07 May 2006

End Of The Season

Off to Craven Cottage today for the last game of the 2005-2006 season. The last match is always a bittersweet occasion, because while it means summer is nearly here, it also means no football for the next three months, though that's not exactly true this year; there's still the Champions League final, the UEFA Cup final and the FA cup final, and not too long after that, the biggest, most momentous sporting event on the planet (Olympics? You're having a laugh), the World Cup. For those of you who don't follow football, refer to your Harry Potter books. You know the Quidditch World Cup? This is even bigger than that.

This year I've got three teams to cheer for, England, the USA and Australia, and that's not even counting everybody's favourite underdog, Trinidad and Tobago. Togo and/or the Ivory Coast might surprise some people, too. Of course England will always be my first choice, not because I feel like being unpatriotic toward my native country, but a) because I'm infinitely more familiar with the England players from having seen them week in and week out for many years now; and b) because it matters so incredibly much to the English people, whereas all but a relative handful of Americans barely know or care that their country's team is in the finals.

But thanks to the dual misfortunes of Wayne Rooney's broken foot and Sven Boring Eriksson's tenacious pursuit of mediocrity, it's unlikely that England will go far in this year's tournament. Sven will put out his poster boys, David Beckham and Michael Owen, who will look pretty for the cameras and conduct themselves like gentlemen while striving not to get their uniforms dirty, and after we bow out in the group stages or the quarterfinals, Sven will tell the media that he's "pleased with our performance " before collecting his £5 million pay packet and shuffling off to fleece another bunch of suckers his next management post. I have a sneaky feeling - and if I were a betting man, I'd put money on it - that the USA may go farther than England this year, and wouldn't be a source of national humiliation on this side of the Atlantic if it's the USA that puts England out of the Cup?

Two USA players, who also happen to play for Fulham, featured in today's season finale, a closely fought 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough, which was also the last league match for the next England manager (he'll take over after Sven loses the World Cup), Steve McClaren. Given that under McClaren Middlesbrough finished two places below a less than sterling Fulham squad, and that McClaren has been Sven's understudy for some time now, I think we can safely look forward to four more years of mediocrity.

It was an especially emotional occasion for me because it was my last match seated in Section W, Seat F2 of the Riverside Stand, where I've spend the last eight seasons, not counting the two when we were exiled to Loftus Road during the aborted attempt to raze the beloved old Cottage and replace it with a new stadium. As I believe I noted earlier, I've given up my season ticket because I don't expect to be in London enough to put it to good use. In each of the last two seasons I've missed six of the 19 games while away in Australia or the USA, and this coming season I expect to be away even more. The seat didn't go to waste; my seatmate, a delightful Fulham-born-and-bred geezer who's coming to nearly every match for 60 of his 70s years, would use my ticket to bring along his grandson. Now I've decided to let him have the ticket permanently, and while I'll miss him almost as much as I'll miss the football, at least I'll know it's in good hands.

"You can always buy another season ticket if you change your mind," people keep telling me, but what they don't realise is that it might be years, if ever, before I could get a seat anywhere near that good. When I first bought it, Fulham matches typically drew about 10 to 12 thousand, barely filling half the stadium, and you could pretty much sit (or stand) anywhere you wanted. That was when we were in the Second Division; as a Premiership team, we now have an all-seater stadium, most matches are sold out, and the section where I've been sitting, almost directly behind the dugouts, is the most in demand of all.

On my way home tonight I tallied up how much I've spent on football these past eight years, not just on season tickets, but on travelling to away matches all over England, on programmes, fanzines, home and away kits, hats, etc., and it adds up to an horrendous amount. Do I regret any of it? Not a penny. Being a football fan in England today is a very expensive proposition, but for me it's always provided value for money. Even the crappy games - and being a Fulham fan, I've seen plenty - produce such an array of emotions that it's like living a mini-lifetime in 90 minutes.

Although my season ticket is gone now, I won't be giving up on Fulham. I still expect to see every game I can whenever I'm in England next season. But the way things are looking, that might not amount to more than a couple months. And true to form, London begins to look lovelier the closer I come to leaving it (though not at this particular moment, as a gang of druggies and/or drug dealers seems to have been loudly roaming the corridors of my building starting at about midnight, something that hasn't happened in a while). But today, after the match, I walked through Bishop Park along the Thames, then across the Putney Bridge, and all along the way, the nascent leaves covered the trees with the most exquisite shades of green, and the faintest of breezes carried a hint and promise of summer warmth and passion down from a cloud-tangled sky.

So it will be hard to leave, and I've always had difficulties with changes and goodbyes, the result being that I end up trying to live in two (or three) places at once and never feeling completely at home in any of them. I'm trying to change that now, and my goal is that by this time next year I'll have chosen the place I most want to call home. Right now the contest is largely between New York and Sydney, though London and Berkeley haven't been completely X'd out of the competition. Then again, I've always had this sneaking suspicion that I might end up in some small Midwestern town like, say, Ann Arbor, where I misspent my late teens and early 20s and a whole 40 miles from where I started out on the east side of Detroit. Stranger things have happened, and probably will continue to.


JAB Seattle said...

Not even a mention of the last match at Highbury!!? What a great send off for the old girl. 3 for Henry and the scum coming 5th. Come on you Gooners!

Larry Livermore said...

I was going to mention how an undercover Arsenal operative (probably a cousin of Robert Pires) snuck into Tottenham's hotel and poisoned their food, leaving ten of their best players ill and thus virtually guaranteeing a Spurs loss and Arsenal's slithering ahead of them into 4th place on the last day of the season, but in the interest of good sportsmanship, I thought it best to leave it out.

Besides, I have a sneaking feeling Arsenal are going to win the Champions League, making a fourth place finish moot anyway. (For non-football fans: the top four teams in the Premiership qualify for next year's Champions League, and until the last minute, Arsenal didn't look like they were going to make it. But if they win this year's Champions League final, they will qualify for next year, and the fourth-place English Premiership team will not. And if you really don't care about football, why would you bother reading this far anyway?)

dirt_trail_runner said...

wow, larry livermore is a sports fan now? i still remember your comment in "lookout" fanzine, something to the effect of the "sweater wearing geeks from menlo park that invade berkeley for every cal home game." it was more poignant than that, of course, but my memory is faulty in my older age.