Fulham FC vs Sunderland AFC
FA Cup Fourth Round Replay
Tuesday 3rd February 2015
Craven Cottage, Fulham, West London
“You looking for the ground lads?” says a friendly Sunderland fan, jogging past us near Putney Green tube station at 7.41pm on Tuesday night. “It’s through this park, I think…”
And so, in all too familiar fashion, another chapter of The Underdog Blog’s adventure begins.
We wouldn’t be joining 6,600 Cambridge United fans paying upward of £40 a ticket to visit Old Trafford; a trip to Bolton vs Liverpool had been tempting. Instead, we were at Craven Cottage to find out who Bradford City would face in the Fifth Round.
As underdog ties go, it’s a little closer than one or two of the previous rounds. Sunderland sit just a few places above the Premier League dropzone, while Fulham have pulled away from the Championship’s bottom three in recent weeks to nestle themselves in the relative safety of midtable.
Joining me tonight would be my best man-to-be Mark “Hadders” Hadfield, and another pillar of my upcoming stag do in Barcelona, Ket. Mark last joined me at Chelmsford in October, while it’s Ket’s first time. He’s been eager to get along to one of these since the early rounds, and did suggest Scunthorpe vs Worcester City in the Second Round Replay. We couldn’t make that match. It went on to be the longest penalty shootout in FA Cup history.
Ket is a Leeds fan. I first met him on Mark’s stag do, where I was quickly brought up to speed on his unusual nickname. With his real name being Jon, he was likened to weatherman John Kettley by his two older brothers and it stuck from there. That my friendship group consists of people who sound like they’re named after drugs, but are in fact named after weathermen, is probably fitting.
The evening started off fairly well. Work commitments meant leaving Cambridgeshire at half past four, and we get through the expected A1 traffic with some high quality pork scratchings that Ket has brought. After many shared journeys on the comedy circuit, I’ve discovered that you can tell a lot about someone based on their selection of in-car grub. He’s already showing a bit of class with his choice of car share snack.
Ket was involved in a road accident last week after a shunt that wrote off his Robin Reliant. It sounds like a set-up to a joke, but it actually happened, and thankfully he’s fine. He regales us with amusing anecdotes of a jobsworth at the scrap yard refusing him access to his possessions and an overfamiliar investigating police officer taking notes at his mum’s house while laid across her sofa like a chez longue.
As we park up on the outskirts of London at 6.30pm and board a train in the direction of Westminster, passing through Wembley Park on our way, all seemed to be going to plan. Changing in the direction of Wimbledon at around 7.15pm, we began to realise it was looking tight. I read a comprehensive preview email from Fulham FC, complete with video content, match preview and latest odds. Nice.
We jog the mile through Bishop’s Park towards Craven Cottage, following our new Wearside friends. I notice we’re joined by dozens, if not hundreds, of equally late fans. Strangely, they were in considerably less of a hurry than us, despite it already sounding like the game was underway. I imagine none of them missed kick-off at Ilkeston vs Solihull in Second Qualifying Round Qualifying, though, so perhaps their need wasn’t as great as mine.
We grab our tickets at the collection point on Stevenage Road, sweaty and breathless like a low-rent Anneka Rice, and head through the turnstiles. We’re in the Riverside Stand, named because it backs immediately onto the Thames. It involves another decent walk around the inside of the ground, and we pass a remarkable variety of food and beer stalls to reach it. Half-time is already looking like a decent prospect and, let’s face it, we’re almost there already.
We join the action a few minutes after kick-off. Fulham line up without captain Scott Parker, but their striking partnership of Ross McCormack and Hugo Rodallega looks, on paper at least, enough to be able to cause O’Shea and Vergini problems.
Sunderland’s line-up looks to be at full strength, and so it should. Rodallega almost scored a late winner in the closing stages of their goalless draw at the Stadium of Light just over a week ago. While Premier League survival is paramount, a spot in the quarter finals awaits if they can navigate their way through tricky ties against Championship and League One opposition.
Fulham are no ordinary Championship side, though. Relegated last year after 13 uninterupted seasons in the top flight, it’s been a time of transition in SW6. The rollercoaster ride under former owner Mohamed Al Fayed came to an end two years ago now, closing a chapter of the club’s history that saw a meteoric rise through the league ladder, a statue of Michael Jackson and victory over Juventus on the road to the Europa League Final. Heady days indeed.
New owner Shahid Khan’s first season in charge could have gone better. Rene Meulensteen’s disastrous reign was cut short early last year, as Fulham were guided towards relegation under their third manager of the season. The unorthodox leadership of a man rumoured to be stepping in at Borussia Dortmund soon, somehow survived the summer to oversee their difficult start to the Championship season. Form has improved since former Cottagers defender Kit Symons took over from Felix Magath.
Magath’s 20% win record was even worse than Meulensteen’s, and suggests he’d be rather fortunate to be parachuted straight back into the Champions League knockout stages. I backed Fulham as Championship winners pre-season, with McCormack as top goalscorer. Mark and Ket are amused by my predicting powers.
