29 November 2006

At Last I Can Die A Happy Man

Supporting Fulham Football Club can be a thankless task, and that goes double or triple when Arsenal are involved. Some of my most miserable moments of the last ten years have come at the hands of the Gooners. Sometimes they've beaten us in thumpingly embarrassing fashion, just running all over us as though they were the Harlem Globetrotters and Fulham were a gaggle of poorly disciplined choir boys. Other times they've beaten us narrowly by nicking a goal in the last minute or through one of their slippery Continentals pulling off an egregious dive to win a free kick or a penalty. At least a couple times they've had the cooperation of a dodgy ref like Rob Halsey, who awarded Fulham a fully deserved penalty before taking it back when the Arsenal players made a fuss over it, and subsequently ruled out perfectly legitimate Fulham goal. Both episodes took place no more than 20 yards from where I was sitting, close enough to see the evil grin on Halsey's face.

But by fair means or foul, by dint of overwhelming talent, great luck, superior management skills or a bit of artful cheater, they always beat us. With one exception, that is; the one time that we held them to a 0-0 draw. On that occasion Fulham fans went on cheering long after the players had left the pitch. You'd think we'd won the FA Cup and the European Cup in the same day.

But all that has changed now. Tonight was probably my last Fulham match for the season, possibly longer. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the front row, with a perfect view of the goal into which Fulham landed two picture-perfect strikes before the game was 20 minutes old. In all my years of watching Fulham play Arsenal, I'm not sure I'd ever seen us score two goals in one match, let alone go into halftime not only leading, but having utterly dominated the proceedings.

And it's not as though Arsenal played badly, though I see some commentators making that claim. In fact they played quite well, were always a threat, and it was painfully plain to see that in terms of raw footballing ability and depth, Arsenal are completely out of our league. But for one magical night, Fulham were better. They played almost flawlessly - were it not for the one major error, Liam Rosenior's conceding a dangerous free kick through a mistimed tackle - Arsenal wouldn't have scored at all. But Rosenior made up for that mistake by playing like a superstar for the rest of the match, as did pretty much every Fulham player, even those who've been hobbling around like donkeys in cement boots for much of the season. At one point, with the clock beginning to wind down, they were keeping the ball away from Arsenal with a series of deft passes that looked more like Barcelona than the Thameside plodders we're used to seeing at Craven Cottage.

Only some brilliant saves by Jens Lehmann kept the score from going to 4-1. Overall, he was excellent; the two Fulham goals that did get past him were more or less unstoppable. And with a few exceptions, Arsenal not only played well, but also managed to do so with a bare minimum of shady tactics. There were a few rough challenges on both sides, but none of the barefaced cheating I'd seen in past years. In fact, it was such a treat to watch them that I wouldn't even have been that bothered if they'd managed to beat us. Simply put, it was 90 minutes of top-class, high-intensity football, one of the better games I've ever witnessed in person.

Naturally it makes the experience all the sweeter to have finally seen the Arsenal jinx broken. They were the only major Premiership team I had never seen Fulham beat, and now that I have, well, I don't really feel the need to die and go to heaven yet, but it does make leaving England just a little bit easier. In at least one small way, my work here feels completed.


Anonymous said...

Is Jens pronounce Jens with a J or Jens with a Y? Just wondering. I know nothing about football or any sports, so forgive me for not knowing who the guy is. I just don't see the name Jens too often and I'm always curious about how other people prounounce it. It's my brother's name. We prounounce it Jens with a J, although he introduces himself to strangers as Jens with a Y sound. Haha, I'm rambling.

Wes said...

Jens with a Y (he's from Yermany).

Congrats Larry. And speaking of Lehmann, he looked a right idiot on a few of those free kicks, one of which struck the bar and seemed to bounce twice before he moved a muscle... Of course Match of the Day is no substitute for the real thing. But the replays are better.

Larry Livermore said...

The thing about Lehmann is that he can often look a right idiot, which is why I didn't rate him very highly during his first couple years at Arsenal. He often looked like an accident waiting to happen, and I think even Wenger shared this view, since for a while there he seemed intent on bringing in a new and/or better keeper. But I almost suspect Lehmann's clown act is a deliberate tactic to lull the opposition into overconfidence, because when it comes down to making actual saves, there are few keepers who are his equal (and yes, it pains me to say anything nice about him, or about most Arsenal players, for that matter). If he looked a bit blind-sided on the free kicks, it's probably because he was, his view being obscured by the way the players were lined up. Arsenal's goal, also from a brilliant free kick (and boy do I hate saying anything nice about van Persie, who embodies some of Arsenal's worst tendencies toward diving and cheating, but truth be told, it was brilliant), left Fulham keeper Niemi rooted to the spot for much the same reason.