“Fulham are a Saturday afternoon team. There is always a feeling of animated recreation rather than solid professionalism about the scene, so that girls playing on tennis courts near the ground… appear almost part of the game itself. And there is the feeling of the past, with rows and rows of Victorian houses from which old men stare through stained glass eyes of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.”
John Moynihan’s classic ‘The Soccer Syndrome’ was penned in 1966 and was a book ahead of its time. Written in a series of pithy chapters reflecting on the game in the decades after the Second World War, Moynihan alters his gaze from players to supporters to the wider game, but he really hits his stride dissecting individual clubs and gives the reader full value when he turns to Fulham.
“Since the War I have seen Fulham transfer from a side of humourless efficiency watched by humourless, patriotic spectators, who were always cynical of the music hall comedians of Stamford Bridge, to a side of happy, sometimes comic triers watched by garrulous actors who detest the thorough efficiency of the now highly organized Stamford Bridge set up.”
Although Moynihan was a Chelsea supporter he had a keen awareness of the psychological make up of a close rival. His portrait of a club with Tommy Trinder in the stands and Johnny Haynes on the pitch echoed Mr John’s Corinthian values, where a good day out would never be blighted by the outcome of the game. Walking up to the ground today, you could see where he was coming from.
Stolling through the adjacent public gardens and Thames path in blissfully warm sunshine it felt more like a day-trip to the Wimbledon Lawn-Tennis Championships. The birdsong was interrupted by the passing S.S. Ipswich Town flotilla with a disjointed cacophony of “Blue Army!” chants. As one pedestrian observed, “There are a load of noisy sods on that second boat as well!”
This was a soft day that could lull you into a false sense of security. To beat this lot and their quick technical players, we needed cold raw Aston Villa away type weather or more ideally a tempest. Craven Cottage looked good bathed in sunshine. There’s a touch of Portman Road about the ground which carries a sense of history while remaining proportionate for the club and the surroundings.
When the line-ups were announced, there was little to query although Jokanovic had shown his ruthless side in jettisoning keeper David Button and defender Tim Ream, and recalling the distinctive Chris Martin up front. I worried that our 3-5-2 may struggle against a team which relies on wingers and overlapping full-backs but we also had their dangerous three-man central midfield to deal with.
Once the game kicked off, it was instantly clear that Fulham weren’t hanging around and that this was not going to be a cagey chess game. Forward they came, especially down our left flank where Sone Aluko and Ryan Fredericks were combining cleverly and linking up with Stefan Johansen and chief orchestrator Tom Cairney in midfield. Left-winger Floyd Ayite was popping up everywhere.
Fulham also relied on a high-pressing game and a very high back line, compressing our midfield and forcing David McGoldrick into the centre-circle where his lack of pace made him less threatening. While this style of play was risky it was also instantly clear that this Fulham team enjoy doing risky.
The cut-and-thrust football was yielding Fulham chances through their clever passing and interplay while we were capitalising on errors. Early chances for Ayite and Johansen were counterbalanced by McGoldrick fluffing a gifted ball from Cottagers’ keeper Marcus Bettinelli. The hosts were building their rhythm with their passing game and their overlapping full-backs were helping forge openings.
There was a chorus of booing for Chris Martin when the teams had been announced and not just from the Suffolk contingent. An early through ball from Fredericks reached Martin but he miscontrolled it out of play at the edge of the six-yard box. His stomach happily broke his fall and prevented any serious injury. His tussles with Berra all day were an old-school throwback in a technical game.
The opening goal was no surprise. It had been coming, not on the balance of pressure but on the sharpness and alertness of the hosts. Another cross, this time from Ayite, and Bart saved smartly from Martin but Ayite was quickest to react. A series of half-chances followed for both sides, inevitably created by Fulham’s clever interplay (for them) and their neurotic defending (for us).
“How easy was that?” Fulham’s second goal was far more problematic. An innocuous throw in on our right and some short passes saw Fulham’s quieter Scott Malone ghost in and knife the ball past Bart into his far corner. We had not picked up the runner and switched off at the back yet again.
“Give him the budget and he will get you promoted.” The away crowd had been vocal for the first half hour and fully behind the team but the second goal heralded a change. The Portman Road fans have been unhappy for months but hearing the away fans starting to become negative was new.
“Norwich are winning 5-0.” While our friends up the road were typically flattering to deceive, we were flattering nobody. Fulham were now controlling the tempo of the game, varying it in the warm sunshine along a slow-slow-quick-quick-slow rhythm to conserve energy and catch us out. They were happy to fire long goal-kicks downfield for wingers to sprint on to and win set-pieces.
