[Ed. — In 2007, I ventured to the SW6 section of London to report on the Fulham FC phenomenon for espn.com. That piece lived a good long life online but sadly, now it’s gone. Or I cannot find it (!). Either way, it has been reprinted below — just in time to serve as an EPL bookend, as Wes McKennie joins comparably Yank-infused Leeds United] …
LONDON — There are moments, sublime moments, when spectators sitting in the Johnny Haynes Stand at Craven Cottage can look to the far corner of the ground — where the perpendicular, geometric grandstands fail to meet — and see straight through to the Thames. The river fairly well glistens on sunny spring afternoons like the one we spent late in March, watching Fulham F.C. and its sizable American contingent bsalvage a 1-1 draw with visiting Portsmouth. Through these gaps in the stadium seating, one spies Putney on the far bank before yet another eight sculls in and out of the V-shaped frame. It’s a window, however small and diversionary, on why Fulham is one of the Premiership’s most compelling clubs.
American soccer fans might not know Fulham Football Club from Scunthorpe United if the two shared the same lower division and the same dearth of Yanks on their rosters. But Fulham does play in the Premiership — for now — and the club has made a habit of buying up American talent on the cheap, to the point where Craven Cottage has become ground zero for U.S. soccer fans heading to London to check on our boys.
That was exactly our charge in March: To stop merely scouring the Internet for the odd mention of Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey. To “just go” and see them in person, while sampling those venues where would-be Fulham fans might eat, drink and be merry on either side of Putney Bridge.
We didn’t arrive in South London expecting to watch the club fight for its Premiership life. However, as it turned out, our late-March visit would prove the club’s last carefree weekend of the season. Having won only twice since Dec. 18, the Cottagers followed their home draw vs. Portsmouth with two successive defeats. Coach Chris Coleman would be sacked on April 11, replaced by Lawrie Sanchez, and Fulham’s precarious position — just four points above the drop zone — set the stage for a harrowing three weeks of relegation-avoidance.
None of this appeared at all probable just two weeks prior, when we alighted our District Line train into the spring sunshine. A quick, intuitive look at the London Underground map might lead one to exit The Tube at Fulham Broadway, but that’s miles away — and serves the other Premiership club in SW6, Chelsea. Putney Bridge Station is your best point of departure, your gateway to the ground itself, to a fine bunch of pubs and the folks who comprise Fulham Nation.
This tidy neighborhood on the north bank of the Thames has everything you need for pre-match entertainment. The closest pub to the Tube stop, however, the Eight Bells, is one designated for away fans. So don’t show up there in your Brian McBride replica shirt. The day we happened by, still some two hours before kick-off, Portsmouth fans had spilled out onto the surrounding sidewalk eight deep and there were dozens of policemen about, mounted and otherwise, to keep the peace.
We didn’t venture into the Bells. Too crowded. But we did, as clear Fulham backers, enjoy a pint and some pleasant chat with several Pompey fans in the Temperance, formerly known as the Pharaoh & Firkin, another de facto “visitors” pub serving Craven Cottage. Just that day, rumors were swirling that Michael Dell, of Dell Computer fame, was angling to buy Fulham F.C. (word of Wal-Mart billionaire Stan Kroenke’s new 9.9 percent stake in Arsenal emerged a week later). One Portsmouth supporter, Paul, politely bemoaned the fact that Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks had already purchased Liverpool, Randy Lerner had snapped up Aston Villa, and Malcolm Glazer had assumed control of Manchester United, against the club’s will. “We didn’t think you Americans even liked proper football,” Paul said with a wry smile.
The best Fulham pub in this village is The Golden Lion, directly across Fulham High Street from the Temperance and teeming with locals. Game-day spreads are often served up gratis; the big screen beckons for those without tickets; there’s always someone at the bar ready, willing and able to talk Fulham footy; and, if you don’t fancy the menu’s standard meat and potatoes, you’ll find a great little curry house (India Cottage) right next door. What’s more, there’s an official Fulham supporters shop just around the corner.
There’s also The Larrick here for fans in need of another pint option but, truth be told, the best Fulham pubs are located across the river, on the south bank. Just over Putney Bridge — the very span featured as a shotgun-dump in the Guy Ritchie film “Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” — and up a quiet side street sits The Bricklayer’s Arms, an old-fashioned, off-the-high-street, football-supporting, still-proper-pint-pulling public house if there ever was one. Another sign of its legitimacy? No TV. If you’re a purist, they reckon, you’re at the game and the other fixtures don’t much matter.
One Fulham supporter, John from Reading, explained to us that several “football” pubs on both sides have actually gone away of late, and not necessarily for lack of support: “What they’ve done with a lot of these pubs — The Cottage is a good example — is they’ll rip out the insides and turn them into nice, gentrified dining pubs. All the clientele disappear, of course, all the football fans. A good British business model that. Get a load of Ikea furniture and there you go, you’ve got an empty pub. Well done.”
Rest assured, plenty remain. The Whistle & Flute, Half Moon and Coat & Badge — each another block or so south of the Thames — are all cracking venues where, if you show up wearing FFC scarves, you’ll be among friends. But The Brick is the choice here for atmosphere, beer selection (pulled pints of Taylor’s; try the Landlord) and camaraderie.
There is no tailgate scene here. All that social energy is funneled into these local pubs, where the home club and its fortunes are dissected, lauded and bemoaned en masse, by turn and according to a predictable fixture list. One Fulham supporter at The Brick summed it up quite neatly: “It’s a social life that I don’t have to organize.”
It doesn’t much matter whether the pre-game pint comes north or south of the Thames. If one’s ultimate destination is Craven Cottage, one is pretty much obliged to approach the ground from the east — directly through Bishops Park, a stretch of riverside green space that surely stands as the most comely stadium walk-up in the Premiership, if not all Christendom.
