"Oh... You're supporting Fulham this week?"
The title of this post is a running joke with a friend of mine and his dad and it popped into my head the other day following the local team Crystal Palace's promotion to the Premier League. This is a good thing. Palace are a great South London club and have been beset by financial troubles for many years, but now on a firm footing and, despite the best efforts of their manager, fought their way up. Lots of my closest friends support the Palace, go regularly and are besides themselves at joining the top flight. My Dad and brother support Palace too. Which brings me to my point. My dear little brother is of the firm belief that as he has always supported Palace he has a right to point out I know nothing about football. The fact he supported Manchester United as a child, like all kids in the middle 90's I suppose, always seems to slip his mind. Despite my pleasure at seeing his club come up and the fact I managed to source him a ticket to the playoff final, my concerns, shared rather widely if you glace at the press, that they need a lot of reinforcements if they are going to mount a challenge to stay in the top flight, was met with vitriol. "What has Fulham achieved?" was his retort. Over a decade in the top flight and being in profit last year without aid from our overly generous Chairman, the Legend that is Mohammed Al-Fayed, should be enough. The fact that Fulham are considered a perennial Premier League team that almost 20 years ago nearly dropped out of the Football League all together, should be something that most promoted teams should look to emulate as a first step. I'm sure Blackburn and Bolton supporters, the two teams promoted with Fulham in 2001, would love to be in our situation following their relegation and inability to bounce back up this season. Fulham are a funny club. They were the first of a now long list of clubs bought by rich foreign owners and transformed into something older fans can barely recognise. But I'll get to that later. Why the joke and the derision from my sibling? Well it starts with an exile that only recently has started to really bite.
In 1990, the Bone clan moved from Canada to London. South London and Coulsdon, Surrey in particular. It was a great adventure to the Greatest City On Earth (London IS the Greatest City on Earth, no argument.) It was great, with one exception. Going to school with a funny accent and no frame of reference for what was going on was old hat, I'd changed schools a few times to know how it all worked. Not understanding or even liking Soccer, Football, whatever, was the kicker. Growing up in Canada there is one religion that crosses all denominations, creeds and colours, hockey. It is an amazing sport that combines speed, skill and utter brutality. The NHL is the biggest and best league in the world, the Premier League of Hockey if you will. To explain how important Hockey is to the nation that invented the game, when troops stationed in Afghanistan need a moral boost, they don't send a pop star or strippers (those both, I'm sure, are very welcomed by the fighting men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces) they send out The Stanley Cup, hockey's greatest prize. Lord Stanley's Mug was given to the sport of Hockey in 1892 by Lord Stanley of Preston, then Governor-General of Canada, for the best amateur hockey teams in Canada to play for, in the same guise as the FA Cup originally was. The trophy was a silver bowl christened the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup which over the years and many leagues and expansion south later, has become the holy grail of hockey. Players never touch the cup until they win it. Kids, when the cup tours youth clubs across North American keep a reverential distance from it, just in case they make it to the Bigs. Along with the FA Cup, in this writer's humble opinion, it is the greatest trophy on earth. Canadians are united by the love of hockey. If you emigrate to Canada and need to integrate with the country, you get season tickets and learn hockey. Once you fall under Hockey's spell, you are united with all other hockey fans for the true love of the game and the mutual hated everyone has for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Stanley Cup
The Great One
At the time I was growing up in Canada there were, as there is again, 7 teams in Canada and my team, the Calgary Flames were in the shadow of The Great One, quite literally. Wayne Gretzky is simply, for non-hockey fans out there, Garrincha, Pele, Bobby Moore and Messi rolled into one package, on skates. And he played for the other team in Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers. Comparing Gretzky to those great footballers is doing an injustice, to Gretzky. He's not just called The Great One in Canada, the Americans call him that too. He was that good. Growing up with a Flames team that included great hockey players like the ginger mustached captain Lanny McDonald, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk and the almost unbeatable goalie Mike Vernon, the playoffs were a given, until the Campbell Conference threw you against Gretzky and the Oilers. The Oilers of the 80's made Barcelona look average when it came to winning. They won 4 Stanley Cups in five years. Gretzky played in a team with Hall of Famers Mark Messier and Jari Kurri. As a Flames fan, coming up against the Oilers in playoff season, you expected to be swept in the best of seven series, and generally it happened. Then in 1988, something truly incredible happened and became a black mark on Canada ever since. In the 1970's Pele was labeled a national treasure and was not allowed to play for a team outside of Brazil. In 1988, two hours after winning his forth cup, The Great One was told by his dad that the Oilers were planning a trade and he was the key. Long story short, Canada lost its greatest commodity, Gretzky headed to Hollywood and Hockey took the US by storm.