There was no argument about the half-time score. We were losing the game in midfield and there was little we could do about it. Maybe having Skuse out there would have disrupted the prowling Johansen or the Fulham conductor-in-chief Tom Cairney but their central trio were trumping ours.
The most telling recurring pattern kept happening in midfield. Fulham pressed and killed space with a high defensive line when we were in possession. They would invariably isolate our midfield ball carrier in a one-versus-two battle before dispossessing him and working the ball quickly to one of their wingers of full-backs bombing forward. It was clever, pre-planned and difficult to stop.
The switch to a 4-4-2 at the interval was an attempt to add some attacking balance by introducing Tom Lawrence while stifling Fulham’s threat down the wings. Yet another formation switch which begged the question as to why Mick doesn’t know his best set-up having worked with this squad for four years. Jokanovic in contrast had a style of play up and running with a squad rebuilt last summer.
Away we went for the second half and once again the game was being played in the same hysterical pattern. Sears nearly found the net straight after the break and while Fulham were getting chances at the other end, McGoldrick in particular was fashioning chances which we just could not finish.
After Bettinelli made one excellent save, the inevitable happened when Fulham broke and scored a third. It was a simple counter attack which left Johansen with time and space in the box to compose himself and fire home past Bart. 3-0, Game over. "Marcus Evans, get out of our club", “We want McCarthy out.”
“We want our Ipswich back.” The supporter standing beside me wondered just how many of our second half chances might have been taken had we bought a natural finisher in the January window. We had been wasteful in front of goal and it had bitten us. The wider mood was turning toxic with chants being aimed at Mick and Evans in equal measure and all a sharp contrast to the first half-hour.
“Fulham were actually better than this at Portman Road.” My companion said that they were playing far riskier football in the sunshine than they had over Christmas. There is a flawed beauty to the type of football Fulham play, delightful going forward but leaving wide open spaces and passing recklessly into the bargain. I fear they may be unable to string three good play-off games together in May.
There was no streetwise closing the game out as Fulham kept on attacking and leaving gaps in their hunt for a fourth goal, but by now most of the away end were occupied with letting the owner and the manager know what they thought of them and the season. Berra’s consolation goal in stoppage time was followed by Chris Martin skewing a shot wide and the game was mercifully concluded.
It is tempting to dabble in a little Kremlinology when interpreting post-match players’ interactions with the crowd. They all came over and applauded us but many of us would have given good money to work out what Chambers and McGoldrick were thinking as they stood and clapped us. Mick went straight to the tunnel without glancing over. It is safe to say he probably heard what was been sung.
Just after I left the stadium and walking in the flow of people towards Putney Bridge, a fellow Blue turned to me and said “I’m worried that the club are going to slaughter us for protesting during the game but it’s not wrong our protesting, is it? The football is awful, there’s every chance we could go down next season and there’s no way I can see it changing. What else can we do?”
He had been in a small knot of boisterous supporters at the front of the away end who were vocally protesting and encouraging others to join in. The truth, of course, is that he is right. The Town crowd warmly applauded every chance the players created, even in the second half when we were taking the game to Fulham, but the difference in calibre between the sides was just too obvious.
If you look back in recent years there are two ways of dropping into League One. You may not be big enough to survive (Yeovil, Milton Keynes, Peterborough) but incompetent ownership in whatever guise lies behind a majority of recent relegations (Blackpool, Bolton, Charlton, Pompey, Coventry, etc.) and it’s happening again this year with Forest and Blackburn currently fighting for their lives.
An owner is far more likely to relegate a football club than a manager. It nearly happened to us in 2013 and if the club don’t wake up it could well happen next season. There has been a paradigm shift in the Championship due to the new money being pumped in to the Premier League and our current investment level simply won’t cut it in this new world. This is not wishful thinking, it is reality.
The thing that struck me was how a fellow Blue was seeking affirmation for having voiced his fears during the game. It takes so little to make us happy as a band of supporters. We haven’t had success for a generation but we know what this club is capable of achieving. It’s such a pity that the people wielding control of the club either can’t recognise it or lack the ambition to try and make it happen.
I was travelling on the train back to Bath from Paddington and a large number of Bath Rugby supporters boarded at Reading. When I saw half-a-dozen middle-aged alickadoos wearing Henley-style blazers with Black, Blue and White stripes I burst out laughing. I am so grateful to love football and support such a down to earth club. We may lose our tempers but at least we keep our dignity.
I haven't been feeling all that well in recent months, getting migraines regularly coupled with feeling incredibly tired and letting things get to me. I started getting chest pains last week on top of this so it was time to see the GP.
