Sunderland 0-0 Fulham

If this game were a cartoon it would be Tom & Jerry, with Sunderland both Tom and Jerry, running around frantically in a strangely futile loop, and Fulham Spike the dog, conserving energy and only getting involved when absolutely necessary, but generally in control of the whole situation.

Which is not to belittle the suffocating excellence of our heroes, more to suggest that, after the heroics in Ukraine and ahead of the FA Cup Quarter Final, this was almost exactly the sort of performance we needed.  Quiet, accomplished, and fruitful.

Sunderland could make neither head nor tail of it all.  They played with three forwards (Bent, Jones, Campbell), but hadn’t thought of a way to make the most of this superficially dazzling array of talent.  Fulham – like Spike the dog – just had to *be there* and wait for the annoyances in front of them to tire, which they did.

Only when Bolo Zenden came on for Sunderland did things get a bit more tricky.  The classy Zenden, in an attacking midfield role that made Sunderland’s attacks slightly less predictable, nearly scored with one dabbed effort, and nearly made another with a frightening cross that journeyed all the way across our six yard box before being met by a flying Alan Hutton, whose full-stretch finish was that of a full-back.

At the other end Fulham made little headway, with Zamora and Mensah having a classic backing in/pushing duel that befuddled the referee into several frustrating decisions.  We must, though, be sympathetic to the referee in these situations: often there really is no right answer, both players jostling for the ball at the same time.  How do you judge the guiltier party?

There was little else to declare.  Simon Davies, getting sharper every game, lofted in some nice aerial balls that on another day might have created something, otherwise it was nice to see Dickson Etuhu taking charge of the midfield again – he seemed to be thriving out there today.

And now onto Spurs, and the chance to go to Wembley…

Lint, teeth, and the curious circularity of it all.

This morning is the last day for my black tooth.  When I was 16/17 and playing cricket I top edged an attempted hook shot into my own mouth, sending two teeth flying into the air.  Someone found them, put them in a glass of milk, and got me to a dentist, where they were reinserted, but this is not what nature expects for its teeth and they haven’t been right since.  I have no issue with discolouration – this is just ‘one of those things’ (someone should make a book of ‘those things’) – but it gets infected a lot and the pain has become hard to deal with.  So we’re taking it out this afternoon.

This is exciting news, and has given me much cause to ponder the last few years and how things have been, what’s been good, what’s been bad.  This morning I was reading Richard Brautigan’s “Sombrero Fallout”.  I bought the book when I first got to Dublin in, probably, 2004.  To begin with I had no possessions with me and needed to stock up on essentials.  I bought two CDs, both by Yo La Tengo, and then went hunting for books.   There was a small independent shop on Grafton Street that sold all sorts, and from there I bought a few of Canongate’s Rebel,Inc series (the Brautigan among them) and a couple of Lawrence Block’s crime novels.

I remember writing back emails to friends and family back then.  How everything suddenly seemed alive, in technicolor.  Before I left it felt like London had swallowed me up: my sense of self, my sense of being able to manage the world, all gone.  Now, in Dublin, I felt free.   Accordingl, I signed off that first email home:

So there we are. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be doing this, after years of not much in England I feel really alive, to the extent that I feel I ought to write a really cheesy song about it all or something. Clearly the novelty will soon wear off and it’ll be back to real life again, but perhaps I’ll move to Wales when that happens. I think Dublin’s all I wanted it to be, and I’m absolutely loving it.

Being in a strange country got me back into reading again, and I haven’t stopped.   (Dublin was great for a time, but soon I missed home.)

In “Sombrero Fallout”, which I came back to this morning, the introduction refers to another of Brautigan’s short stories in which the main character replaces his house’s plumbing with poetry.  I’m not sure how this works but I looked up the collection in question (entitled “Revenge of the Lawn”) to try to find it.  Nope.

But I did find a train ticket inside the book.  Not a ticket, a “sales voucher”, £15.50, from Balham, on the 17th November 2006. Where was I going that day that cost me £15.50?   It was printed at 07:30 in the morning, so may have been work related.  Was I going to Brighton for the day?   It’s a mystery.

A better mystery was found inside a second hand copy of JP Donleavy’s “The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B”.  Here was a real-life bus ticket that someone had left behind, many years ago.

Who was reading this book?  Where were they going?

I looked up as much as I could on the internet.   The 65 route bus goes from Surbiton to Ealing.   LONDON TRANSPORT 22225 is another clue.  This, I discovered, is the individual bus, registration UGR 697R, registered in December 1977.  I would have been almost two at the time.

