TOOFIF: Trip down memory lane – The Great Escape

Danny Murphy celebrating the winner against Pompey in the Great Escape. Credit:

Sunday, 11 May 2008. approx 2am. Couldn’t sleep, the air was muggy. Lying there with the sweat dripping off me as the noise of the Saturday night drunks passed my bedroom window adding to the disturbance. Staring at the ceiling, thinking of any excuse as to why this night was proving to be a long unpleasant one.

But deep down I knew why… of course I knew why! For in just a few hours I was to begin my 15-minute walk down to Waterloo Station to catch my train to Fratton, a trip I’d planned in my head several times already to ensure that nothing was going wrong today. The OCD worse than ever before as my mum’s OCD multiplies for the same reasons influencing my own mental state in the days building up to it. I’d never been to Pompey before, not that it mattered much. Reassuring myself that our fate was in our hands for survival thanks to the win against Brimingham last week, but at this point, right now, it was doing little for my nerves.

I eventually dose off but it’s not long before the day begins. I’ve no appetite so I skip breakfast and we head out. There were many fellow supporters on the train and commuters that day would have experienced three kinds of Fulham fans. The vocal ones who would sing any song they could think of and really made a day of the occasion, the fidgety ones who couldn’t sit still or get comfortable, such was the magnitude of what was before us. And the ones like me, quiet. Not really knowing how to feel or what to say. This had never happened to me, I’d only remembered Fulham on the up since the days of Micky Adams. I have a poor attention span at the best of times, but today there was no hope of getting a conversation out of me. My Mum, Dad and little sister chatting away while I was there in body yet my head a million miles away. We go to the pub before the game and do all the usual rituals before any away match. And then it’s time to head to the ground. We walk up the road, houses either side of us. It was a narrow road, at least it was in my head although that could just be my imagination as it felt everything was closing in around me. You could see the ground in front of you, just like walking up Finlay Street to the Cottage, I suppose.

At Fratton Park, the away fans walk down what I recall as a bit of an alleyway to the away end. A wall of art with pictures of ex-Pompey players from beginning to end. Steve Stone, Linvoy Primus and the very unpopular Dejan Stefanovic to name but a few. I suppose you aren’t really interested in that are you? No neither was I, but it was just another excuse not to think about the game as it was now about 2.30pm. Kick-off was getting closer and closer. We made it into our seats, about ten rows back, perfectly in line with the top corner to our fans’ right-hand side, a view unappreicated at this point – but boy, would that change!

It’s important for those who weren’t there that day that I make it very clear how hot it was. For every minute we got closer to knowing our fate, the sun seem to blaze over us that bit hotter. I don’t know how the players played 90 minutes in that heat and under that pressure. I suppose we were lucky Portsmouth had bigger things on their mind like the FA Cup Final. It must have been the hottest day of the year; I remember it that way because I just can’t forget the intensity. This was the most torturing heatwave I’ve ever experienced at a football match.

I remember very little about the game itself. I don’t remember much goalmouth action; it was very much a game that you’d expect in degrees such as this. I didn’t know the Birmingham or Reading scores until half-time, they weren’t mentioned by the people around me – you’d have thought no other matches were being played that day. We all know that it wasn’t good news, or was it? I don’t know if I’m alone but my nerves seem to ease once I know things aren’t going our way. I’m at my most nervous when we are hanging on.

Throughout the afternoon the fans were amazing and the atmosphere was electric. As Kamara raced through, only to be taken down for a free kick, we knew we had to score. The ball was placed just inside the Pompey half on the left-hand side of the pitch as I looked. Reading (4-0) and Birmingham (4-1) were winning their games. It was all getting a bit desperate – WE HAD TO SCORE!!!

It had been a torturing season. A rollercoaster that you queue up for, are terrified of, but are forced on by your kids or friends. The long drawn out wait fearing the worst but doing it anyway. The anger, you feel upset, tears, stress, sleepless nights, frustration, confusion, acceptance, you don’t care anymore – you DO care, of course – but then comes the worst emotion of them all. The one that causes the most pain in the end: HOPE!  Multiply all those feelings by 100, factor in the heat and the fact that our relegation rivals were home and hosed and yet helpless if we could only manufacture a win… imagine all of that and you might be able to imagine how it felt being in that seat adjacent to the top corner as Murphy rose highest and guided the ball right at me. I could have caught it if the net hadn’t been in the way. In reality, though, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near the ball – for I had already left my seat and was in the stairwell running down to the front. Those in the rows before me with the same idea beat me to it, our heroes in a pile on the pitch as McBride wrestles Murphy to the ground. Us fans piling on top of each other behind the barrier. Men hugging each other, crying, overjoyed! It was a minute of my life that will never leave me. I’ve seen the birth of all four of my beautiful children. I’m married to the woman of my dreams and, although I won’t commit to saying they were inferior experiences, I could describe those feelings. But celebrating that goal, well words just can’t describe the feeling. The release of tension just for a few seconds. It was, and probably always will be, the best moment I will ever have supporting Fulham.

Now comes the worst part, as mentioned above. My nerves eased when I knew that the Reading and Birmingham results weren’t going our way, at that point I was almost resigned to the fact we were down. Now those nerves were back, and how – my heart was pounding so much faster, in sync with those of all Fulham fans around me, and loud enough to probably drown out the famous Pompey fan with the bell. But I can’t say I heard him that day, I can’t say I remember anything about that last 13 minutes or so.

The sheer joy when the final whistle went. Not as wild as when the goal went in, maybe. This was more relief that it was over.

A celebration of nine months of failure that was rescued in the most unlikely circumstances. Defying the odds and players transforming from arseholes to heroes. I know some will have the attitude that we have been relegated anyway some years later so it was pointless, but it wasn’t. What we went on to achieve after that, finishing 7th in the top division and getting to Hamburg, will go down as the two greatest seasons in our history; why? Because on paper it’s a fact. That wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the great escape, and whatever happens it’s an era I will cherish for ever and tell my Grandkids about, just like my Grandad did with me.

On the train home everyone was buzzing. At one point we thought we had got into Europe through the Fair Play League as Richard Dunne’s red card was thought to have swayed it our way. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way in the end, but it didn’t ruin the party back to London.

Quite often I read that people shouldn’t worry or let Fulham’s poor form affect their daily lives. It’s just a ‘game’. Except it’s not, is it? Football, for many, is so much more than that. Fulham goes back in my family to the 1940s; I went to my first match when I’d just turned two years old. Fulham is and always will be in my blood. Every club other than the obvious handful at the top are just one bad owner, a couple of relegations or a poor management of finances away from doing what Pompey did or in some cases worse. I can’t imagine life without Fulham, it’s what makes me who I am. It’s what makes me one of you, part of something.

Every fan has a reason for supporting Fulham. Mine was forced on me. I’d supported all my life but it really did feel like I’d come of age at Pompey. I was just turned 18 and something changed that day. I saw Fulham in a different light. I knew it wasn’t just my family tradition, my club – it is OUR club and you are my family.

And all this from a supporter. Imagine the small people that nobody gets to meet or know. The ones who work in admin, commercial or in the canteen. How do they feel knowing their fate lies in the hands of eleven men and a match in Portsmouth. When we were relegated, when all teams are relegated, the number of ‘small people’ who lose their jobs is saddening. Cuts have to be made and it’s never the players who suffer most. People just doing a job to provide for their families, who have done nothing wrong but are helpless as their fate is determined by others failing or not.

So please don’t tell me Football is just a game and don’t dare tell me this is just a football club. It’s not just a football club… WE ARE FULHAM!!!