(This post was originally written in December, 2015, and updated in October 2018.)
I have always said that if you’re going to watch an English soccer game, don’t sit with the away fans unless you’re one of them.
Generally, this is true because the away fans tend to be the rowdy ones. If you happen to be wearing the wrong colors, it could get uncomfortable. Same if you dislike jumping, shouting, crowding and cursing.
But I now have another addendum to the rule: If the away fans’ team is having a poor season, sitting with them just might make you doubt your appreciation of humanity.
And I was sitting with the Fulham people! — a group so tame that I once heard an Arsenal fan say he couldn’t get bothered about them because “they’re so bloody nice.” And it’s true: Fulham, my adopted English team, is in a posh area of West London and is known for having calm fans and a lovely ground, where your team usually gets a result.
Back in 2015, when I sat with the Fulham folks in, incredibly, the Franking Sense Stand at Bolton’s Macron Stadium, Fulham were 18th of 24 teams in the Championship — and without a manager, as they had been for weeks. So there weren’t many of them, and they weren’t in a terribly good mood.
On the other hand, their hosts for the evening were Bolton Wanderers, who were the No. 24, aka rock-bottom, team in the league. They had one win in 13 games, their worst run in 50 years, and even the sweet old lady at the chippy where I had lunch couldn’t believe I was there to see them. “They’re going down,” she assured me. The local papers had headlines like “Manager Sure Club Will Avoid Bankruptcy” and “Players Set to be Paid Before Fulham Game.”
Among the odd notes: They are called Bolton Wanderers, and their nickname is … the Trotters. I suppose this makes sense to someone.
Bolton used to be a giant club — in the 1920s. They won the FA Cup three times back then, and their hero of those days, Nat Lofthouse, is honored with a statue outside and a stand inside. Around its base, the statue has his final words, “I’ve got the ball now. It’s a bit worn, but I’ve got it,”
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They won the Cup a fourth time in the 1950s, bottomed out for decades, then splashed a bunch of cash to actually make the Champions League in the mid 2000s. And, like so many clubs, somewhere along the way they abandoned their traditional ground and built a bigger, nicer, completely sterile new one on the edge of town. The Macron, as it is now known, looks like a carnival tent and is surrounded by a cheap mall, an office park, and an auto dealership.
It also may have hosted the saddest pregame I’ve ever seen. It’s not as if they can tell the PA man to tone it down since the team sucks and everyone is miserable — not to mention that it’s now started to rain sideways — so he bellows on about the excitement of being here and all the big games coming up (Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day, ladies and gentlemen!)
He went through a tribute to some “legend” named Andy Something, including his “who can forget” goal at Newcastle or wherever, and when he got done I sensed that many people had forgotten, or didn’t realize he was still talking. I only hoped Andy wasn’t there to squirm in the quiet.
Then they sent these poor kids out to wave flags while random rock music played. Imagine this sad scene to Zeppelin.
The whole thing felt a bit like a party in a Holiday Inn bar where no one has showed up but the DJ goes on as if the place is rocking.
Fulham’s fans, meanwhile, managed some clapping when the team came over, and they clapped us back. Somewhere in the there, the game started, but the only singing anyone really managed to do was “Stand Up For Jimmy Hill,” the legendary BBC presenter — and former Fulham player — who hosted Match of the Day some 600 times and had died that day.
The game was an evenly-matched affair between two pretty awful teams. Fulham scored on a terrible blunder, should have gotten one or two more, then Bolton came alive in the second half and got two (at which point I briefly thought I was actually at a football match) and then Fulham tied it on a free kick right in front of its fans, who set down their coffees long enough to give a little shout.
It ended 2-2, and here are the highlights:
But what I will remember this game for is the attitude of Fulham fans in the Franking Sense End (which I still can’t get over; they make franking machines, which seems to be a British-ism for a postage meter).
Fulham fans were incredibly bitter — towards their own team! I actually changed seats at halftime to get away from one guy, whose demands of the team could only have been met had the Fulham 11 been replaced by an International 14. One wonders why a man like that, in his 60s I’d guess, bothers coming to the game — unless it’s just to get out his aggression or feel superior to a bunch of professional footballers.
Every positive moment for Bolton was, in our end, either a foul or cheat by their scum or an abject failure by our useless twats. The phrase I heard most often was “fuck’s sake!” They booed the manager for each of his substitutions, screaming “What the fuck is he doing!?!?” They picked on just about any player who came within range, screaming at him to “Wake the fuck up” or “show some fucking effort!” My favorite was how they reacted to Moussa Dembele, a promising young forward: sing his name whenever he touches the ball, curse him mightily for not doing The Perfect Thing with It, rue the day we ever signed the cunt … And then boo the manager for taking him off! It’s really kind of awesome.
The levels of attention paid and caring are off the charts in England — unlike in the States, where the fans are often walking around, eating and drinking in their seats, vaguely paying attention to the details, and almost invariably supportive of their team — who are, we charmingly remember, just doing their best.
When it was over, the Fulham folk clapped for the team, who clapped back — I wonder if they have any idea what was being shouted at them during the game — and then we all headed into the night with a shrug and a “Well, we gave it a go, and it is a point on the road” — as if this was all ordinary, and somewhat acceptable, fare!
I wanted to ask them if they were, in fact, the same people who were watching the game in endless agony and contempt, who traveled all this way to “support” their team by dog-cussing them, and who would now travel back to London brooding over their lost season.
It’s no wonder these football fans drink so much!
As for me, I went back to town, checked into my hotel room, got a salad and bowl of pasta for some utterly shocking number of pounds, spent the evening napping and getting caught up on blog posts, then engaged in one of my favorite activities while in England: Watching Match of the Day, the real version.
For me, after all, it’s about the travel and the game.
(2018 update: Fulham finished 20th in the 24-team Championship at the end of the 2015-16 season. Bolton were relegated to League One after finishing dead last, with 30 points from 46 games and a goal differential of minus-40. They were 19 points from safety. For 2018-19, Fulham made it back to the Premier League; Bolton made it back to the Championship in 2017 and just barely stayed there for this season.)