Back in a grieving Canada, the Flames pounced. The Oilers were still a force to be reckoned with, but were in transition after losing the focal point of the franchise. The Flames had almost all the pieces for 1988-9 and made a few moves that included bringing up a 5' 6" kid in January named Theoren Fluery. The kid became a folk hero and captain of the team in Calgary, but his devil may care play added speed and points to a defensively sound, already free scoring team. I remember seeing my team run riot, sweeping up their division and conference titles and winning the Presidents Trophy for the best record in the league. Then in the playoffs, in the second round, ironically came Wayne Gretzky and his LA Kings. The Flames swept them in 4. Better yet, after brushing off Chicago in 5 games, the Flames would play Hockey's most storied team for the Stanley Cup. The only way to describe the Montreal Canadiens to non hockey fans is to take Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid, roll them all together, made them speak Québécois and put them in front of a rabid crowd in the Forum. The Habs have won 24 Stanley Cups, have had some of the greatest hockey players of all time like Maurice "The Rocket" Richard, Guy Lafleur and Jean Béliveau grace the Forum ice. The Habs dressing room is emblazoned with the greatest moto/reminder a player could be given, a French translation of a line from "In Flanders Field" by John McCrae:
"Nos bras meurtris vous tendent le flambeau, à vous toujours de le porter bien haut."
"To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high."
In any other arena that would be a tad trite, in the Forum dressing room (now rebuilt as Bell Centre, doesn't have the same ring really), where your locker is adorned with the names of every player that has worn your number before you going back to 1909, you do skate in the shadow of giants.
There is one thing better than having that history. Beating that history in 6 games. In Game 6, the 36 year old Lanny McDonald, skated out of the penalty box and slotted the puck past Patrick Roy in the Habs net to give the Flames a lead. Gilmour then added two more and the Flames lifted the Stanley Cup for the first and, so far, only time. And I watched it. Something most Leafs fans have never seen in their lifetime.
Maple Leaf Gardens
Hockey is truly amazing. I've been fortunate enough to watch hockey in Maple Leaf Gardens, the last of the original six arenas of the NHL to host NHL Hockey. Even more importantly for me, on January 6th 1990 I saw Gretzky play there in the flesh with my Dad. That is a moment as special to me as the chant of "Stand up if you still believe" echoing around a floodlit Craven Cottage on a spring night in 2010 just before the comeback that would stun Hamburg SV and send Fulham into the Europa League Final, ironically, to be played in Hamburg's stadium.
You see, hockey is the sport I love. I can't skate, I doubt I could take a hit, but there is nothing like it anywhere. When I left Canada, I supported three teams in three sports, the Flames, the Toronto Blue Jays in Baseball and the Denver Broncos in American Football. The last is also a passion. I still remember being at my Uncle's house with my Dad watching the playoffs in 1987 and John Elway, with 5 minutes and 2 seconds on the clock, 7 points down against the Cleveland Browns was on his own 2 yard line. 15 plays and four and a half minutes later, Elway hit Mike Jackson with a 5 yard pass and tied the game. I'd found my team. And my team would make me wait through three brutal Super Bowls defeats until, staying up till 4am two years on the bounce, Elway would lead the Broncos to back to back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998. I still can't watch the clip of Broncos owner Pat Bowlen handing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to John Elway announcing "This ones for John!" without a tear in my eye. This is the sporting life I grew up with. Hockey all winter, American Football in the Fall and Baseball in the summer. Baseball is the best sport to watch on a sunny summer afternoon. Being behind home plate when the Jays won their division in 1989 was amazing. So, showing up in England and being confronted by proper Football, a sport I'd played badly in the school yard but never watched, was a problem. "Who do you support?" "The Flames" I'd reply, to blank expressions followed by mocking. So I said Crystal Palace, as I was taken to see them on Boxing Day 1990 against Sunderland at Selhurst Park. I was amazed by the standing sections, the state of the pitch and the singing. It was like nothing I'd experienced before. But it didn't really take. Then it was Arsenal, who I followed for a while and took a proper kicking for every Sunday when I ended up playing football with Spurs supporting "friends". Then I went to Highbury, and was amazed at how disenchanted with Arsenal I was. The supporters were miserable, the ground, a famous old ground, quiet. I didn't feel connected in any way. I've never been to a Broncos game, but when I meet fellow Broncos fans of long standing we can talk endlessly about the trade for Elway, The Drive, being ripped apart by Joe Montana in '89, the Super Bowls, the search for anyone to fill Elway's cleats, could it be Peyton...? Never felt that with Arsenal fans, other than the closest of my friends. These days, I have to admit, The Emirates is an amazing place to watch football, but the same old problems apply, only with double the capacity and filled with City boys who only go because they can boast at having the most expensive season ticket in the league.
