I have two general rules for watching English football in person: 1, Don’t sit with the away fans unless you’re one of them, and 2, To really see what it’s about, get yourself to a proper FA Cup tie.
Good news for me: I did both at the same time. Bad news for me: I went to Sheffield United to see Fulham play.
This won’t mean anything to you unless you’re a Blades or Cottagers fan, but for us Fulham folks, the word “Sheffield” represents the low point of a disastrous season. And, lucky me, I got to see the first leg in person. In the rain. Standing up. And I barely made it out.
First, if you’re American and you don’t know what the FA Cup is, you can read my whole guide to the leagues and cups of English football, or I’ll just tell you to imagine the whole world of college football in the States having a single tournament that goes on for nine months. First the NAIA schools play each other, then in each round you bring in NCAA Division III, then Division II, and so on. It’s single-elimination, totally random as to who plays where, and it all leads to a championship game at the Rose Bowl … or, in the FA Cup, at Wembley Stadium in London.
I was seeing a Fourth Round game between Fulham (then) of the Premier League and Sheffield United, of League One (the third division). Fulham being a smallish, not very successful team from well-to-do West London, and Sheffield being a pretty-good-for their size team in what used to be a big-time steel town. So, think, oh … Boston College playing at Michigan Tech, in the rain, on a muddy pitch … hence a “proper” FA Cup tie.
I was staying in Manchester, having seen a Cup game at Manchester City the day before, and my day started early. Kickoff in Sheffield was at 1 p.m., so I was on the 9:15 Trans Pennines express to South Yorkshire, which turned out to be quite the old-fashioned experience.
I got there early, picked up my ticket, got a coffee and pastry, and took my seat with the other locals on the … bench seating? By the time we left, it was standing-room-only in there.
The train actually revved up its (apparently diesel) engine before pulling out, then proceeded to stop (for about 30 seconds) in every little town along the way. When the ticket guy game through, I couldn’t make out a word he said other than “tickets” and then “cheers.” Some accents are thicker than others.
20 minutes out, we stopped at Marple, where the engineer walked through the train, then backed us into the station again. We were now on the opposite track, and he made an announcement which I missed every word of.
I was sitting next to a college kid from Manchester, studying in Sheffield, and a Man City fan. But all he really wanted to talk about was American football. Apparently it’s growing in popularity over here, especially among the younger folks, and he’s a Patriots fan. Also plays receiver on a school team. It was funny, each of us trying to get the other to talk about our football.
I felt like just a regular footy fan, chatting with the locals, going back in time and down through the leagues. We arrived in Sheffield around Noon, and I admired the very fancy development outside the station.
The irony of a water feature on a pouring-rain day didn’t inspire me, but I was happy to be on the scene. I asked a cop for directions, and he pointed to a church just visible among the buildings, then said “ ‘At’s Bramall Lane.”
As I started off, three buses (called coaches over here) passed by, filled with Fulham supporters up from London, and I took out my black and white scarf to give it a wave at them. I briefly felt fired up, then slogged off into the rain towards the ground.
I must say, everybody I talked to in town (save one, and we’ll get to him) was friendly and welcoming. But the stadium, and the scene around it, is not exactly glamorous. It is, however, according to Wikipedia, “the oldest major stadium in the world still to be hosting professional football matches.” It opened in April, 1855!
Here is a film taken there in 1902!
It does have its own old-fashioned charm, though, especially this sign announcing the upcoming fixtures:
There was just a long row of houses across the street, and one fish and chips place, where I got a full order (because that’s how I roll) and couldn’t come close to finishing it.
And there were clear signs that last night’s weather was even worse:
I have learned here that a good intro to a complete stranger is the phrase, “Fancy your chances?” The kid on the train had asked me, so I asked a fellow eating chips next to me, escaping the rain under an awning. This one, a Blades man, said he did. And I said I would, too. Fulham was awful that season. Mostly, English folks seem to downplay their team’s chances, but Sheffield was excited to have a vulnerable Premier League team coming to the ground, even if Sheffield was in the relegation zone of League One.
The Fulham folks, on their coaches, were being dropped off right by the entrance to the away stand, an experience called a “Bubble Trip”
This is the Jessica Ennis Stand, named for the Sheffield-native UK track star.
They really keep the home and away fans away from each other.
And the feeling of being somewhat hemmed in is only made worse in the claustrophobic entrance gates.
Once inside, the Fulham folks did the usual: stand around drinking beer and talking about the game.
