in the trenches of the Championship. An occasional glimpse of passion appears as one agitated home fan, lonely as a solitary meerkat sentry braving the open savannah, shoots up from his seat in indignation. Unfortunately, he can’t muster enough conviction to stir the 16,000 strong mob of home fans into life. 1-1 - Marlon Pack from range for Bristol City.
An all-too-familiar silence creeps across the ground replacing the ever-dispersing misty haze. Ross McCormack throws his hands in the air – trying to invigorate the crowd, akin to a gladiator at the colosseum. His show of emotion prompts zero reaction from the home support. In contrast, the Bristol City fans are in full voice as a red smoke bomb engulfs the away end. I sit there thinking: why didn’t I get a ticket for the away end?
It was the same story when I visited two weeks prior, on an afternoon when Middlesbrough barely got out of second gear yet brushed away a side completely barren of creativity and forward thinking guile. Once again today, Jamie O’Hara enters stage right; the prospect of backward passes and repetitive cross field balls with no attacking value keeps me firmly fixed to my seat.
As the spring sun sets behind the boathouse, a distinct edginess descends from the stands. A free kick given away in the dying minutes leaves a feeling of inevitability. 1-2 to Bristol City, Lee Tomlin dispatching with aplomb. Finally some passion from the Fulham faithful as a chorus of discontent reverberates from the home stands but this is short lived - heads drop, coats are buttoned, the exodus begins.
One must have some sympathy for the fans, but this is a collective effort. The entire club seems to be going through the motions, content with just ‘tipping along’, without realising the seriousness of descending into the footballing abyss. Jokanović has been in this position before while at Hércules CF and one must hope that the lessons learned from that experience will help him pull this sinking ship safely to shore.
The magic and romanticism of the Cottage is definitely still there but the heart rate of the club seems to be dropping to a worryingly slow tempo. Many neutrals and footballing romantics would hope that Jokanović can turn it around so that there can be many more sunny days to look forward to in the future. Who knows? A dramatic, final day survival might invigorate the match day atmosphere at a ground that so richly deserves it. If this is the case, I look forward to entering the turnstiles again but right now I won’t be buying a season ticket.