It’s late March and we’re in town to watch Fulham F.C. and its bevy of American footballers play host to Portsmouth. The sun is shining and life is good. Over the coming 10 days, these Cottagers will fail to secure a single point from three games. In two weeks, Coach Chris Coleman will be sacked. Of course, as we traipse through Bishop’s Park on our way to face visiting Pompey, no one knows any of this. The mood is buoyant as we join thousands of Fulham supporters for a long journey that nevertheless passes quickly, as befits a walk in the park.
Craven Cottage was built in 1896 and hasn’t been significantly modernized since. Yes, the club has added seating on the Thames side, but the original Johnny Haynes Stand opposite — named for the man who played a club-record 658 games for Fulham and scored 158 goals between 1952-70 — looks all of its 110-plus years: well kept but truly ancient, right down to its original brick masonry, its lattice of exposed ductwork under the stands, and its wooden fold-down seats buffed smooth and dark by eons of intimate backside contact. Imagine Fenway Park, built for soccer and sitting right on the Charles River — with no plastic and better beer (at two-thirds the price). That’s Craven Cottage, the perfect venue for London’s oldest professional football club.
At halftime, with Fulham scoreless and trailing by a goal, we amble back down under the stand for the traditional beer and cottage pie — like shepherd’s pie, only with beef in place of lamb. We retrieve this sustenance at our leisure, unmolested by great masses of people. Craven Cottage is so small (capacity: 24,600) and, one could argue, so well designed, it never feels crowded. Even if the place is crawling with Yanks.
“Starting in the summer and throughout the season we’ve got loads of Americans coming over,” Graham James tells me. He’s the retail manager at Craven Cottage. “We have a big American fan base now. [Brian] McBride kicked it off really, being the most well known at the moment. Now with [Clint] Dempsey just kicking off his career, we have a younger element coming in. There’s been good progress for American players here, so it’s no surprise they’ve become supporters. And they do spend a lot of money.”
Despite the exchange rate. With banks trading nearly two U.S. dollars for every British pound, it’s ironic (if not surprising) that Americans spend so freely in the Craven Cottage Stadium Shop, where James chats amiably before touching finger to ear and excusing himself. Fulham has stockpiled U.S. players precisely because they are a cheap source of talent. In happier times, Coleman had said of McBride, “For the amount of money we spent and the service he has given us, it has got to be the best £700,000 that anyone has ever spent.”
A cynic would point out that American players provide great value these days while the American consumer, traveling to see them, gets precious little. A small price to pay, however, for nowhere else have U.S. players made such a positive impression on a foreign club, beginning with the 1999 arrival of keeper Marcus Hahnemann (now of fellow Premiership side Reading). Eddie Lewis came aboard in 2000 and while he didn’t exactly set SW6 on fire, his performance didn’t prevent the subsequent acquisition of Carlos Bocanegra, Dempsey and McBride, who, at 34, recently signed on for another season at the Cottage.
Nearly everywhere else Americans play British soccer, they are still seen as something of an oddity. Only at Fulham can supporters view their Yanks with an eye unjaundiced by anomaly.
“With the Premiership these days, it’s almost unusual to see a lot of English players in a side,” jokes John from Reading, whom we met walking back through Bishops Park after the match. “But I think the American players have made their mark now. There have always been good [U.S.] goalkeepers, but now you find them making their mark in the lower reaches of the Premier League. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next five or 10 years. If they make the next step in quality.”
“You take a player like Brian McBride,” interjects Ferret, another Fulham lifer now ensconced with us at The Bricklayers Arms, the Fulham pub across the river in Putney, “and I think people see him for what he is: an English-style forward, in the Teddy Sheringham mold. Teddy had skills, wasn’t completely full of flair but he looked after himself, worked very hard, put his head in, and thinks about it.”
Even before Coleman’s departure there had been grumbling, from some quarters, that while he was a shrewd judge of young talent, the coach didn’t necessarily develop said talent. John from Reading, for one, fears for Dempsey’s future with the club. “I’m a bit worried about him because I think he’s got a lot of promise. He’s certainly not playing much now, through no fault of his own.”
Indeed, Dempsey did not feature in the 1-1 draw with Pompey. He sat out a subsequent loss at Everton, and only came on for the final 20 minutes in another defeat, home to Manchester City. John from Reading’s mate Tristan reckons Deuce may end up signing next season at a newly relegated Premiership team, or another Championship side, where he’ll get plenty of playing time.
Today, Cottager fans on both sides of the Atlantic are hoping that newly relegated Premier League side isn’t Fulham itself. The April 9 loss to Man City put the club within four points of the relegation zone with five to play. Fulham has 35 points and while no top-flight team with that many has ever gone down, the club’s two remaining home fixtures are no bargain and the team hasn’t won on the road in 13 attempts.
It would be crying shame for Fulham to be relegated. Here’s an underdog club that has gallantly and cleverly carved out a credible spot in today’s top flight; a mere 10 years ago they were a third division side, four levels down. Fulham has earned everything it’s got — unlike the blue-shirted, free-spending bunch who also reside in SW6. If one can get past the fact that Hugh Grant and Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe are counted among FFC’s celebrity supporters, and the club is owned by arch media hound Mohamed Al-Fayed (owner of Harrods, father of ill-fated Dodi), this is a club anyone could get behind.
But the reality isn’t nearly so sentimental. If Fulham does go down, its Americans go down with it. How long will we wait before another Premiership club fields three Yanks? Hard to say, but this much is clear: You can still see them all, in Fulham jerseys, at Craven Cottage on April 21 (v. Blackburn) and May 5 (v. Liverpool). Catch them playing Premiership football while you can.