This year is the twentieth-first anniversary of me being 16.
To celebrate I have renewed the Fulham season ticket I last had for the 1984/85 season, and started to wear my old Smiths T-shirts again.
On Friday Tania and I went to see Tom who plays his guitar under the name Boss Hog every Friday night in the Willoughby Arms in Kingston. Its a friendly old style pub, where the landlord has been there for exactly twelve years and says goodbye to you as you leave.
Tom played old songs by Billy Bragg, Jam, the Clash, The Cure. He sings them well, you can hear the words and he does them justice. At his best with 'Thats Entertainment', 'Say hello wave goodbye', 'Boys don't Cry' and 'Fairy tale from New York'.
Tom is a big Billy Bragg (and Fulham) fan. I told him at the interval that when I was sixteen I had done a deal with my sister: she could play Billy Bragg and I would play the Smiths. Like Spain and Portugal in the Renaissance dividing up the New World with the blessing of the Pope. I was the older brother, so like Spain I think I got the best of the deal (though history tells us that the Portugese part of the new world has won more world cups than the Spanish parts). In the gig Tom played the intro to 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' then stopped and told me I should have chosen Billy Bragg, because its easier to play on guitar.
In 184-85 I sat with my dad in Block C, row C of the Stevenage Road stand at Craven Cottage. The oldest football stand in London. A listed building. I dont think there were many other season ticket holders that year, I dont remember anyone who sat round us, they must have changed every game. Block C was great, half way towards the Hammersmith End, the goal Fulham usually shoot to in the second half. Row C was three rows back from the Enclosure, where people stood up. You could hear the banter from the Enclosure while enjoying the view from the seat. If you went with some friends you just forgot about the seat and went to stand up on the Enclosure. Average home gate that season must have been 6,500.
A lot has happened to Fulham since 1985. First the chairman Ernie Clay sold off the first team as part of his plan to kill the club and chuck the carcass to a property developer. He made his millions, and Craven Cottage was saved only by a collapse in the UK property market. Then ten years of slowly sinking down the divisions. By 1994 Fulham were in the bottom division, under the chairmanship of the cringeworthy Jimmy Hill. No money. The players had to eat sandwiches on the way home from away games as an economy measure, the coach wouldn't even stop at a fish and chip shop shop for them. The ground looking a bit dilapidated. The top of the Eric Miller stand spelt out a message to the world 'F LHA ' in big letters (wouldn't have liked to have been standing on the touchline when the U and the M fell off).
Then the wheel started to turn, Mickey Adams cobbled a team together out of nothing, on nothing, wins an unlikely promotion and the club attracted the friendly interest of Mohammed Al Fayed. Inexorable rise to the top division with plenty of good football with a gallic twist played along the way, some of it seen by me, an occassional visitor popping back to an old friend.
So here we are at the start of 2006/07. Not all that much cash compared to many in the rest of the Premiership (would have been nice to have had enough to have bought Emile Heskey). Our star midfielder Malbranque won't play for us again. Needing to work hard to keep the wheel rolling forward, to stop it rolling back.
You hear lots of conversations when you go to a football match. When people talked about our first game of the season (away at Man Utd) you always heard the word 'shambles'. When people spoke of Wednesday's game with Bolton you heard the word 'poor'. True you would have come across the same words if you had read a newspaper, but the journalists added another word, not to be spoken of, beginning with 'r' and ending in you being sent to Coventry and Southend and loosing millions of pounds.
You pass a second hand bookshop as you start walking from Putney Bridge station to Craven Cottage. In 1984/85 it was always shut on matchdays cos the owner coached a team on a Saturday. For the last ten years it has been open on matchdays: the bookseller got disullusioned with coaching 'couldnt stop my players from cheating' he said. On Saturday we met a Sheff United fan, Jim, looking at the books outside it. He had a thoughtful air, which could have been induced by the weighty tomes he was looking at, or by the fact that as he later told me, he was meeting his priest at the match, who in turn was going to work in Peru for three years.
