The first Premiership match I ever attended, sometime in the mid to late 90s, was a 0-0 relegation battle between Wimbledon and Everton. At the time I thought it was the dullest and most boring thing I had ever seen (my first ever football match, featuring Third Division Leyton Orient had a similar result, but a little more action).
The match took place at dismal and cavernous Selhurst Park, which was not even half full, and the weather was atrocious. "Proper football weather," the match commentators would no doubt say, and these days I'd be inclined to agree with them, but at the time I hadn't yet grown to appreciate the charm of spending 90+ minutes in a howling rain and sleet-spiked gale to watch 22 men ineptly chasing through the mud after an almost willfully capricious ball that never looked like going anywhere near the net.
I remember the Wimbledon fans being cheered by the fact that they'd earned a valuable point in their struggle to avoid the drop, and me saying - in my blithely oblivious American way - "I'm surprised they're not asking for their money back. Don't they even care that nobody even came close to scoring a goal?"
Well, how times have changed. I've since watched quite a few 0-0 draws, some of which were absolutely enthralling, and cheered wildly on occasions when Fulham managed to eke one out against one of the "big" teams like Arsenal or Chelsea. Or, as has happened a few times this season, when 0-0 was apparently the very best we could hope for.
Today I was watching Fulham v. Everton when the announcer remarked that this was "a real nil-nil," meaning that it was pretty much devoid of not only goals, but even chances or well-put-together passes. And I realized that what I was watching was almost identical to that Wimbledon-Everton match from the last century, right down to the atrocious weather.
Except that now I had my heart in my mouth and could barely stand to watch while at the same time being unable to turn my eyes away from the carnage. Fulham needed to do far more than eke out another 0-0 draw, however; they've reached the stage of the season where every match becomes increasingly a life-or-death (if death = life outside the Premier League, which many would hold to be the case) matter. They don't absolutely have to win all of their remaining games to stave off relegation, but they're not far off from that point.
And with Everton vying for Top Four status, even a draw looked like an unlikely result, but then heroic American striker Brian McBride, only recently back from what looked like a career-ending injury, miraculously darted in between two Everton players and headed the ball into the net. There were still 20 minutes to go, and if Fulham had been true to the form they've shown much of this season, Everton would have snatched two late goals and all three points.
But for once Fulham held fast, even taking the game to Everton instead of clinging to the ramparts back in their own end, and when it was over, fans once more dared to dream of a fantastic turnaround to the season that would see Fulham to safety. Unlikely? Of course. But at least a little more possible after today's result, and while it is indeed foolish to stake even a small part of one's happiness to the fortunes of a professional (or so they claim, anyway) football team, to give up on Fulham now would be like giving up on spring just because it's been a long and dreary winter. After the game I headed into Manhattan, where somewhere in the upper 30s I spotted the first green shoots poking their way up in planter boxes. In only a few weeks they'll have turned into glorious daffodils and tulips, and, if there's any justice, truth and beauty in this world, Fulham will be sitting comfortably and happily above the relegation zone.
For all you Americans and/or non-sport fans who haven't a clue what any of this was about, just take my word for it that it's a Very Good Thing if Fulham win most or all of their remaining games. And feel free to join me in rousing cry of COME ON YOU WHITES!*
*For the alarmists among you, no, this is not a racialist slogan. The nickname of the Fulham team, whose team colors are white and black, is the Whites. Their alternative nickname is the Cottagers, after their home ground of Craven Cottage, but the gay subtext of that term has rendered it less popular. Also noteworthy: there is an actual cottage at Craven Cottage, and it was once the home of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame. In fact, it's in that very cottage that he's reputed to have written those deathless words. I'm sure if he were with us today he'd have something equally profound to say on the matter of Fulham's fate and its vital importance in the affairs of men.