Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fulham 2 Birmingham City 0

Ten to three, Saturday May 3 2008. Block CL, Johnny Haynes Stand. Me and Andrew are eating strawberries from a punnet as the rest of Craven Cottage bellows their support for Fulham before the vital relegation crunch against Birmingham.

Somehow it felt right, the day was hot, the mood was of nervous expectancy and the strawberries were delicious. I offered one to the people on our row and the one behind us: people whose black humour with occasional glimmers of cheer have mirrored Fulham's season. I did think of offering them to the folks in the row in front of me, who have suffered this season not just from Lawrie Sanchez's long ball football and second rate signings, but also from having their chairs kicked by my Andrew in his more fidgety moments. But I ducked out of that one.

This wasn't just another in the long string of must-win games we have had at Craven Cottage this year (most of which Fulham lost!). If we lost this one we were relegated. The fact that Birmingham were in just as serious a predicament added spice to the encounter. Do or die today.

Fulham were all over Birmingham for the first ten minutes with high tempo passing football. The atmosphere was unrecognisable from your normal laid back Craven Cottage. Every chant from the Hammersmith End was echoed and amplified by the whole of the Johnny Haynes stand.

The game plateaud out. Birmingham's defence looked strong. Jimmy Bullard gave the ball away in his own half a couple of times which led to Birmingham's best chances. Breda Hangeland used his strength to dominate Birmingham's striker James McFadden.

Half time. General impression we had done allright but hadn't really looked like scoring. A man in his fifties washing his hands in the gents said that he hadn't slept the previous night for thinking about this game.

Second half. Not long gone. Free kick half way in Birmingham's half, Jimmy Bullard floats in a diagonal ball and Brian McBride heads in. One-nil to us and I expected that Birmingham would come at us with all guns blazing. But no, Fulham kept on swarming forward. Birmingham seem to have crumbled . When they brought on an extra striker virtually every outfield player ran over to him, asking for instructions on where their boss wanted them to play - a sure sign of disarray.

Fulham's forward momentum subsided, Birmingham started to get back into it. You couldn't take your eyes off it, it was frenetic. Fulham playing with huge commitment and intensity : flying into tackles and blocks. The guy behind me asked whether Brum's left back had an injury: whenever we broke down the right Simon Davies seemed to have oceans of space. There was nothing Birmingham could do about it, they had used all their subs.

Five minutes to go, Birmingham have a chance at one end. Then a hopeful ball somehow gets through the Birmingham defence and Eric Nevland finds himself alone with only the keeper to beat. Calmness personified, never looking like missing, he rolled the ball into the net.

Delirium. I leap on the man in front of me (to mitigate or compound the sin of not offering a strawberry?) I looked round at Andrew: he was being embraced by the person behind me. I hugged John the nice fella to the left of me, then Andrew. High fives with the fella behind me and the fella next to him. It seemed to last for ages but when I looked at the pitch again the Fulham players were still in a heap in front of the Hammersmith end. Murphy and Bullard on top of Eric Nevland.

We only ever see Eric Nevland for 15 minutes at the end of a game but this was the second time in three weeks that he has slotted away a vital clinching goal.

Eventually the game resumed, the Johnny Haynes stand all standing up now. And for the first time this season a new chant is heard: not the plaintive yearning of 'come on Fulham' but the deep voiced certainty of 'we are staying up'.

Stoppage time. The fellas behind me started hugging and doing their own special dance: we turn around and they explain 'the final whistle has gone at Reading: they've lost one-nil'.

The final whistle goes, everyone stays behind to witness a joyous lap of honour. After being being second from bottom for four months, Fulham had now pulled themselves out of the bottom three, and would stay up if they won their last game of the season away at Portsmouth.

No comments: