Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stoke City 1 at Fulham 0 - EPL Week 37, May 5, 2010

I had originally planned to see West Ham visiting Fulham on Sunday, May 2nd, but it was a miserable, wet day and after a 10-hour flight from LA I didn't have the energy to make it out to Craven Cottage for the game. Fortunately, Fulham had another match scheduled this week. Stoke City were visiting in a Wednesday night tilt that had been rescheduled from April 14th due to Fulham's European commitments. On Tuesday I ventured down to Putney Bridge to scope out the stadium and pick up a ticket and then returned on Wednesday for the game.

The Teams

Fulham have been around since 1879 making them the oldest football team in London. They have spent most of their existence in the lower ranks of English football, but reached the Premier League in 2001 behind the backing of millionaire owner Mohamed Al-Fayed. Last year they finished 7th in the league, which was enough to see them into this season's Europa League competition, where they have advanced to the final against Spanish side Atletico Madrid, to be played next week in Hamburg. It is only the club's second major final; the first was an FA Cup loss to West Ham back in 1975 and something worth watching next Wednesday night. Fulham have several internationals on their roster, including Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer and American Clint Dempsey.

Stoke City are the second-oldest team in English football, having been formed in 1863, which makes them 4 years older than Canada. They had spells in the top-flight but did not enter the EPL until the 2008-09 season. Last year they finished 12th and this season will finish around the same level. The Stoke fans have been called the most passionate and the loudest, and although there is a history of hooliganism, it appears as if that has declined most recently.

In the Premier League, Fulham stood 11th with 46 points after 36 games while Stoke lay 13th with 44 points.

Craven Cottage

So you think Fenway Park is old? Craven Cottage was first used as a stadium in 1896 and the current Johnny Haynes stand was built in 1905. The stadium is located north of Bishop's Park and alongside the River Thames in the Hammersmith and Fulham area of southwest London. Putney Bridge is the nearest tube station; from there it is a pleasant 15-minute walk through the park. The picture below is taken along the Thames just a couple of minutes from the stadium. Scenes from The Omen were shot here many years ago.

There are 4 stands, each of which is set next to the pitch. The Haynes stand, named after one-time English captain and Fulham legend Johnny Haynes, lies along Stevenage Road and there is a statue of Haynes near the gates (below).

On the opposite side is the Riverside Stand, so named as it borders the Thames. The Hammersmith End is on the north side while the south end is called Putney. Each stand has its own characteristics so be aware of these before getting a ticket. For example, the serious Fulham fans are in the Hammersmith end (shown below) while the Riverside stand is known for more of a wealthy and less involved sort of fan.

In between the Putney and Haynes stands lies Craven Cottage itself, which contains the changing rooms and is also now used as a premium seating area. The other three corners contain luxury suites. One interesting sidebar of having the changing rooms here is that the players come out from the corner rather than an entrance at the center of the pitch as in most other stadiums.

Turnstiles are thin doors through which you must pass. It's clear that obesity was not a problem 100 years ago; it would be tough for some fans these days to fit through.

Just next to gate 17 is the players' entrance and if you get there early, you can get autographs. Below is Fulham player Andy Johnson who is currently injured and didn't appear in the match.

Food and drink options are limited. Pies and hot dogs, beers and pops are pretty much it. I'd suggest the beef pie and a Coke for 5 quid. You should be aware that alcohol is not permitted in the seating areas.

As is the case in all soccer stadiums, away fans are segregated, and there are signs on the ground leading fans to their proper seating area. After the game, the door to Putney from Riverside is closed for 15 minutes to allow the away fans to leave. If you are in the Riverside stand, you have to exit from the Hammersmith side. The picture below shows the Haynes Stand.


Tickets are available online. You do have to register and there is a small £1 charge per ticket, but it's nothing like TicketMaster's gouging. Tickets for A-grade games (i.e. the big four and other rivals) are not available to the general public but other games do seem to be available. I would suggest booking in advance. Prices vary but the most expensive seats seem to be £50 in the Riverside stand down to £30 in the ends of the Haynes stand. With the seats so close to the pitch, there doesn't seem to be a bad seat in the place. There are some restricted view seats but those are sold last and are properly denoted so you won't get a nasty surprise.

The Game

Fulham defender John Pantsil

Essentially a meaningless affair as both teams were mid-table with just two matches left and with Fulham focusing on next week's Europa League final, I didn't expect much. Neither squad played with much intensity in the first half; there were some chances but nothing spectacular as halftime arrived without a goal. Fulham midfielder Damien Duff was replaced at the restart after suffering an injury, but the change didn't help them much. Fulham's faithful fans were frustrated as what few chances were created went for nought.

The keeper calls them both safe

Another wasted chance - this shot sailed overhead

Finally, in the 82nd minute, Fulham defender Paul Konchesky slipped to allow Ricardo Fuller into the box. Fuller crossed and the ball glanced off Stoke's Tuncay Sanli before falling at the foot of Matthew Etherington, who drove it off the crossbar and into the net for the 1-0 lead. Fulham brought in striker Stefano Okaka but he could not dent the Stoke backline and the game ended in a surprise victory for the visitors.

Stoke save

With the win, Stoke moves up to 10th in the standings while Fulham drops to 12th. Overall, this was a pretty dull game with few real chances, but what else would you expect at season's end with the World Cup just over a month away.

Headed away
Next Up

I'm in London for two weeks and there's not a lot of sport going on. I will check out a couple of cricket grounds for some County Championship action and there's a lower league soccer game at Wembley next weekend. Then it's back to Phoenix for the Jays three-game weekend set, one Jays game in Anaheim, and finally home to Japan where I will take it easy for the World Cup.



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