Photography: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
It’s the best walk in football. Out of Putney Bridge Station, up Ranelagh Gardens, past the underpass, past Bishops Park with the Thames to your left and the sun overhead, past rows of immaculate Victorian and Edwardian houses and towards Craven Cottage, which right on the in the midst of a major renovation it remains a beautifully picturesque sporting venue. There really is nothing quite like going to Fulham on a summer’s day.
And so it was on Saturday, when the club hosted Premier League football for the first time since winning 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 at the big time, and it was impossible not to get caught up in the happy, glowing fans of both clubs as they walked along. The walk to the floor.
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But even so, it was impossible to escape the dark clouds. Because once you step back a bit, toss out preview supplements, delete sponsored podcasts, and ignore the weather just for a moment, there’s little denying that the Premier League seems to be in a very bad place right now.
There remains a huge and seemingly insurmountable gap between the haves and have-nots, exacerbated by the influence of state-funded ownership models. By the way, this is also Newcastle’s first full season under Saudi rule, an acquisition that, let’s not forget, was described by Amnesty International as “an extremely bitter blow to human rights defenders” when it was waved off last October. Then there are the growing concerns about fan behavior, the continued ubiquity of gambling companies, questions about racist abuse on social media and, of course, a World Cup taking place in the middle of the campaign, as unpleasant as it is disturbing given where it is being performed. The World Cup also meant “football” coming back earlier than it should have – let’s face it, we could all have taken at least one more week off.
Three decades since the Premier League’s inception, it often feels like we’re in the second act of a dystopian thriller, when the killing 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 absolutely captivating sport. And Saturday afternoon at Craven Cottage was one of those occasions, and not just because of the way to get there.
A match started and it was magnificent. Fulham showed no fear against opponents who should have destroyed them, acting with organization, aggression and determination from the start and twice leading with goals from the excellent Aleksandar Mitrovic: the first with a powerful and imposing header; in the second, a vicious penalty which he won through a quick run that led to the rarest of things, Virgil van Dijk being tricked.
Liverpool were incredibly poor, sloppy in defense and lackluster in attack, and even Jürgen Klopp, the most loyal of coaches, could not contain his criticism of his players, even questioning their attitude. “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 much better,” said the midfielder. “We are disappointed with the performance.”
To the visitors’ credit, they showed the character and quality needed to redeem a point, tying first with a beautiful back-heel finish from the impressive Darwin Núñez and then an instinctive shot from Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian’s sixth consecutive weekend goal. debut and his eighth overall, a joint Premier League record. It was breathless stuff played amidst a relentlessly raucous atmosphere, something that, with all due respect to Fulham fans (which on Saturday included the guy who played Paddy Maguire in Shameless), cannot be said for games at Craven Cottage.
It really was the best of English football: the scenery, the noise, the action, the underdog leaving the bigger boy with a bloody nose, and while it would be naive to paint Fulham as the antidote to everything bad in the sport, that they remain a wealthy, corporate club that is currently in a battle with their own fans over ticket prices, their return to the top flight now looks like a good thing, especially given Marco Silva’s insistence after Saturday’s game. so they will continue to take the fight to their opponents, regardless of their status. “We have our philosophy, something we’ve been building and creating since last season,” said the Fulham coach. “That is the main thing for us, playing with commitment, desire and great ambition to win the three points.”
Bournemouth won on Saturday and it would have been a positive hat-trick for the promoted teams if Nottingham Forest had managed something against Newcastle at St James’ Park. Unfortunately, they lost. But to use that more summery word, the “vibes” from the start of the season are positive and that’s something to cherish. Because it will soon be winter and it will bring the paradoxical mix of crushing predictability and unwanted chaos – the rich rising to the top and the Qatari moment under the hot sun leaving a sour taste in your mouth as it derails everyone’s plans. Hug Sep.