As we take our seats, breathless, we begin to settle into the game. Sunderland have the upper hand and, backed by an impressive 4,000 fans at the opposite end of the ground, there’s a hint of the famous ‘Roker Roar’ in their support.
At just £15 a ticket, Fulham have done what they can to tempt fans down to the Cottage. While facing Premier League opposition might be something the home supporters have become blasé about in the last decade or so, it looks likely that their return will be postponed for this year at least. Still, more than 10,000 join the Wearsiders on a bitingly cold evening.
There can be no denying that Fulham is a little bit posh. The leafy suburbs surrounding Craven Cottage provide a fitting backdrop to one of England’s most characterful and charming stadiums. It’s hardly scientific, but after seeing their highlights and live matches on a regular basis since 2001, Fulham fans have always just seemed a bit…nicer. As if to hammer the point home, an ad for Apsley flashes up on the electronic hoardings – they’re Fulham’s official club tailors, apparently.
Jordi Gomez takes a corner down by us in the 13th minute after forcing a decent save from Bettinelli. We notice three fans running down the stand to get to the empty seats near the corner flag. They give abuse to the Sunderland player, who seems unmoved by their presence.
We reckon this must be Fulham’s ‘firm’, a band of three brothers taking on all-comers. They’re low on numbers but hold recruitment evenings on the last Thursday of the month in a local community centre that doubles up with a poetry recital and expressive dance class.
A succession of Sunderland corners follow, but they’re unable to make their dominance pay. Seko Fofana, a French youngster on loan from Manchester City, is starting to look like the home team’s main threat. Inexplicably old enough to play professional football despite being born in 1995 (when did that happen?), his skilful gangliness suggests real talent. He helps to lead several counter attacks as Fulham try to break out of their own half.
We watch the subs run up and down the touchline in front of us, interspersing gentle jogs with short bursts of speed.
“I’d be knackered just doing that”, says Hadders. “You still are”, says Ket.
Rodallega wastes a rare chance at the opposite end of the field and Mark forgets his allegiances for a moment.
“I’ve never rated Rodallega at Fulham”, he announces. He intersperses this with singing Fulham songs loud and proud, confusing those around us with his mixed loyalties.
The Colombian goes some way to disproving his theory in the 28th minute. Ross McCormack’s low near post cross gets a flick and causes mayhem in the Sunderland six-yard box, where it falls to the striker who puts the ball in off the crossbar. He wheel away in celebration towards the old pavilion, passing a ‘neutral’ area of fans that looks to be dominated by visiting supporters.
“25 minutes on the backfoot and then we score!” says a fan sat behind us. “I’ve always rated Rodallega”, adds Mark.
Kacaniklic looks to lead Fulham forward again a few minutes later, his run from inside his own half causing defenders to back off. His attempt to thread an impossible ball through to McCormack instead of taking a strike on the edge of the box sees the move break down, much to the frustration of those around us. Fulham have found their shape, are in control, and looking for a second.
“Are you regular or occasional?”, asks one fan to another behind us.
“I’m occasional. Bit of a lucky charm though. Seven straight wins and 22 goals to four recently”, he gloats to an Australian-sounding fan next to him. It’s an impressive record for anyone, let alone a Fulham fan in recent years. I consider recruiting him for The Underdog Blog.
“If only Arsenal could draw Manchester…”, he plots outloud, already dreaming of a visit to Wembley. It’s just a short jog through Bishop’s Park, then change at Westminster, I consider telling him.
Fulham deal with a late second half revival from Sunderland admirably, with Shaun Hutchinson a particularly promising looking young centre half dominating the backline. His excellent block on a trademark Jermain Defoe shift and strike suggests he has the threat of the former England man under control.
Symons prowls the touchline for much of the half, while Poyet remains in his dugout. The Fourth Official indicates one minute at the end of the first half, and it’s announced by a well-spoken young man over the tannoy. It’s a far cry from Chester FC and Cleggy…
Ket and Mark head for the food stalls and I join them on the whistle. They queue for real ale while I order us rare beef on a toasted sesame brioche bun. It’s served on a small wooden plate with fresh salad, a mustard dressing and a napkin. I’m partial to a good pie, but this is heaven.
“You don’t get a napkin at Elland Road,” says Ket. “They just tell you to wipe it on your jeans.”
We sit a little closer to the action for the second half, taking advantage of a near empty row two seats down. We were a little cramped during the first 45 minutes (well, 39…) and this newfound space reignites Mark’s love of joining in with the songs.
The Sunderland fans find their voice again in the 52nd minute as the dangerous Patrick van Aanholt shoots just wide. He would play a key part in the equaliser soon after.
On 57 minutes, Ross McCormack jogs towards us to take a corner. Dropping the ball on the very edge of the quadrant, the referee halts the set-piece before he can take it. Gus Poyet is out of his dugout now, suggesting that the ball has been illegally placed despite his being more than 50 yards away. We discuss just how much advantage is gained by the attacking player in this increasingly common tactic as the corner comes to nothing.
