I took my son and his friend to Craven Cottage yesterday to see Liverpool collect a comfortable three points against a Fulham team who are clinging on to Premiership survival for dear life. My friend Chopper (author of The Hammy End Chronicle) had got tickets for us and we met him and Chop junior for an afternoon sat in the part of the ground lauded in his blog title.
I always enjoy my trips to Fulham, I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it's the character of Craven Cottage, the mix of old and new. Maybe it's the supporters, who always seem good natured, even when losing. Maybe it's the location of the venue, right next to the river. It is probably a combination of all of these things. It is a friendly club, a family friendly club, and I would rather it not be Fulham that get relegated this season.
The problem is, that looks very likely. It has looked likely for some time. But then last week they put in a great performance down the Thames Valley at Reading, a 2-0 win giving them their first away win in thirty four attempts. With Derby already relegated, Fulham are the bookmaker's favourites to join them but the result last week kept the books open for a little longer. But after yesterday's result against Liverpool, and more importantly, the manner of the result, some bookies may decide to no longer take bets.
My journey to Craven Cottage must be one of the most relaxing journeys I have made to a match this season. It started at Weybridge train station listening to a 1940s style swing band on the platform as they entertained a wedding party, all dressed in period costume. My son thought the band were there especially to see us off to the match; I didn't have the heart to tell him otherwise. Whistling Glen Miller tunes it was a short trip to Wimbledon for an even shorter hop to Putney Bridge. From there, an extremely picturesque stroll through Bishop's Park, which stretches along the banks of River Thames, to the ground. All very civilised.
By the time we got to the ground, the atmosphere was already building. Liverpool fans had turned out in force and occupied all of the opposite Putney End. And they were in fine voice throughout the game. The game was officially a sell out (the attendance was 25,311) and pre-match the home support were also up for it. Fulham had even provided small pieces of paper in plastic bags under many of the seats in the Hammersmith End which resulted in a fine ticker-tape reception for the emerging teams. This was a must win game for the home side and although the atmosphere was good and the Fulham fans kept the volume up for the best part of the game, it was mixed with a pinch of tension and an unmistakable splash of resignation.
Fulham were unchanged from their win at Reading, Liverpool had made eight changes from their last game. This was an equally important match for Liverpool who are after securing fourth spot, but they fielded an understrength team. No Gerrard. No Torres. No Carragher. With one eye on next week's big European game and the media circus preying on the off-field affairs at the club, Rafa Benitez got it spot on with his squad rotation and his approach to the game.
Both sides started brightly with some good probing wide play; Pennant was a menace for Liverpool and Dempsey made some strong runs for Fulham. Fulham forced a couple of early free kicks in wide positions but the resultant crosses failed to test Reina who was equal to any aerial threat. In front of Reina, Sami Hyppia defended well and started to assert his control. In front of Hyppia, Javier Mascherano had a great game in midfield and managed to nullify the threat posed by Dempsey, Bullard and Davies. The supply line for McBride and Healy was effectively cut off at source and although the two worked their socks off, and for all of Fulham's dominance in spells, they didn't really look like scoring. For his part in this, Mascherano got my vote as man-of-the-match.
Liverpool took the lead on seventeen minutes when Lucas Leiva threaded the ball to Pennant who had found some space inside the Fulham left back, Paul Konchesky. The Liverpool wide man accelerated with ease onto the pass and unleashed a great early shot with flew over Kasey Keller's left shoulder into the net. Keller barely moved. A man surprised. After that goal, Liverpool controlled the game and Fulham were left chasing. The visitors played with a degree of quality, much of the ball on the deck, and totally within themselves. Fulham's play was hurried, tense and at times lacked purpose. The visitors lead by that solitary goal at the break. Fulham went in, heads down; they have not won a game after trailing at half time for three years.
Liverpool's second goal put paid to that statistic being broken. Peter Crouch scored it with twenty minutes remaining. At first, I thought he had shot straight at Keller and it was easily saved. Seeing the fans from Merseyside celebrating at the opposite end it was obvious they had scored, but I couldn't quite work out how. Television replays have since showed that the ball had squirmed through Keller's legs. This was a game the American stopper will quickly want to forget.
Fulham created chances either side of Crouch's effort, the most notable from the head of Dempsey (twice) which failed to hit the target and later in the game a header from Erik Nevland which was saved at point-blank range from Reina, although the assistant referee already had his flag in the air. It was not to be for the home side who managed only four shots on target in ninety minutes. Liverpool were cruising to an all too easy win, Fulham were running out of huff, out of puff and out of ideas.
And, as far as their season goes, running out of time. The Craven Cottage outfit are now five points adrift of safety but have only three games to play. Three wins is a must and although not impossible, it is asking a great deal. Away games at Manchester City and Portsmouth either side of a home game with Birmingham City make it a huge ask. The way Fulham are playing it is even more than that. And I think many Fulham fans have accepted the inevitable.
All the way through the game yesterday, the pitch side hoardings emblazoned with the LG logo of the team sponsor would flash the messages "Life's Good" and "Take It To The Edge". Unfortunately for this welcoming club from SW6, yesterday's result has indeed taken them to the edge. With one foot dangling over, it is looking rather precarious for Fulham.