So my mystery reader was on this bus, reading Donleavy, some time after 1978.  Now, more than 30 years later, I have been reading the same book on various buses and trains around South West London.   Were I American I might try to weave some kind of mystical meaning around this.   As it stands I shall just imagine someone from the 70s reading Donleavy as the bus crawls around these grumbling London roads.

It is not much of a mystery, I grant you, but nice curiousity, I think.   A mystery that can never be solved, and all the better for it.  Many of the best things in life happen in our imaginations, floating around beautifully like (as Brautigan wrote in Sombrero Fallout (albeit about a Japanese woman taking off her clothes)) “like a kite takes gently to a warm April wind”… a step away from the real world.   (Brautigan, only two lines later, wrote “He was also one of those people who have a lot of trouble drying themselves after a bath.  When he was through drying himself, 50 percent of his body was always still wet.”)   Indeed.

In “Revenge of the Lawn” Brautigan muses on his childhood:

“there are pieces of distant life that have no form or meaning.  They are things that just happened like lint.”

Indeed again.   Brautigan may have had issues, may have been bonkers, but he knew.

My tooth will be removed in three and a half hours.  The dentist is about half a mile from Twickenham rugby stadium.  England and Ireland kick off at about the same time as my operation.   There will be thousands of people in the area, having a jolly day in their barbour jackets.  I will be having a happy day, too, with my tooth being removed.  But it is a worrying day as well.  Will we get through the traffic?  What if the operation doesn’t work?   Why do I feel sick writing this?  So sick.

But the world will keep on turning, buses will keep running, and people will be reading to themselves to shut away the world around them, which is the main thing.

(I can’t think of anything original to write about Fulham.   Things are just about perfect, aren’t they?)

Shakhtar Donetsk 1-1 Fulham (2-3 on aggregate) (Fulham go through)

“I can’t tell you how I feel.  My heart is like a wheel…”

Fulham have beaten the Europa League champions, Shakhtar Donetsk.  Over two legs.

The 2-1 first leg lead was always going to be tested tonight, but my word how the team battled.   Shakhtar piled on the pressure, racking up the shots and the corners, but there were always white bodies around and Mark Schwarzer in goal to beat things away.   Hangeland and Hughes were at their repellant best, and the famed Hodgson organisation once more trumped the fancy football of our illustrious opponents.   That’s the way to do it.

In all these European games the away goal is central to everything.  Shakhtar got one at our place so, if we were to go through, we’d need one there.   This felt unlikely before the game, but as time marched on there grew a sense that we could just nick something.   Soon enough a Damian Duff free-kick whizzed onto the head of Brede Hangeland, who nodded the ball beyond the unmoved goalkeeper to make it 1-0.

Moments later the TV people gave us a shot count:  Shakhtar 11-1 Fulham.  It felt slightly underhand for us to be ahead.

But there’s no sense apologising for these things. Shakhtar were blasting balls at Schwarzer’s goal like an old lady spending her pension money on scratchcards: certainly the potential gain is attractive, is this really the best approach, given the situation?   Fulham held the game in a strange kind of control.

We knew that Shakhtar would score eventually, it was just a case of when, and what would happen after that.  The turning point (such that it was) saw Douglas Costa introduced.  He promptly beat several Fulham players in one dribble and suggested much danger lay ahead.   Douglas Costa (I am assuming this to be his full name) was popping up everywhere, and eventually had the nous to have a crack at our third choice left back (heretofore putting in another admirable shift, it must be said).  The Brazilian dummied and hurtled around Kelly, cut the ball back to a teammate, and before we knew it the ball was in the net.

Would Fulham survive?   David Elm replaced the tiring Zamora and Fulham did all that they could to keep the ball away from trouble.  Zoltan Gera missed a Geoff Hurst style counter-attack chance, shooting *just* wide when he could have wrapped things up, but Shakhtar still couldn’t find an answer.   As time ran down Danny Murphy was sent off for hacking at a Shakhtar player in a nothing position (a decision Murphy and everyone else will regret bitterly) but soon enough the final whistle had blown.

Erm.  Bloody hell.  We’ve just beaten Shakhtar Donetsk.  Juventus await.

Bob’s goal

Someone on TiFF very kindly posted this ‘amateur footage’ of Bobby Zamora’s free-kick winner on Sunday.