Sunderland draw level on 61 minutes, when Patrick van Aanholt’s deflected cross from the left loops up into the air. Promising young ‘keeper Bettinelli fumbled what looked to be a simple catch beneath the crossbar, taking the ball over his own line. As the away fans celebrate, Bettinelli’s teammates console him. He’s been one of Fulham’s better performers this season, according to the fans around us, and he’s looked solid during this match up until that moment.
It’s the encouragement Sunderland need, as the away fans urge their side forward. I’ve visited Stadium of Light as an away fan quite a few times, although I never managed a trip to Roker Park. It’s embedded in my mind from a programme I saw as a young teenager, though.
If you can track down the BBC’s Premier Passions on DVD, a six-part documentary following Peter Reid’s relegation threatended side, then it’s well worth a look. I got it for Christmas and already plan to watch it again with Hadders in the coming months. Let it never be said that we don’t know how to have a good time…
Steven Fletcher, a late addition to the team after Connor Wickham’s pre-match injury, makes way for Danny Graham in the 74th minute.
“I’ll tell you how old I am,” says Mark. “I’m old enough to remember the last time Danny Graham scored.” It was on loan at Wolves in December, to be fair, although he’s still to find the back of the net since joining Sunderland. It’s also a dangerous prophecy from a man who criticised Hugo Rodallega in the first half.
Right on cue, it’s a familiar tale in the 75th minute, although Graham plays no part. Ricky Alvarez takes the ball on the right hand side after Fulham lose possession in midfield. With work to do, and defenders backing off, he cuts inside the box with skill before firing a powerful shot into the far corner.
It’s a great goal, and no less than Sunderland have deserved. We slump into our seats, as dejected as the handful of home fans in the partisan ‘neutral’ area watching the Argentinian celebrate in front of them.
The game threatens to boil over in the 82nd minute right in front of us. Seko Fafana clashes with Alvarez, then Giaccherini, and several minutes of pushing and shoving ensues that draws in coaching staff and goalkeepers. Three players are booked, including Fafana who is substituted seconds later.
“You dirty northern bastards!”, chant the home fans. It’s a bit like hearing your aunty swear, or a beloved old grandparent.
Wes Brown comes on for Giaccherini as four minutes of injury time are announced.
“There’s always a chance with Wes Brown on the pitch” says Ket, perhaps showing his Leeds bias as the 35-year-old enters the field.
“They’re going to equalise here,” I tell Mark and Ket as Fulham pour forward chasing the equaliser. I even ready my smartphone on the camera app, ready to snap the glorious moment. And, sure enough, a goal does follow.
Nikolay Bodurov’s clumsy tackle on Danny Graham sees the Gateshead-born striker fall to the ground. Gomez steps up to finish the job and send the home fans streaming out of the ground. An endearing lady behind us berates the referee’s decision in a thick cockney accent that’s not too dissimilar to Big Mo off of Eastenders.
We trudge out of the ground, past sausage stands, Spanish tapas and a small hut serving rare Ugandan cuisine (I may be exaggerating now…) and back through the park towards Putney Bridge station.
All four goals were at the opposite end of the ground, we realise, as we join the hoardes queuing for the tube. We make our way back to Westminster in a carriage containing several American Fulham fans, again highlighting their international appeal.
It’s a fifth defeat, and eight games without a victory for The Underdog Blog. We’re marginally worse than Martin Jol, but still better than Magath and Meulensteen. If only Borussia Dortmund were in the FA Cup.
The Underdog Blog Record 2014/15
P 10 W 3 D 2 L 5 F 8 A 20 GD -12
Fulham FC vs Sunderland AFC
FA Cup Fourth Round Replay
Tuesday 3rd February 2015
Craven Cottage, Fulham, West London
|Fulham 1 –||3 Sunderland|
|Rodallega (28)||Bettinelli OG (61)|
|Jordi Gomez (90 Pen)|
Fulham: 40 Bettinelli, 37 Grimmer, 4 Hutchinson, 6 Bodurov, 3 Stafylidis, 19 Tunnicliffe, 12 Fofana (21 Christensen – 83′ ), 11 Kacaniklic (14 Roberts – 83′ ), 44 McCormack, 20 Rodallega, 16 Woodrow.
Substitutes: 1 Kiraly, 13 Zverotic, 25 Dembele, 27 Williams, 33 Burn
Sunderland: 25 Mannone, 15 Réveillere, 16 O’Shea, 27 Vergini, 3 van Aanholt, 4 Bridcutt, 14 Jordi Gómez, 23 Giaccherini (5 Brown – 90′ ), 20 Álvarez (42 Agnew – 87′ ), 28 Defoe, 9 Fletcher (19 Graham – 74′ )
Substitutes: 1 Pantilimon, 22 Coates
Referee: Paul Tierney