I know how busy GP's are these days so my surgery has a Practitioner Nurse who can diagnose so along I toddled on Tuesday to see what they could find. She took my blood pressure, entered some data on the computer and then took it again and in hindsight I should have twigged that the first reading was being double-checked.
It transpired that my blood pressure was 184/110 and it was only when I went home and googled these numbers that I realised how bad these are. The American Heart Association defines this reading as a Hypertensive Crisis and all the associated symptoms listed were all too familiar.
They put me on medication and got me back in the next afternoon for an ECG. The nurse took another reading and after only two tablets it was down to 154/94. She said that High Blood Pressure is known as the silent killer but that it is also one of the most utterly treatable conditions.
I am just sharing this to say to everyone to keep an eye on this. I am in my mid-fifties and my Dad's high blood pressure went undiagnosed. This led to a series of mini-strokes when he was 57 and he pegged out with a cardiac arrest when he was 62. The symptoms aren't always obvious and can creep up on you but it can be quickly worked on.
Ian Milne is a bit of a soft target these days. His comment this week that is was ‘regrettable’ that we had to increase season ticket prices was as amusing as it was unnecessary. We weren’t quite sure what was being regretted but my sense was that it was the tidal wave of anger which the move invited, an anger which has understandably now spread to the traditionally patient fan base.
Still, today’s game would hopefully be a distraction. Heading from Bath up to the M4 you drive across a plateau for a couple of miles. It is often shrouded in fog or low cloud in wet weather and today was no exception, a nasty squally interlude on our journey after a nasty, squally week at the club. Today’s game was not going to be a stroll in the spring sunshine and navigating needed care.
Cardiff is a friendly club to visit. When I arrived on the concourse and realised there were no programmes on sale inside the stadium, I was directed by a fellow Blue to another steward who nipped out and purchased two for me. The stadium was half-full and the mood among Town fans was one of end-of-season reflection, the football a welcome distraction from our wider problems.
One the game kicked-off, Cardiff the more purposeful side. We had our usual three centre-backs with Knudsen and Spence out wide. It was apparent that City were going to test our right side, mainly due to having three natural left-footers in Junior Hoilett and Kadeem Harris backed up at left-back by the creative Joe Bennett.
Their first foray gave an indication as to how the game would play out when hesitant covering by Spence and McGoldrick allowed a cross which Kenneth Zohore flicked over the bar. We broke cover with a superb early counter-attack which Grant Ward was not able to finish, although it looked like a Bart-quality save from Cardiff’s Allan McGregor.
The regular formation of 20 outfield players in a postage stamp awaiting a goal-kick in the wind and rain should tell you much about the game. The fact that one long-range Aron Gunnarsson throw went behind the goal-line and Bart’s subsequent goal-kick went straight into touch will also tell you much about the quality of the football. It was quite imperfect but nonetheless quite entertaining.
Cardiff also set about getting into our faces, spoiling our play and working free kicks and set pieces out of the referee. Bristol City fans were indignant about it earlier in the season but you have to admire the hutzpah of Neil Warnock’s game management. There’s no point getting cross about it as his teams will never change their nature.
We started to grow into the game after 15 minutes although our attacking moves lacked the energy, tempo and conviction of the Bluebirds’ forays. Our opening goal owed as much to Tom Lawrence’s excellent set-piece delivery as it did to the accuracy of Chambers’s header. “We’ve got our equaliser in nice an early”, quipped a fellow Blue. If only. That was to be the high point.
“Swing low, sweet chariot.” A little hubris was allowed but the Bluebirds were now roused and Bart did well to keep out Harris and Zohore efforts. When City’s equaliser fell, it came from a free cross by the tidy Jazz Richards, a towering header by set-piece danger Sean Morrison and a lightning reflex finish by Zohore. Three Cardiff players were doing what they do best and we had simply let them.
City now had their tails up as the first half reached its conclusion. Zohore nearly added a second moments after they levelled and shortly after this Gunnarsson fed Hoilett whose shot hit the post with Bart beaten. Cardiff’s growing alertness contrasted with our lethargy and we were relieved to hear the half-time whistle.
The consensus at the interval was that it was an entertaining albeit poor quality first half. The awful conditions didn’t help with the blustery rain refusing to let up. The shape of the team was good and the Cardiff goal came from the habit of switching off which had blighted so many games this season.
“Pitman for Smith.” Resuming our seats after the break, it was apparent that Mick had come up with a different diagnosis and changed our shape to 4-4-2. This was to prove a catastrophic alteration and one which went a long way to handing Cardiff victory.
Two of our three creative players, Ward and Lawrence were now forced wide and Lawrence became a peripheral figure having been at the heart of our creative play before the break. We were now left with two central holding midfielders and no central midfield threat.