What I liked about this was that it showed how the wall was, I suspect, able to distract Hart to the point where he wasn’t able to react to Zamora’s shot in time (as we’ll see, he was a millisecond away from it).   (it could just be that they were clearing a gap for Murphy, but the point holds either way – credit to Etuhu and, I think, Gera here.  Also to Duff on the right end of the wall).

I may well be overthinking this, but either way, there’s so much more to these things (in this case, a wall) than we appreciate.

Fulham 2-1 Birmingham City

Another triumphant victory.  After the dizzy heights of Thursday this was always going to be troublesome, but my word what an ordeal it turned out to be.

Things felt languid from the off, and after two minutes Chris Baird thumped a header past Mark Schwarzer to give Birmingham the lead.  A strange beginning – how often do you see very early own goals? – but it ensured we had to play positively from there.

Fulham put together some pretty decent approach work.  When we weren’t dropping long balls into the inside right channel – clearly a pre-determined plan, and quite a succesful one – we were switching play quite well, and Duff, Baird, Shorey and Davies all saw plenty of the ball in wide areas.   Shots were rarer, though, Birmingham’s famed organisation limiting us to opportunist efforts that didn’t unduly worry Joe Hart.

Half-time came, and we were almost in control of a difficult situation.   We just needed a goal.

It didn’t look like arriving.  If the first half was full of neat build up, the second descended into park football style bouts of head tennis.  We got pushed back and seemed to have lost all of the momentum built up before the break.  But ugly games do not always stay ugly, and Damian Duff bagged an equaliser that will demand inclusion on any BBC goal of the month competition.

Duff had started to rise above the mediocrity even before this goal, and here he was cutting inside in trademark fashion.  Birmingham had to know what was coming – any advanced scouting worthy of the name would’ve warned them – but on he went, further infield, then out of nowhere he unfurled an unbelievable strike that whizzed past Joe Hart’s right hand, clanked onto the inside of the post, and settled in the bottom corner of the other side of the goal.   Duff celebrated before the Riverside Stand (he has done this before and is unique in doing so), “pumped up” (to use the phrase of our times) and delighted with what he had just done.  And why not?  Goals like that don’t come around very often (except at Craven Cottage, where screamers into the Hammersmith End are becoming happily common).

Birmingham seemed slightly affronted by this, and revved up some attacks of their own.  James McFadden, all beard and no substance to this point, capitalised on some lax Fulham defending (we were starting to see a lot of this) and thrashed a drive against the underside of Schwarzer’s crossbar from distance.  Was it in?  It might have been, but it all happened so fast that nobody could tell.    On they came, looking like a side with another goal in it.  Fulham were by now huffing and puffing, with Etuhu looking particularly exhausted.  We couldn’t keep the ball, we looked ragged.  Only Zamora and Gera offered signs of hope, with some typical hard-running, but there was no real end product in the offing.  Bjorn-Helge Riise came on and injected some enthusiasm to proceedings, but where would a goal come from?

The game had one more twist.  Zoltan Gera (whose performance today may have been a 9/10 or a 5/10 – very hard to judge) earned a free-kick inside the D.  Joe Hart will have known that Bobby Zamora recently scored from this very spot against Burnley, but will also have spied Danny Murphy standing over the ball.  Neither corner of the net was safe, then, and Hart shuffled nervously on his line, waiting, waiting, waiting, diving, picking the ball out of the net.  Zamora’s in such a groove at the moment that his technique is flawless.  He addressed the ball perfectly, swung that wonderful left boot, and the ball flew home, winning the game.   “Are you watching, Fabio?” called the Hammersmith End.  My concern was that the England manager might have left early to beat the rush, but he’ll have seen enough by then in any case.   “Bobby for England” sang the entire stadium.  Why not?

It’s only football but I like it

It was a marvellous game wasn’t it?

One of the fascinating things – as discussed at length below – was the clash of styles and the changes Roy Hodgson had to make to get the game back on track.  The diagram below shows a crucial part of this:

In the first half we got pushed right back.   We had to defend narrowly because to stretch the defence leaves gaps, and Shakhtar would’ve been through those in seconds.  When people talked about the defensive unit shifting back and forth together this is what they meant:  the defence had to stay as a compact four to keep the attacking players outside the area.

Such was the attacking prowess that the midfield got sucked into all this too, and we had two banks of four essentially squashed into the penalty area.   This allowed the likes of Kelly and Davies to double up effectively, allowed us to ensure that there were always white shirts in the way of Shakhtar shots, but it left us with a big problem:  when we did get the ball, where could we go with it?

