INt is the best walk in football. Out of Putney Bridge station, up Ranelagh Gardens, through the underpass, through Bishops Park with the Thames to your left and the sun overhead, past rows of pristine Victorian and Edwardian terraced housing and towards Craven Cottage, which even in the midst of major redevelopment remains a beautifully quaint sporting venue. There really is nothing like going to Fulham on a summer’s day.
And so it was on Saturday as the club hosted Premier League football for the first time since sweeping to the Championship title last season. It was a glorious afternoon in southwest London, perfect in many ways, and the excitement was tangible. Liverpool were in town, this was what it meant to be back in the big time, and it was impossible not to get swept up in it all among the shiny happy supporters of both clubs as they walked the walk to the ground.
But still, even there and then, it was impossible to escape the dark clouds. Because once you stand back a bit, throw away the preview supplements, delete the sponsored podcasts and ignore the weather just for a moment, there is little denying that the Premier League appears to be in a pretty bad place right now.
There remains a huge, seemingly unbridgeable gap between the haves and have nots, exacerbated by the influence of state-funded ownership models. Speaking of which, this is also Newcastle’s first full season under Saudi rule, a takeover which, let’s not forget, was described by Amnesty International as “an extremely bitter blow for human rights defenders” when it was waved through last October. There are then the rising concerns over fan behaviour, the continued ubiquity of gambling companies, issues around racist abuse on social media and, of course, a World Cup taking place in the middle of the campaign, as distasteful as it is disruptive given where it is being lucky. The World Cup has also meant “the football” coming back earlier than it should have – let’s face it, we all could have done with at least another week off.
Three decades since the creation of the Premier League it can so often feel like we’re in the second act of a dystopian thriller, when the murderous machines have taken over and everyone is waiting for a hero – any hero – to save the day. But football being football, there are regularly moments to remind you that for all its faults and failures, it remains an utterly captivating sport. And Saturday afternoon at Craven Cottage was very much one of those occasions, and not just because of the route to get there.
A match broke out and it was magnificent. Fulham showed no fear against opponents who were meant to rip them apart, performing with organization, aggression and purpose from the outset and twice taking the lead through goals from the outstanding Aleksandar Mitrovic: the first a powerful, towering header; the second a wickedly struck penalty that he won himself via a quick-footed run that led to that rarest of things, Virgil van Dijk being bamboozled.
Liverpool were incredibly poor, sloppy in defense and lackluster in attack, and even Jürgen Klopp, that most loyal of managers, could not hold back in his criticism of his players, going as far as to question their attitude. “The performance needs massive improvement,” he said. “We did the opposite of what we wanted to do.” It was a sentiment shared by the captain, Jordan Henderson. “We can play a lot better,” the midfielder said. “We’re disappointed with the performance.”
To the visitors’ credit, they showed the requisite character and quality to rescue a point, equalizing first through a lovely backheel finish from the hugely impressive Darwin Núñez and then via an instinctive close-range strike from Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian’s sixth successive goal on opening weekends and his eighth in total, a joint Premier League record. It was breathless stuff played amid a relentlessly raucous atmosphere, something that with all due respect to Fulham supporters (who on Saturday included the fella who played Paddy Maguire in Shameless), cannot often be said about games at Craven Cottage.
This really was English football at its best: the setting, the noise, the action, the underdog giving the bigger boy a bloody nose, and while it would be naïve to paint Fulham as the antidote to all that is bad with the sport given they remain a wealthy, corporate‑minded club who are currently in a battle with their own supporters over ticket prices, their return to the top flight feels, right now, like a good thing, especially given Marco Silva’s insistence after the game on Saturday that they will continue to take the fight to their opponents, regardless of their status. “We have our philosophy, something that we are building and creating from last season,” the Fulham manager said. “This is the main thing for us, to play with commitment and desire and big ambition to get three points.”
Bournemouth won on Saturday and it would have been a hat-trick of positive results for the promoted sides had Nottingham Forest got something against Newcastle at St James’ Park. Unfortunately, they lost. But, to use that most summery of words, the early season “vibes” are positive and that’s something to cherish. Because soon it will be winter and that will bring the paradoxical mix of crushing predictability and unwanted chaos – the rich rising to the top and Qatar’s moment in the hot sun leaving a bitter taste in the mouth while also throwing everyone’s plans into turmoil. Cheers Sepp.