Unsurprisingly, I am regularly asked: “what is your favourite football ground that you have ever visited?” My answer is the same every time. Craven Cottage. I love the place. My first visit to the Cottage came in February 2009 for an FA Cup replay between then Championship Swansea and Premier League Fulham. The fact that the game went to a replay in the first place was ludicrous as Swansea had given the Premier League team a battering in the initial game at the Liberty Stadium in front of the ITV cameras; the game finished 1-1 with Jason Scotland scoring a sublime equaliser for the Swans after Garry Monk had scored an own goal to put Fulham ahead. The draw forced a replay and to West London we went with the knowledge that a win for us would mean a home game against Manchester United in the next round – a huge deal for the Swans at the time. When Jason Scotland opened the scoring for the Swans, at Craven Cottage, raucous choruses of “Bring on United!” bellowed from the away end. Unfortunately, the choruses were short lived as an inspired Clint Dempsey led Fulham to a 2-1 victory. Despite the disappointment of the result, I had fallen in love with the ground. I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to return when Swansea went there as a Premier League team last season (even more so when we delivered our best performance of the season in fine 3-0 display). In regards to football, my 2012 would finish at Craven Cottage to watch Swansea take on Fulham just two days before the New Year.
The country was still being hit by heavy rainfall and the lower league football fixture list was already full of the dreaded ‘P-P’. There was little chance of Swansea’s game being called off, but it was safe to say that the weather was horrid as I set off from South Wales to London. The 2 hour train journey down to London was filled with me playing the ‘spot-a-farm underwater’ game that I had invented (I saw 2 by the way), but just after10:30 I arrived into London Paddington and began to suss out how I was going to make the short journey to West London. Obviously, a trip to London isn’t complete without some rail works to scupper your journey and this was to prove the case today with the line to Putney, the nearest stop to Craven Cottage, closed. The plan was to now to head to Hammersmith and work my way to the Cottage from there – via some pubs of course.
After a brief wander around Hammersmith, I headed back to the Swan Inn directly opposite Hammersmith station. It was in here I met up with Keith Haynes, the writer of the book Shine on Swansea, and his contingent of Gloucester Jacks, John and Gary; we were later joined by the famous Howard of Cowbridge, a man who appears to have taken on iconic status following his mentions in Keith’s books. Keith and the gang sung the praises of the local ale, London Pride, whilst I had to endure spending £4.20 for a pint of San Miguel. Bloody London!
One of the more surreal moments of the day occurred when I asked a lad, who was sitting by himself, could he possibly take a photo of our party. In a strong American accent he asked, “Hey, are you guys Swansea fans?” When we replied in the affirmative (although I’m not sure if the question was necessary as we were all kitted out in a variety of Swansea merchandise) our American friend began to tell us how he was also a Swansea fan and how he and his mates, who eventually joined him, had come over from Connecticut to watch today’s game and Swansea’s New Years Day fixture against Aston Villa at the Liberty. The fandom apparently sprung from his uncle being one of the Swans’ directors, although when we quizzed him on who the director was he didn’t seem to know his uncle’s own name! One of the American Jacks was even in the process of reading Keith’s book so was amazed to bump into the book’s author in a pub in West London. The Swans are truly global these days.
When talk turned today’s game, I got the sense that people were not very confident of an away win today and the away day standard statement of “I’ll take a point today” was reeled out on more than one occasion by Swansea fans throughout the day. I was very much in the “take a draw” camp as despite Fulham’s woeful run of form, I was under the impression that they would have to turn it around soon and why not again us. Also, Fulham had the influential Bryan Ruiz returning to their team today and I believed it was no coincidence that Fulham’s massive nosedive down the table coincided with Ruiz being injured for the past two months. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a big fan of Ruiz and although he would be taking on my beloved Swans today, I ultimately like to see great players play so I was looking forward to seeing him play.
After a few beers, I departed the lads in the Swan Inn and went to meet Tom. Tom was supposed to be bringing his girlfriend to the game, but she had pulled out and instead he informed me that he had a special guest coming down with him: Tom’s Dad, also conveniently called Tom. Tom Probert Snr., an Everton fan, would be experiencing his first trip with the Jack Army today so I was hopeful we would put a good show on for him, players and fans. I couldn’t be bother to work out the general direction of Craven Cottage, so instead we headed to the taxi rank and hitched a ride to the Crabtree, a pub very near the Cottage and where I was due to meet some fellow Jacks. The taxi drive across West London was a short one costing just over £5 – I did not realise how close Hammersmith is to Putney.