This is that American notion of field position again.   If you win the ball in your own area you have the small problem of being about 70 yards away from the opposing goal.    You can make up some of this distance by hoofing the ball clear, but 90% of the time it’ll be back again in seconds.    If Zamora wins a clearance he has to hope that Gera or Duff are nearby to help him.   And even if they are, you still need more men than this to build an attack.   So the ball comes back.

If you try to play your way out you run into difficulties too.   Most passing moves – even from the very best teams – don’t go on for very long.   Say (for the sake of argument) that you string seven passes together before someone makes a mistake or it’s won back by the opposition.   If this passing move starts in your own area then, by the time your notional seven passes are up, you’ll probably still be in your own half.  And here comes another attack.

Of course, the opponents are over the moon with the situation.   They have the ball in your half pretty much continuously.   If they make a mistake there’s no way you’ll score because you’re too far away from their goal.   They can afford to keep prodding away, and if you lapse just once they’re in.    If your entire team is defending around the edge of your area you have limited margin for error; if your defence is up on the halfway line mistakes are much less lilely to go unpunished.

Under these circumstances we can see how the latter part of the first half played out as it did.   We couldn’t get the ball, allowed ourselves to be frightened into massing around our penalty area, so when we won the ball back we had nowhere to go, and on came another attack.

Roy had to do two things:   move his team further up the field to give them some breathing space, and make them keep the ball better to take advantage of this.

Easier said than done, of course, but we managed to make it work.     It was immediately noticeable that Hangeland and Hughes were setting up much further up the pitch, that the midfield wasn’t dropping so deep, and that the team were trying to keep the ball more.    While Shakhtar still saw much of the ball, it wasn’t the relentless whirlwind of one-touch attacking football around our penalty area, it was a much more stretched game played all over the pitch.

It gives us another opportunity to praise Danny Murphy.   Murphy looked like a fireman organising the evacuation of a burning building out there.   His demeanor was very much of the “yes, this is serious, but we can deal with it.  Follow me” variety.    He knew that the principles Hodgson had insisted on would work, but that the team had to have patience, had to believe in itself.   Murphy was massive in the second half, leading to an awesome degree.   There was a moment when we had a goal kick and Murphy turned and screamed at Stephen Kelly to get himself onto the touchline to give Schwarzer a short (possession maintaining) option.  Schwarzer didn’t take that option, but Murphy knew what Kelly should have been doing and told him so.   He was at it all half.

I have embroiled myself in several discussions in the last few days, discussions in which the word “best” has been used by myself in relation to Thursday’s game, and the teams involved.   I got very carried away.   I accept the counter arguments here:  rjbiii rightly insisted that Shakhtar are not the best team we’ve seen, for example.    He’s right.

And so am I.

The best gig I’ve ever seen was Juliana Hatfield at Bush Hall, London, in 2005.   It was the best gig I’ve seen because, as a long-standing fan, I had, at that point never seen Hatfield live.  I – and many other fans – had been waiting a long time for the gig.   Myself, Hade, and my mate Dan traipsed up for the show.  Dan had listened to Hatfield at uni too.   His (then) girlfriend, Sally, had had some of her albums as well.    Our housemates were all Lemonheads fans (half of them could play all the songs on guitar too:  Dan did a very good ‘Being Around’, for instance).   It was quite the appreciation thing we had going.

Bush Hall’s a small place in QPR land, and by now I was in “don’t let the tubes break down; don’t let me have an accident; don’t let anything happen; I have to see this” mode.    As a now unsigned artist with no major lable backing it was a fairly understated show, Hatfield, an electric guitar, and a hall full of fans.    It was extraordinary.   I was on cloud nine.   She was better than I could have imagined.  The loud bits rocked, the quiet bits sent me to heaven.   Dan loved it.   Hade smiled politely.   Perfect evening.

That was the best gig I’ve been to.

Shakhtar Donetsk were, I think, the best team I’ve ever seen.    Now, they are not the best team I’ve seen in the literal sense.   But Chelsea or Manchester United or even Arsenal are just really good versions of us, or of themselves, or of everything else we’ve seen so much.    Shakhtar Donetsk and their laser beam passing were what I’d been waiting for for years, what I had never expected, what I didn’t know could happen.    It was Bush Hall all over again, dumbfounded, electrified, thrilled.

And we stopped them.   The Ali-Foreman fight was on my mind as I left the ground (and someone mentioned it in the comments on, too, so clearly I wasn’t alone), and I think that there’s something in that.

