IIt’s the best walk in football. Exit Putney Bridge station, walk up Ranelagh Gardens, through the underpass, through Bishops Park with the River Thames to your left and the sun overhead, past rows of immaculate Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses and towards Craven Cottage , which even in the midst of major redevelopment remains a beautifully scenic sporting venue. Nothing like going to Fulham on a summer day.
And that was the case on Saturday as the club hosted Premier League football for the first time since winning the league title last season. It was a glorious afternoon in South West London, perfect in many ways, and the excitement was tangible. Liverpool were in town, that was what it meant to be back in the big time, and it was impossible not to get caught up in it all amongst the bright happy supporters of both clubs as they walked. the walk to the ground.
But yet, even here and there, it was impossible to escape the dark clouds. Because once you take a step back, toss out preview supplements, delete sponsored podcasts and ignore the weather for just a moment, there’s no denying the Premier League seems to be in very bad shape at the moment.
There remains a huge, seemingly unbridgeable divide 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, has been described by Amnesty International as “a huge blow to the defenders of the human rights” when it was announced last October. Then there are the growing concerns about fan behavior, the continued ubiquity of gambling companies, issues of racist abuse on social media and, of course, a World Cup taking place in the middle of the campaign, as unpleasant as it is disruptive given where it is being held. The World Cup also meant ‘football’ came back sooner than it should have – let’s face it, we could all have done with at least another week off.
Three decades after the Premier League was founded, it often feels like the second act of a dystopian thriller, when the killing machines have taken over and everyone is waiting for a hero – no matter who hero – to save the day. But football being football, there are regular moments to remember that despite all its flaws and failings, it remains an utterly captivating sport. And Saturday afternoon at Craven Cottage was definitely 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 tear them apart, playing with organisation, aggression and determination from the start and twice taking the lead thanks to goals from the exceptional Aleksandar Mitrovic: the first a powerful and imposing header ; the second a nasty penalty he won himself via a quick run that led to the rarest thing, Virgil van Dijk being bamboozled.
Liverpool were incredibly poor, sloppy in defense and lackluster in attack, and even Jürgen Klopp, the most loyal of managers, couldn’t help but criticize his players, going so far as to question their attitude. “Performance needs to be dramatically improved,” he said. “We did the opposite of what we wanted to do. It was a sentiment shared by captain, Jordan Henderson. “We can play a lot better,” said the midfielder. “We are disappointed with the performance.
To the visitors’ credit, they showed the character and quality required to save a point, equalizing first with a fine backheel from the very impressive Darwin Núñez and then an instinctive close-range strike from Mohamed Salah, the sixth goal in a row for the Egyptian on opening weekends and his eighth overall, a joint Premier League record. It was breathless stuff played in a relentlessly loud atmosphere, something which, with all due respect to Fulham supporters (who on Saturday included the guy who played Paddy Maguire in Shameless), cannot often be said to About the matches at Craven Cottage.
It was truly English football at its best: the setting, the noise, the action, the underdog giving the biggest boy a bloody nose, and while it would be naive to portray Fulham as the antidote to all this which is bad with the sport given that they remain a wealthy and entrepreneurial club currently battling with their own supporters over ticket prices their return to the top flight looks, at the moment, like a good thing, especially given Marco Silva’s insistence after Saturday’s game that they will continue to fight their opponents regardless of their status. “We have our philosophy, something we’ve been building and creating since last season,” the Fulham manager said. “That’s the main thing for us, to play with commitment, desire and great ambition to get three points.”
Bournemouth won on Saturday and it would have been a hat-trick of positives for promoted sides had Nottingham Forest got something against Newcastle at St James’ Park. Unfortunately, they lost. But, to use that most summery word, the early season ‘vibes’ are positive and something to be cherished. Because soon it will be winter and it will bring the paradoxical mixture of crushing predictability and unwanted chaos – the rich who rise to the top and the moment of Qatar under the scorching sun leaving a bitter taste in the mouth while throwing the plans of everyone in turmoil. Well done Sepp.