Toumani had been able to break forward to good effect to link with the creative players in a three-man midfield with Skuse sitting, but he became more withdrawn and this allowed Gunnarsson and Whittingham time and space to create in the centre with Ward also no longer there to disrupt them.
Things were worse at the back. Two of Berra, Chambers and Smith had been able to double up on Zohore in the first half when he was receiving clearances to hold up, but now he was able to isolate a centre-back. Whoever was covering at right back was also isolated and would have a tough job being one-on-one with Harris. Each of these consequences specifically cost us a second half goal.
Things were little better up front. With the supply chain fragmented to the wings and the long ball, Pitman and McGoldrick had little to work with. The sight of the giant Sol Bamba effortlessly shielding the ball out of play behind the goal line from a ball into the channels became a recurring second half theme.
You could instantly anticipate the problems the formation-switch would create, but the second Cardiff goal was still a surprise given the speed and ease with which it came. Five minutes into the second half, a City goal-kick, a clever flick-on and Zohore was through to score unmarked. If your defenders are habitually switching off it’s probably not a great idea to remove one of them.
The hosts were now looking to kill us off and their inevitable third goal came soon after. The spiky and combative Harris worked his way down our right side to the by-line and slid the ball back to Joe Bennett who had time pick his spot. Bennett is a classy left-back and needed no second invitation although by now we were becoming ragged.
With an hour gone the game was effectively over and lost but a fellow Blue spotted a telling contrast in the behaviour of both sets of players in an injury break shortly after the Bluebirds’ third goal. The Cardiff men were all over with Warnock, getting fluids and instructions whereas our lot were all standing around, isolated, hands on hips and with hardly a word being spoken among them.
“The early leavers are on their way.” The final quarter of the game passed with little incident. Any lingering excitement or interest ebbed away as Cardiff were happy to play out the game. We were now as faltering in our attacks as we had been hesitant in our defending. McGoldrick’s weary trudge on being subbed off was not the urgent sprint of a losing player whose team were chasing a goal.
“Another Ipswich long ball into the channels.” The nippiness and alertness of Cardiff’s players was a sharp contrast with our play. City were more likely to add a fourth goal as yet more catastrophic defending allowed Hoilett an absolute gift of a free shot with seven minutes left. We had a late tepid penalty appeal for a handball but the game drifted to a soporific conclusion.
“Oh dear, oh dear”, “It was all half-hearted.” The mood was a flat as you could imagine heading out of the stadium after the full-time whistle. There was a nervous check on how other results went on mobile phones, something I never thought we would return to under Mick. The damage could have been a lot worse but our display was so poor in that second half that relegation cannot be excluded.
It was unfair to reference Ian Milne at the start of this report as it wasn’t him who allowed Zohore off the leash to score today. Nevertheless, it was abundantly clear even to an untrained eye who was watching today that events off the field are having an effect on it. This was a very distracted Town performance and the contrast with Cardiff’s industry, energy and enthusiasm was palpable.
Any neutral watching our display would place money on Mick leaving this summer no matter what the official line might be. A professional football dressing room is a work environment with people looking out for themselves and Cardiff showed us up as a group of players with their collective minds elsewhere. That this happened after the post-Derby heart-to-heart is all the more alarming.
“Ipswich fans need to be ‘realistic’ about Marcus Evans’s budget.” This was my other favourite Ian Milne sidewinder this week and it all drives back to what Steve M described as a “sense of drift” a few months ago. Milne’s was quite an insulting remark as it implied that we had ideas above our station. If an owner is not ambitious for his club, it’s hardly a surprise if it rubs off on the pitch.
We are not militant supporters. We are a patient lot and one of our number said before the game that many of us would be happy with a few 3-0 or 4-0 wins between now and the end of May. We are sick of being taken for granted, of paying sky-high prices to support an under-funded squad and being fobbed off with gimmicks and a five-point plan more suited to Colchester or Southend.
Heading across the Severn Bridge this morning I hoped that today would offer a welcome diversion from the weeks’ events but if anything, it brought them to the surface even more. I always go back to Mr John and his comment about the key relationship at any club being between the owner and the manager and at the moment there are glaring issues with both.
Mick needs to go back to the drawing board and not just look at formations. He needs to look at our style of play and above all else the calibre and motivation of individual players. The time has also come for him to be ruthless.
As for Marcus? Well, he will do what he wants and I’m not sure our all being up in arms will change anything. All we can do is point out what is going wrong and hope we’re not blamed too much for doing so. We are also becoming accustomed to the meanings of ‘realistic’ and ‘regrettable’ as the club sees them. If today’s display is anything to go by they will increasingly become all too familiar.