I would advise you to watch the whole fight if you can, but the above is a thrilling summary.   Foreman came at Ali for five rounds.  Ali took it all, swaying into the ropes, doing his best to ensure that whatever contact he took wasn’t clean, and doing whatever he could to stay in the fight.  As the commentator says, Foreman was bigger stronger, and a very able fighter.    But Ali took it, and then, wonderfully, turned the fight on its head with some phenomenal punches.     Just as the Hangeland/Gera/Zamora payoff had a thrilling, violent, surprising element to it, so too did Ali’s awakening in the fight against Foreman.

Most boxers could not have survived five rounds of punches from George Foreman.  It just doesn’t work that way.   But Ali, a supremely skilled fighter, did what he had to do and finished the encounter with a wonderful counter.   Similarly, that Shakhtar onslaught was like nothing we’ve seen, but somehow the lads survived it, and, by making the necessary adjustments, found a way to turn the game on its head later on.   Foreman, like the Shakhtar players, will think back on the battle and wonder at its unfairness; Ali, like Fulham’s players, will be looking back with satisfaction at at job done, against the odds, to perfection.

Fulham 2-1 Shakhtar Donetsk

Speechless.  Roy Hodgson has guided us to many stupendous results, but this was on another level altogether.  Never have we had to deal with an onslaught like that.

It started very well.  We nearly went ahead in 30 seconds, and did go ahead in 2 minutes, Zoltan Gera driving home from the inside left channel.

Any hopes that we might have caught Shakhtar on an off day were soon dashed when we didn’t see the ball again for 45 minutes.   Their tempo was extraordinary.  Slow passes around the defence, all the time in the world, then in the blink of an eye the team was skitting around our area.  How?  Their change of pace and movement was like nothing we’ve seen before.   Their attacking play was like that of a basketball team in a hurry, all flips and dinks and all perfectly controlled.

A goal had to come and did, Luiz Adriano scorching onto a through ball and rounding Schwarzer for a scintillating and thoroughly deserved equaliser.

We think of players like Danny Murphy and Simon Davies as good technicians, but the Shakhtar players were light years ahead of the best we could offer.  That they only broke through once is a testament to our defence.   That we got back into the game is down to the manager.  At half time the task seemed hopeless, but the players had to get the ball in the Shakhtar half, had to keep it better, and had to hold a higher line to keep the orange and black attackers away from our penalty area.

And somehow it worked.  Fulham noticeably upped the tempo, and while the moves lacked the cohesion of Shakhtar’s efforts, it re-established us in the game, proved that we weren’t going to take this lying down.   Gera and Zamora were intelligent in leading the line, using the ball increasingly well and pressuring to just the right extent without the ball.  The game became cat-and-mouse:  Shakhtar passed patiently, waiting for a Fulham player to lose his position, waiting for someone to over-commit, but the whites stood firm and didn’t budge, and soon the game was even again.

And then… Hangeland passed through to Gera, Gera’s balletic flick to Zamora, Zamora thumps home from 25 yards with his right foot, flicking the bar, buried in the net.  A howitzer, a monster, an absolute screamer, and somehow we’re ahead, and somehow we’re still in the tie, and somehow we’re about to beat the UEFA cup holders and one of the best teams I’ve ever seen.

This is where we are now.  This is what we can do.  This is football at its best, as good as we will see.

(After that slightly excitable initial ending, a quiet word for Stephen Kelly.  The left-back has had a difficult time of late, but put in a shift and a half tonight.  Some of his tackling was from the top drawer.  That took guts, ability, and some sturdy help from Simon Davies.  Well done to him.)

QI: Fulham players in Europe

While we get excited about the game tomorrow, here’s an interesting thing.  Total UEFA games played by our squad members:

No.    Name            P    Gls
19    Pascal Zuberbühler    90    0
13    Danny Murphy        55    7
18    Aaron Hughes        52    2
16    Damien Duff        45    4
5    Brede Hangeland        44    2
1    Mark Schwarzer        29    0
11    Zoltán Gera        21    4
10    Erik Nevland        20    4
4    John Pantsil        19    1
17    Bjørn Helge Riise    15    1
27    Jonathan Greening    10    0
25    Bobby Zamora        10    4
3    Paul Konchesky        8    0
6    Christopher Baird    8    0
2    Stephen Kelly        7    0
23    Clint Dempsey        7    1
20    Dickson Etuhu        5    1
29    Simon Davies        5    0
35    David Elm        5    0
26    Christopher Smalling    4    0