‘Our fans deserved that performance and result-could hear you in the dressing room before the game….’ (David Stockdale via Twitter)
They bounced, they danced, they punched the air, and auld acquaintance was suspended, as Albion fans celebrated a pre-New Years Eve party at Craven Cottage this Monday evening. This was one of the best atmospheres I have ever experienced at an Albion away match, and I should know-I’ve been to a few.
If ever I could say that the supporters of our beloved club had won the team a victory, or certainly made a major contribution towards it, this was it. And as I made my way back through the happy throngs of Bishop’s Park, once the match was over, the crowds were still in good voice, even though the footballing Christmas had come a few days late.
In a case of Albion old and new, I had spent the previous night in Birmingham having seen Aston Villa and Sunderland play out a scoreless draw which wasn’t so much ended as euthanized. An evening on Broad Street with a friend sampling the best of the Brummie curry scene, and a few more shandys, being followed the next afternoon with a beautiful cultural wanderlust through Leamington Spa and Warwick- before the sub-conscious strains of Sussex-By-the-Sea called me south to the smoke.
I’d arrived with a fine cut of time at Putney station, no Albion fans on or joining the train from Waterloo. It had been an unusual weekend of perfect transport function (I’ll write this for wistful memory in future) and I arrived with about half an hour left to kick off.
Craven Cottage is always a pleasant trip. The walk up the High Street affords all the amenities that the forgetful East Stand Upper devotee has left behind, and the bridge over the Thames gives an awe inspiring view down the river that I never find myself tiring of. It was as I left the bridge for the dark and crowded walkways of the park that the noise of the creatively named Putney End Stand first met my eager lobes.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding senior appointments at the club, foremost the managerial vacancy, as well as the small matter of being second from bottom in the Championship, a convenient sponge of amnesia had gently joined the Christmas spirit that had lingered amongst the Albion faithful. The unity, and infectiously effervescent singing coming from the stand, had me muttering historical Albion ditties under my breath as I approached the turnstiles. How a first win at Fulham in 21 years would complete a splendid festive season.
Arriving to a rousing reception, the Albion amplified their ear sockets and played to its tune. On a cold night in SW6 the best approach is to play at pace, and both teams played an open passing game for the first period of play that was Championship football as it should be, even if the clearer chances weren’t forthcoming. Certainly, in playing Danny Holla and Rohan Ince in the holding role, Albion looked accomplished and unthreatened in midfield. Whilst they hadn’t bombarded the home goal in quite the way they would have hoped, the only heart stopping first-half moment for us was Kostas Stafylidis pass across the Albion penalty area that Hugo Rodallega’s sliding legs failed to attach themselves to. And quite rightly so. A 1-0 deficit at half time would have been an injustice. So half time brought no goals, and increasingly well oiled, or simply caught in the spirit, Albion’s travelling band were to find a higher octave as the second half started.
During the break I went behind the stand to join the Pint (or Bovril) seeking queues. A sneaky fag was soon the goal as I had seen another successful attempt. At Villa Park, a blind eye is turned to such activity behind the North Stand in an open-air enclosure, probably because so many do it. Two consecutive days of such nostalgic endeavour were denied to me by other memories. Officious stewards and the historic attentiveness of the Metropolitan Police, once regarded as the second most hard line detractors of the football fan (ironically behind the West Midlands bobbies), were enough to put me off. After chatting with an old friend I went back to the stand, moving higher up on this occasion, and daring to move closer to the biggest concentration of our infectious singing hordes.
Ageing Albion stalwarts will note the redevelopment of the Putney End Stand, with it’s roof and corrugated iron structure-not too dissimilar to that of the South Stand of Harlequins RFC just down the road. Most Albion fans will know what a racket that a few stamping feet can make and, when suitably care-free, how much fun bouncing up and down to simple and rudderless melodies can be. If anyone had forgotten last night, they soon remembered. And people of all ages joined in good voice.
Optimism, and doubtless another rousing team talk from the much, and unfairly maligned, Nathan Jones saw Albion starting once again with purpose. And having threatened enough to fuel the travelling fans confidence, the breakthrough came when Elliott Bennett went down under Stafylides challenge in the 60th minute. The penalty was calmly put away by Adrian Colunga.
By the 70th minute there seemed to be a growing, if unspoken, anxiety amongst the Albion fans. As Fulham pressed, and David Stockdale once again proved his worth, the big digital scoreboard above the Hammersmith End wasn’t adding the minutes on quickly enough. A second goal was needed, and if we could just see that true, our night would be complete.
Having replaced Craig Mackail-Smith with Solly March in the 74th minute, I wondered if Nathan Jones was sending the team defensive too early. It seemed that by bringing on Chris O’Grady a few minutes later this was balanced up. O’Grady won most clearances in the air, and was pivotal to the move that won the game.
In the 87th minute that moment came, with O’Grady and Teixeira teaming up for Solly March to steal in and neatly tuck home the winner. The iron structure erupted and our joy was complete.
After 5 minutes of injury time, scraping the barrel of stoppages, it was all over. The fourth league win of the season. Whatever misgivings people may have about the prospect of Nathan Jones as full-time manager, it is for certain that he has the team playing for him. The unbridled joy on his face as the team walked across us to the tunnel at the end, acknowledging our efforts, was plain for all to see.
As I left the stadium, and crossed Putney Bridge, the sight of London at night seemed ever more endearing. The lights were brighter, the night seemed clearer, the temperature seemed warmer, and Christmas was made happier. The Albion had delivered a perfect present, and so had the supporters. Whatever the worries over the direction of the club are, the one thing that can help the team over the line is unity and passion. Tonight was a little unfair on Fulham really, they weren’t just playing 11 men, there was a 3,000 strong choir in the away end that they had to contend with too.
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