Archibald Leitch facade on the Johnny Haynes Stand, Craven Cottage
Then on a sunny Saturday afternoon, 14th August 1999 to be exact, I was talked by my cousin Jason into going to see Fulham play Manchester City in the old First Division. How times have changed, eh? Craven Cottage is an old ground. Built in the late 19th Century and redesigned by the legendary stadium architect Archibald Leitch (he also designed Ibrox, Highbury and Anfield, don't you know), its stands next to the eternal River Thames on the edge of Bishops Park as the proud home of Fulham Football Club. So as I walked past the listed Leitch facade of the Stevenage Road Stand, now renamed in honour of Fulham's greatest player, Johnny Haynes, I began to fall in love with this little ground. Stevenage Road is always busy on game day, but I loved fighting my way down to the Hammersmith End and paying my £15 at the turnstile and walking onto a dinosaur. The Hammy End in those days was still a standing terrace Fulham would be the last top flight club to have standing sections before the requirements of the Taylor Report legislation would force Craven Cottage to go all seater. As I walked out in awe onto the terrace, I bumped into an Old Boy who laughed and welcomed me to the Cottage. I'd not felt like that about a ground since the first time I walked into Maple Leaf Gardens and felt the history of the game around me. But this was more. As I listened to the songs, the banter of my mates around me and the supporters swaying on the terrace behind me, I'd found where I wanted to be. To declare loyalty to Fulham then was difficult due to the mocking of my friends for switching teams and the annoyance of the Fulham faithful who had been watching dross for years before Mohammed Al-Fayed and money had showed up. What my friends and brother have never, could never, understand is something they've taken for granted all their lives when it comes to a football team. That sense of belonging I've felt with the Flames, Broncos and Jays all my life, took 9 years in England to find. But once I found it, I have loved that annoying club as much as the ones back home. You see, while Fulham came up with filthy Egyptian lucre, it wasn't enough when compared to the mountains of roubles or oil dollars that floods the Premier League these days.
Despite seeing Fulham beat Manchester United handsomely a few years back, beating Hamburg, Juventus and other European giants, being at Huddersfield on the day Fulham won promotion to the top flight, the most incredible Fulham moment in my life happened in a pub called the Royal Oak in New Malden on 11th May 2008. Fulham had had a terrible year. Lawrie Sanchez had spent a fortune and guided the club to almost the bottom of the table. Chairman Mo replaced him with Roy Hodgson and the fight to stay up started. At one point against Manchester City, we were relegated, but a second half miracle come back saved us. We needed to beat Portsmouth away on the last day of the season to stay up, but Fulham had and still has a terrible record on the road. Those of us who couldn't get tickets for the match decamped to the Royal Oak, started to drink and pray. I sat to watch the game with Paul Thorpe and his son Jamie. Paul had built the first website for the club before leaving under a bit of a cloud due to his views on the running of the club. He felt he was a supporter first, employee second. Anyways, PT and I had gotten along well on the Fulham Independent Messageboard and we sat down to watch the game. We were joined by a man named Ian. With 15 minutes left, Jimmy Bullard swung in a free kick that Danny Murphy headed in for the lead. Celebrations turned to panic as the 100 or so of us in the pub realised there was still an eternity to play. We won. We stayed up on goal difference and the celebrations began. I went to the bar to buy the four of us a round of drinks when PT intervened and said he needed to buy this round. He invited me outside them and as they raised a glass to Matthew Fox, I realised who I was with. Matthew Fox was a Fulham fan who, after a rather nasty game at Gillingham, was involved in a fight, punched in the head, fell and hit his head on the curb and died of his injuries. There had been some rivalry with the Gills before that game, usually Fulham supporters are welcomed in most grounds, as I found out after being "outed" at a Spurs game at White Hart Lane. There still exists very bad blood between Fulham and Gillingham because of Foxy death. Foxy was hardcore Fulham and was known not to shy away when confronted, but to be battered to death on a bleak Kent street is nothing anyone, or their family, should every have to face over a football match. It was a very heartbreaking moment and the realisation for me of just what English football was and how far it has come. Foxy's dad turned to me and handed me a watch. "I knew we would win, I was wearing Matt's watch." As I stood there holding Ian Fox's murdered son's watch, I understood, truly, what this game, what your club means in the English mind. I also knew right then I wasn't a "newbie" fan anymore, I was Fulham.