We arrived at the Crabtree and we were greeted by a very busy bar with mix of Swansea and Fulham fans. The place was so busy that we opted to buy two pints each. This was made even better by the fact they sold my beloved Barcelona based lager Estrella Damm. With our pints in hand we headed out to the beer garden, which was easily the pub’s best feature; it was huge with plenty of space to mingle and with the majority of it being sheltered from the rain. In here we met our usual crowd of Swansea fans and once again there was talk of “taking a draw” today. I was particularly disappointed to hear that Medwyn had been chatting to Steffan Rhodri, AKA Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey, in the pub but did not persuade him to come joins us for a Lost Boyo photo. I was even more disappointed when one of the younger Jacks in our party knocked over and spilt my pint of Estrella – in all fairness, I’d probably had enough during the afternoon anyway.
The clock reached 14:30 and we decided to make the 10 minute walk through the streets zigzagging along the Thames riverbank to Craven Cottage. The ground has been the home of Fulham FC since 1896 and the name of the ground dates back to the late 18th century. The ‘Cottage’ mentioned in the ground’s name was built by William Craven in the 1780s as a hunting lodge and was located roughly where the ground’s centre circle lies today. The lodge was in a prime location as the Putney area was mainly woodland over 200 years. Fulham hold the record of having the second most home grounds in British football with 12 different places called home (as I reported on this Lost Boyo trip, their nearby neighbours QPR hold the record for most home grounds with 14 grounds being called home). After a traipse around several homes, Fulham played their first game at the ground in 1896, before a stand had even been built. It wasn’t until the famous football ground architect Archibald Leitch ( the man who designed a large portion of football stadia in the early 20th century including Anfield, Old Trafford, Highbury and Hampden Park amongst many other famous grounds) became involved in the site that the ground really began to resemble a football stadium. It was also Leitch that built the famous Pavilion, the small house in the corner of Craven Cottage, which many people mistake as the cottage referenced in the ground’s name. The red bricked Stevenage Road Stand, which was renamed the Johnny Haynes Stand in 2005 to celebrate it’s 100 year existence, and the Pavilion are now Grade II listed buildings. Today, the ground holds 25, 700 fans, but this was only after the existence of the Cottage as Fulham’s home was threatened. Fulham entered the Premier League in 2001 with Craven Cottage not at the required Premier League standard – standing terraces were banned from top flight grounds for one thing. Fulham had one season to improve the ground before they were prohibited to play top flight football there; the club never got around to the refurbishing of their home and the club opted to play their home games at Loftus Road for 1 and half seasons. Protest from Fulham fans, including many refusing to attend ‘home’ games at Loftus Road led to the board going ahead with the £8m refurbishment of Craven Cottage and the required improvements were made ready for Fulham to play Premier League football at the Cottage once again in 2004/05.
We walked past the Johnny Haynes Stand and the statue of Haynes, probably Fulham’s most famous son, and went through the turnstiles of the Putney End Stand. The concourse is unlike any other in the Premier League as it is completely open. Part of the reason I love the Cottage so much is because of the away end; the concourse can get a bit crowded but it is huge with plenty of food and drink outlets meaning you don’t have to queue for a ridiculous amount of time. However, the best feature is the fact that you can actually drink right alongside the River Thames – on a sunnier day, I can’t imagine a more picturesque area to enjoy a prematch pie and drink in a football ground in the UK. Also, there are two drink stalls near the river bank that have much smaller queues than the other outlets – this is where we headed for our a few drinks before the kick-off. Conveniently, access to our seats was right next to this part of the ground. The Putney End also has the strange accolade of housing the club’s tree, the only tree in any football ground in the whole country apparently (surely there must be some non-league grounds with trees in them though?)
Similar to many traditional grounds, Fulham has four sepearate, individual stands meaning that the four corners of the ground are unfilled. Our seats happened to be right in one of these corners so if the weather was to return to it’s former torrential status, we were in for an absolute soaking as we had little to no cover. In the stand to the left of us and directly next to where we were sitting was the Riverside Stand, unsurpisingly named as it sits right on the Thames riverbank; opposite the Putney End, behind the further goals, is the Hammersmith Stand, where Fulham’s most vocal fans sit; and to our right was the Johnny Haynes Stand. One other quirk I have to mention of Craven Cottage (there are many after all), is that it must be the only ground in the country that features a ‘Neutral Area’ for fans who want to sit outside of the rivalries of the two competing teams (although from what I hear, fans of the two teams playing usually just seem to sit in it).
