After a prolonged hiatus Bob Lethaby joined the Reading army travelling to Fulham last Saturday. Timing is everything.
I went to my first football match in almost a year on Saturday, travelling to Craven Cottage, the riverside home of Fulham FC, with my son, George.
Going to Fulham away is always a pleasure as it involves a train journey into London and a trip to some great old pubs that still maintain a traditional feel about them. If I am honest, football is just an excuse for the day out.
My journey started in Andover with a two mile walk to the train station courtesy of the fact that Andover doesn’t appear to have taxis unless you have booked them several weeks in advance. This inconvenience was followed by some vintage disruption by South West trains, including an enforced change at Basingstoke (where I met up with George) a diversion away from Clapham Junction, the automatic doors jamming shut and, would you believe, an announcement of a further delay because a member of staff had turned up late at Waterloo.
This meant going into Central London to come back out again but we eventually got to The Bricklayers Arms in Putney, just in time for a couple of pre-match pints. The Bricklayers is a great pub, full of quirky folk and the type of fans who wear lots of badges. You just know that if you asked them, they would happily recite the exact attendance of every game during Fulham’s 1975 FA Cup run.
So with a happy spirit, George and I crossed the bridge at Putney and meandered through the park down to the old ground. Upon arriving, I saw some recognisable faces outside the stadium which led me to embark on a kind of sage and reciprocal nodding exercise that, if transferred into a language, would have said, “I remember you from The South Bank days, you were also there when Reading were really shit!”
The South Bank was the standing area at the old ground (Elm Park) where all the singing took place amongst the hardened faithful. These were generally young men who were of a sturdy enough nature to withstand the stench of piss and cheap burgers as well as a genuine threat from opposing fans from just down the M4. These were mostly places to the west, like Bristol, Swansea and Cardiff, recession hit towns with fans who were perpetually up for some action on the terraces.
I also noticed a new batch of young and boisterous fans who in my generation, would have supported Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal or West Ham perhaps. Moderate success and a couple of brief entries into the Premier League have, without doubt, boosted the support base of a club who I once watched with just over 3,000 other fools. It was one of my first games at Reading, against Blackpool on a dismal Saturday around about 1981.
The game started well for Fulham but not Reading, who seemed lost and disjointed, with virtually every pass ending up at the feet of grateful opponents who, in fairness, looked like they meant business. It was as if the players had been unsettled by further disturbing news about Reading’s financial position and the fact they may be up for sale for the third time in as many years; the days of financial stability under local eccentric, John Madejski, seem distant.
Naively, I never imagined Reading would become a club featuring obscure, laughable ownership, with faceless directors salivating at the prospect of further financial gain on the fertile commercial land sat next to the M4 just 30 miles east of London. It is one of the reasons why I have lost my way as a supporter in recent years, I just don’t feel like being associated with people like that.
Just as it seemed that the Royals had escaped an early onslaught, an explicable own goal put Fulham ahead. However,this changed nothing in terms of an improved performance from Reading and the only silver lining to this calamitous affair was that they got to half-time without further damage, when the Cottagers should have been well out of sight.
The half-time wait for a pint was a torturous one, however, we were at least entertained by a pleasant young lady who, in a fit of anger, hurled a whole pint of lager in the face of her bemused and desperately embarrassed boyfriend. We finished our beer watching the beginning of the second half on a big screen, witnessing an instant second Fulham goal and the sending off of Danny Williams of Reading. It was all over.
Our deluded theory that Fulham, after cursing missed chances in the first half, might fade and blow it in the second, were dispelled in the space of a few minutes and as the third goal, a fine solo effort, smacked the back of The Royals net, the familiar sound of plastic seats flipping upwards, echoed around a rather despondent looking away end.
We held out until the fifth goal went in, which was quite admirable of us I thought, as it was an appalling performance by Reading. As I stopped for a comfort break, I heard a Reading fan of about sixty, saying that if it hadn’t been for the poor refereeing, Reading would have got something out of the game. This was a bizarre statement when a 5-0 trouncing was almost sympathetic. Believe me, it could have been a lot uglier.
We walked to The Crabtree pub, the first of many where we had a really sociable evening talking to all types before eventually, via a few more pubs at Embankment, we ended up at a Christmas market near Waterloo Station. A couple of 9% German lagers finished us off and turned our final steps (my iPhone registered 18,400) into a tired, chuckling, stumble.
We were kept awake on train by some women screeching Christmas songs like they were impersonating cats prancing around on the surface of the sun, but not long enough for George to miss his stop at Basingstoke, meaning an extended stay with the old man.
Hopefully, this was just one of those days for Reading but it did nothing to dampen our day out on a cold, crisp and festive afternoon in West London.
As the saying goes…“you should never let the football ruin an away day at the football”.
Read more of Bob’s ace football writing here