Johnny Haynes - The Maestro
Pele at Craven Cottage
You see, when people joke with me about the club I support, the club I love, they only see the fact I've not supported Fulham my whole life. They say I only support them because my cousin does. It's not that. It's a connection with a very special type of club. The same connection I feel to the Flames back home. I've spent 14 years going to and supporting Fulham now. I've stood with my family, my friends and we've shared amazing highs and more often than not, amazing lows. I've studied the game, talked to those who have followed it all their lives and I know it as well as the next fan, I'm just lucky enough to have spent most of my viewing the game on the pitch that was graced by Johnny Haynes, George Cohen, Eusebio and Pele. In my time I've watched David Beckham, Edwin van der Sar, Roma play in front of me, I even saw Steve Marlet score for Fulham. I love Fulham as much as that club frustrates me. But that is football. Fulham is special. During the exile at Loftus Road for the Cottage's revamp to meet the Taylor Report Requirements, the fans started singing a song, asking the Chairman to take us home, to where we belonged, to Craven Cottage by the River. It is still sung at every game, a reminder of who we are and were are hearts our. When that drunk maniac stood up 20 odd rows behind me when we were losing to Hamburg and started a chant of "Stand Up If You Still Believe!", we stood, we sung those words loud, we truly believed. As it echoed around the ground, the old couple sat next to me that had been telling me stories of the 1975 FA Cup final against West Ham, Fulham's last final, shed a tear as they realised something truly magical was about to happen. The team felt it too and responded, Simon Davies scored. The chant grew louder. Seven minutes later Zoltan Gera scored. Pandemonium ensued. Followed by that familiar old feeling from New Malden of panic that there was still 15 minutes to go. It didn't matter. My friends and I went to Hamburg. Stood on a train packed with Atletico Madrid fans, Stanner and I tried to out sing them and was rewarded with cheers and hugs and what I can only assume was good natured Spanish abuse. We lost the final, but I was there, with my friends. We commiserated in a bar by our hostel with St Pauli fans who'd supported us, we introduced dearly missed Danny to Jager. We saw our little club on one of the biggest stages in Europe. I was there.
The Boys in Hamburg
My brother started me thinking about all this by trying to say that his club would be better as Fulham "hasn't done anything." We have only won an InterToto cup while in the top flight, but we've played pretty good football, the Cottage is a fortress by the river that other teams don't like coming too. It is home. You see, my friends have their experiences with their clubs, I have mine. I traveled to FA Cup semi's against Chelsea, I've stood in the Premier League and watched a Geordie pee onto his own supporters below him when we were giving Newcastle and Alan Shearer another warm London welcome. I watched Gera score an overhead kick right in front of me to beat Manchester United, I watched a heartbroken father celebrate Premiership survival with the only physical link he had left to his murdered son. We may not have won any cups or leagues since the year we came up, but I've seen that club and it's fans do amazing things, wonders even. So yes, I am supporting Fulham this week, next week too for that matter. I can't wait to bring my Palace supporting Dad and friends to the Cottage by the River and return to Selhurst Park to see my club play were I saw my first game of football. Football is about moments with your friends and fellow supporters. You enjoy every second of it, endure every second of it and you never forget it. I can't wait to share a moment with the Palace lot, hopefully with all 6 points heading back to SW6. My brother can sort out his own ticket.