Most of the chatter was about how awful the season had been, and in this case also the fact that we’d made 11 changes from the previous league game. In other words, it’s an all-new starting lineup, an indication that perhaps the club didn’t care too much about the FA Cup – at least, not compared to staying in the League.
This was also my first real hangout with large numbers of Fulham fans, and they struck me as friendly, happy, and perhaps a little more well-off than the crowd around, say, West Bromwich Albion. A friend of mine compares them to the Kansas City Chiefs, and I’d say maybe that’s right.
I usually go in for a local food specialty, but this time, I passed.
Inside, leading up to the game, a group of “Chicago Blades” was welcomed (who knew?), but most of the energy in our stand was all about singing. Always count on the away fans to make the most noise.
Fulham has one fun song (mostly) about former owner Mohamed Al Fayed, set to the chorus of “Volare”:
“Al Fayed … o o o o!
He wants to be a Brit!
And QPR are shit.”
We also sang to the Sheffield people about how their ground is too big for them, which might explain the roof over our heads: Home fans above away fans can lead to “missiles.”
Meanwhile, they welcomed back Paul Peschisolido, a Sheffield great from about 10 years ago, when they made runs to the semifinals of the FA Cup and League Cup. He also scored an amazing winner (and completely lost his mind in celebration) in this memorable playoff semifinal:
This was a far less glorious occasion, and in fact I learned later that the FA only decided to go ahead with the game about an hour before. The issue was the pitch, which all the rain had turned into a mud bog. Look at these images!
But it did go on, and soon into it we Fulham fans decided not to sit at all. One guy called it “a stand-up job,” and it worked for me, since sitting down was near painful due to lack of knee space.
Well, Fulham were awful and Sheffield at least scrappy. In fact, they even took a 1-0 lead, leaving us only to work through our collection of songs and complaints. We sang “Come on you Whites” and something about our Greek player Karagounis which I couldn’t make out, and we sang that their support was “f—ng shit.” And we yelled at the “line-o.” Fulham has a nice song set to “Country Roads” about going home to Craven Cottage by the river. (Here’s that one.)
But there was some bitterness, too. We sang about always being out of the Cup, and then we yelled “You fat bastard” at some random big dude walking by. And the pitch was a joke. Riise had to go out after sliding into the boards and hurting himself, and our keeper gave up a corner when he pounced on a loose ball … and then slid over the end line!
Halftime, at least, had its humor – first with the appearance of … whoever this is supposed to be.
… and then watching the grounds crew try to deal with the conditions in front of goal.
After that, the game sank into the mire. Sheffield just wanted to protect their lead, so they sat back, but Fulham were so bad they could barely get a shot off. One time, the Sheffield people taunted us with “That’s why you’re going down,” and we went at them with the same, and then they sang “That’s why we’re going down.” It was kind of fun.
Fulham hit the post and later missed a complete sitter, and we were getting highly frustrated in the away end. Adel Taraabt came on, and within five minutes had made three awful plays, so we started singing to take him off. Then Kasami should have seen red, which sent the Sheffield people into complete fits. But we were yelling at our lame defender Senderos to not get a nosebleed from going too high up the pitch. It was basically a contest to see who could be more upset.
Fulham finally got one, somehow, and it finished 1-1, which meant a replay at Craven Cottage. None of us looked forward to that. Here are the official highlights from the game I saw at Sheffield. As you’ll see, even the ref had a bad game, missing too stonewall penalties:
(In fact, Sheffield won the replay, in one of the worst games ever played, and eventually made the Semifinals of the Cup at Wembley, losing 5-3 to Hull. They also won something like their next eight league games and comfortably avoided relegation. Fulham, meanwhile, went down to the Championship.)
I still had to walk through the rain to the station, which involved going around the whole thing, through a sea of frustrated Sheffield people. Naively, I left my Fulham colors on. (Rule #3: remove away colors outside the stadium!) One guy asked if Fulham had had that ref in the League, and I said I didn’t know. Then another guy broke off from his group, walked over to me, and said, angrily, “You were lucky, and you’re goin’ down!”
All I could say to him was, “You’re right,” and then to myself, “Let’s take off the colors now!” I walked back to the station in peace, traded commiseration with another Whites supporter there, then got a bevvie with a unique quality for the train ride back to Manchester:
The trip back was a nicer train and more scenic route, through the Pennines …
I decided it had been a fine and proper FA Cup tie, and a nice trip to Sheffield. I’ll have to come back when the weather is better and I’m more of a neutral, instead of following a crappy team to screw things up in a mudfest.