I put the thoughtfulness down to the fact that Sheff United were, like us, facing a real test. Their first two games in the premiership had been against Liverpool and Tottenham, games they would expect to lose. This was the type of game they needed to get something from if they are going to avoid that 'r' word.
I told Jim, as I always tell every person I have met from Sheffield, that my sister lives in that City. He asked me whether Chris Coleman will still be manager of Fulham by Christmas, and told me that Fulham have not yet seen the best of Micheal Brown, who had been brilliant for Sheff U.
At the ground. We are in block CL, in the seats they have put over the old Enclosure, just underneath Block C where I used to sit. And on our seats is a T-shirt each with a picture of Jonny Haynes on it, a black and white picture ofthe black and white hero of the 1960s, to celebrate the fact that the Stevenage Road stand has been renamed after him. It is only us in the Johnny Haynes stand that get the T-shirt, we feel special, we know the rest of the ground wants one too. (The one on Andrew's seat is a junior size T-shirt, they must have put junior ones on the seats with kids season tickets)
So our second game in a week, our second game in our seats. All the people around us are the same people from Wednesday, we are safely cocooned within loyal season ticket holders. United start off better than Fulham: they are behind our defence in the first minute but our keeper Niemi catches it off the head of that big handful of a striker Rob Hulse.
Later the ball got booted into our block of the stand. A big bloke leaps up like David Seamen in his pomp to parry the ball and squashes his neighbour as he lands. The lady next to us turns to me and said 'not your turn this time'(referring to my catch of the ball on Wednesday) and asks whether I saw myself on telly . I had to confess that nobody had stopped me in the street.
Fulham start playing a bit after twenty minutes. Collins John (young, big, fast, still with a lot to learn) spun and hit the post. Jimmy Bullard had some shots. The sun came out after half an hour, it was shining right at us, and was being reflected from the floodlights. Two bright for Andrew, he couldnt look at the game. So we left our cocoon and went down behind the stand to buy a Fulham cap. While we were away Fulham scored. When we got back a fellow behind us tapped me on the shoulder to tell us how good Bullard's free kick was.
Second half. Fulham take a stanglehold on the midfield. we are down fairly low down, close to the action, Liam Rosenior rampages down the touchline near us. In 1985 we were watching his dad, Leroy, a great header of the ball, strong and powerful centre forward with a mild temprement. He later went to West Ham and famously scored a hat trick that got Chelsea relegated one year.
Tomas Radzinski comes on, looks like he is carrying a bit of weight. He was through on goal, he could see the whites of the goalkeeper's eyes but choses to pass instead. He is obviously short of confidence, Bullard almost saves his embarrasment by picking up the loose ball and cracking it against the post. Later Brian McBride surged through, underneath us again,this time their keeper managed to get a foot on it.
The three minutes of added time were a bit nervy, because all of a sudden Fulham pulled everyone back surrendering the ball to United. They had a couple of situations but we got the three points we deserved.
So the gloom has been lifted, at least for now, The midfield was solid and dominant, Bouba Diop was winning balls and playing neat passes, Jimmy Bullard was everywhere and did everything, Michael Brown passed well. Louis Boa Morte still hasnt found his touch yet though. Our central defence was solid, Philipe Christianval read things well and kept it simple. Lots of our threat came down the right from Liam Rosenior's forward runs. Just need one of our strikers to pick up confidence and start scoring goals.
So the walk back to Bishops Park, next to the Thames, tidal at Putney. One lad commented with suprise how much water there was in the Thames when there was virtually nothing there on Wednesday: could have been a metaphor for Fulham's week.
Talking of metaphors I read this joke in John T Barrow's book on infinity:
Question: what did the mystic say to the hamburger salesman?
Answer: 'make me one with everything'
At the end of the park we saw Jim from Sheffield again. He looked disappointed. He said we deserved our win, I wished him luck for their next home game (with Blackburn). Our next home game isn't till September 23, against our local rivals.
Will Chris Coleman still be Fulham manager at Christmas? I hope so.