Unlike most grounds where the team enter the field of play via the tunnels on the halfway line, both teams began crossing the field from the corner of the ground that houses the Pavilion to lineup ready for kick off. As the team’s came out I realised that our seats were next to Dan, the guy behind one of my favourite Swansea sites, We Are Premier League (@We_R_PL) – a site that looks at stats and chalkboards for every Swans game. An excellent site that is a must read for all Jacks.
It was Fulham that started the game the be with Ruiz getting the ball to Berbatov for a corner, only for the classy Bulgarian to smash his volley into the wet surface and over the bar. Swansea slowly began to make their way into the game and on the 19 minute, the Swans found themselves ahead. Some good play down the right wing between Angel Rangel and Nathan Dyer put the little winger through on goal; his subsequent shot could only be parried by David Stockdale in the Fulham game and Danny Graham acrobatically converted the reboound into the net from 8 yards. Danny has had a tough time of it under Laudrup but he has always been a bit of a fan favourite amongst Swans fan, so the away end was delighted to see the Geordie striker score. Fulham’s star performer was easily my man Ruiz who was completely running the show. The Costa Rican international was firing on site as he put one freekick just over the bar and had a powerfuls hot saved by Gerhard Tremmel, who was replacing Michel Vorm. Today was not the most typical of Swansea performance and the Swansea were more dogged than usual, something that was required for them to get to half-time at 1-0 up.
Half time was spent drinking along the river bank and discussing what Swansea needed to do to improve for the second half. The Swans had a substitution forced them at half time with Ki Sung Yeung coming on for Wayne Routledge who had picked up a slight knock in the first half. Fulham carried on attacking the Swans in the early stages of the second half but Swansea were defending brilliantly with Ashley Williams and captain fantastic Garry Monk being particularly imperious. The Swansea team was without Chico Flores today, but the team’s loss would be the fans’ gain as the Spanish fan favourite joined the Jack Army in the stands. Cue repeated chant at the Spanish defender. What a guy!
In the 52nd minute, Stockdale had a howler when he fired his clearance at his own defender, only for Pablo Hernandez to gather the rebound and play in Jonathan De Guzman to score an easy 2nd goal for the Swans. Fulham had gifted the Swans their two goals and their manager, Martin Jol, would publically blame his goalie for both goals after the game.
4 minutes later, Fulham would get their goal and it was inevitably through the mercurial Ruiz. Admittedly, the goal was far from mercurial as Ruiz finished into a half empty net after a penalty box scramble. Fulham’s goal seemed to be the cue for the torrential rain to return and with us unprotected from the elements, we soon found ourselves enduring a soaking; but, when your team are winning away, you can easily blank out the absolute soaking you are taking. As the rain came down heavily, Berbatov thought he had equalised after his rebounded effort from Bryan Ruiz’s saved shot was ruled out for offside. There was very little of note in the closing stages of the game as Swansea battled hard to maintain their one goal lead. Fulham’s attacking threat just seemed to ebb out and soon Swansea had claimed their win and an important 3 points away from home.
We worked our way out of the ground (I even bumped into big Swansea tweeter @mattthejack on the way out, but my companions were rushing ahead of me so I had little time to chat) and decided to head back to the Crabtree. The Crabtree was even busier than before the game and after 5 minutes of queueing we decided to call it a write off and instead began the walk to Hammersmith. It turned out that Hammersmith was not that far away at all (just short of 15 minutes walking) and there was probably no need to get a taxi from there earlier in the day. To end our day down London, we enjoyed a couple more drinks in The Swan Inn before the two Tom Proberts made their way back towards their North Wales abode and I headed back to the tube and back to Paddington Station.
Having not been there for almost 4 years and having waxed lyrical about the Cottage during that time, I was worried that the ground was not going to be as good as I remembered it being. No chance. Craven Cottage is still my favourite ground in the country. It is in a great location, has a friendy environemnt and has a number of unique quirks, many that I’ve tried to list in this piece (I’ve not even mentioned the bizarre turn of events that led to a statue of Michael Jackson being erected outside the ground). If you get the chance to visit the Cottage, just go. I know I’ll certainly be going again.
Highlights: another away win for the Swans, good pubs near the ground, the crowd’s numerous quirks (e.g. enjoy a prematch drink in the ground on the banks of the Thames), great sense of history to the ground, friendly fans, big, open concourse with plenty of food/drink stalls to avoid queues.
Low Points: Fulham fans create little noise/atmosphere (almost too nice!), getting soaked because of the lack of cover, not a great game.