Spring is in the air, and the good news stories just keep coming. Former Chester City supporters seem to have a decisive upper hand in their battle to get their own club, run on their own terms. Durham City of the Unibond League end a run of twenty-nine successive defeats with two wins in a row. And now Fulham have beaten Juventus in the UEFA Cup. It wasn’t just a victory, of course. It was a monumental night of drama that started disastrously for them and could have swung either way until the closing seconds, but ended with a sublime goal, one of the best of the season anywhere and the sight of a small (by Premier League standards) club getting to the last eight of a major European competition.
When David Trezeguet gave Juventus the lead in the second minute, it seemed to puncture the atmosphere at Craven Cottage. What might, with a tea-time kick-off, have been expected to be a slightly dislocated atmosphere, proved to be anything but, though. Perhaps it the accumulated caffeine imbibed by twenty-odd thousand office workers and the like was still coursing through their veins as kick-off arrived. It took just seven minutes for Bobby Zamora to bring Fulham level, and even then the feeling that there was something in the air was starting to crackle even through the television screens of those watching at home.
There were times at which they rode their luck – there is a case for saying, for example, that the sending off of Fabio Cannavaro could just about half been decreed a yellow card offence – but with the benefit of hindsight theere never really felt as if there was any significant danger of Juventus etting back into the match once Cannavaro had gone. Fearful of the gaps at the back if they threw caution to the wind, Juventus continued with the slow, slow, quick, quick, slow approach, which might have worked but for the fact that any significant danger was snuffed out before they got to the “quick, quick” part of it all. Fulham were level aggregate within five minutes of the start of the second half, but they didn’t chase the critical fourth goal with everything they had,choosing instead to bide their time and, press cleverly and demonstrate a patience in their build-up play which indicated the extent to which they had come to understand Juventus’ players. When it mattered, though, they were direct and to the point. It was a joy to watch.
And then came the fourth goal, from Clint Dempsey. Quite what can be going through the head of someone that, in an absolute pressure cooker of a match, can coolly calculate such an angle and loft the ball so delicately and so out of reach of any of the opposing players defies most rational logic. However, Dempsey managed it, looping the ball over and round, hanging in the air for what felt like forever before dropping just inside the near post. It was an exquisite moment, one worthy of winning just about any match, and it thoroughly deserved to win this one for Fulham. Juventus pushed forward with the level of desperation that one might have expected from a team chasing a late goal in a European tie, but there was really no way back. The Fulham defence dropped back five or six yards and calmly swept up every pass that entered their third of the pitch.
The reaction to the result has been a curious one, almost unseen in England over a European match for a considerable amount of time. It was almost universally positive. For those that watch the Champions League now half hoping for the English leviathans to get eliminated, it was a refreshing throwback to a simpler time to be able to get behind an English team in a European competition. There is something intrinsically likeable about Fulham. It could be the idiosyncracy of Craven Cottage, which is a “ground” and not a “stadium”, and which offers a view of the potential for football clubs in England should they choose to take a little care over what they do rather than simply erecting a tin hut and bolting some tip-up plastic seats into it. Perhaps it is about Roy Hodgson, a thoroughly modern manager who at the same time remains a throwback to a bygone age in dress, mannerism and politeness. It is one of the sad refelctions of modern football that we are unlikely to see too many of his like again.
What Fulham have tapped into this evening is a fundamental truth of football, which is that nights like these cannot be bought. They may only happen once or twice in a lifetime, but it is in the back of the mind of every football supporter that isn’t lucky enough to experience perennial success that nights like this take the majority of their value from their very rarity. It was a night to say, “I was there”, whether “there” was inside Craven Cottage, watching at home or in a pub, or listening on a car radio whilst stuck in traffic during London’s ever-horrific rush hour. Fulham may get knocked out in the next round. They may even go on and win the whole damn competition. This much, however, we can say for certain: they’ll be talking about the night they came from three goals down to beat Juventus on Fulham Broadway for a very long time indeed. What a night to be a Fulham supporter.