Friday, 31 August 2018

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step" - Lao Tzu

Enfield Town vs. AFC Hornchurch
Saturday 18th August, 2018: The Bostik Football League - Premier Division 3 pm k-o
Attendance 443 

ETFC Walking Football Club tournament participation - Saturday 11th & Saturday 18th August, 2018

It seems Mr. Tzu (quoted above) might well have been presciently referencing the developing sport of Walking Football, c. 2,500 years ago. Recently, a representative squad of Enfield Town Walking Football Over-50’s went “On The Road”, like Jack Kerouac, for their first away tournament. It would have been remiss of the Pharaoh NOT to join them, to explore some of the lower, or at least newer, reaches of The Beautiful Game.
Just 7 months after the foundation of this new, community sports outfit, housed comfortably within the Enfield Town family of clubs, they found themselves "going to St. Ives", in Cambridgeshire; where they reached the final of the 6-a-side plate tournament, in a competition featuring a range of longer-established and well-organised sides. Despite losing in their final, ETFC managed to rack up a couple of excellent wins, including one which featured the biggest winning margin of the whole event: a comfortable, slick and 'sexy' 5-0 victory over Huntingdon. To be sure, it was a long journey to St. Ives and back, both metaphorically and literally; but the Towners were relatively happy with their first away foray. No silverware quite, perhaps; but there were lots of learnings taken and some tidy football was played, at times. As Jack Kerouac himself might have said, about our road trip: “Live, travel, adventure … and don't be sorry.”
ETFC Over-50's Walking Football Squad, basking in Plate Final glory - and the St. Ives sunshine

Thanks go to our ETFC 'parent' club, for continuing to take the development of their Walking Football section seriously; supporting us with recent features in the club's match-day programme AND on their website.

A week after our St. Ives trip, it was time for a 'double-header', of sorts, at the QEII Stadium. A noon kick-off saw fans of AFC Hornchurch take part in a 4-team round-robin 5-a-side mini-tournament against their hosts, Enfield Town Walking Football Club – before the ‘main event’ of the day kicked off at 3 pm. That was to be Enfield Town vs. AFC Hornchurch, in their Bostik Premier League fixture. Both of these 1st XI’s were unbeaten, after their first two league games of the new season, going into the fixture; and both maintained that status. Unfortunately, the young whipper-snappers of The Towners' Bostik League XI gave up a precious 2-0 lead, late on (after some perhaps injudicious and defensively-minded substitutions?).
Liam Hope (" ... hope, hope" 🎵 - in white, centre) easily beats his marker to the ball in the 51st minute; and clips a neat, right-footed shot in at the 'keeper's near-post, to extend his club record goal-tally: Enfield 2 - Hornchurch 0 ... for now!

Club fans felt they had been ‘mugged’ by the visitors; but credit to a disciplined Hornchurch side who had come with a sound game plan - and executed it uncompromisingly. A two-goal lead had always felt precarious. Once Hornchurch had pulled one back (from a late free-kick) the home side's nerves had been exposed; and an equaliser had seemed almost inevitable (see full match report, here). Enfield’s more mature club-mates, however, had given a very strong account of themselves, earlier in the day, during their round-robin event. So perhaps honours were a little more than shared, overall?

ETFC club vice-chairman, Paul Millington, had entered an invitational team; and ETFC Walking Football had put out two more sides, with a scratch team from Hornchurch Supporters Club rounding out the four participating sides. Each team played 3 games; and there were 6 matches in total, played across 2 pitches. All of the fixtures were played in the right competitive but friendly spirit; and Enfield were able to provide two volunteer referees from within the club (many thanks, again, to Nick and Steve for officiating).
Twenty men - and no boat! Hornchurch & Enfield players happily mingle for a post-event snap-shot.

ETFC “A” (made up of the core of the previous weekend’s St. Ives tournament side) won all three of their ties and headed the table. Paul M’s team managed a win and a draw and finished 2nd. ETFC “B” racked up two draws, to finish 3rd. While Hornchurch recorded one draw. The visitors, however, had improved as the tournament wore on; finally starting to get to grips with some unfamiliar rules. They will surely give a far better account of themselves if we are able to organise a repeat tournament, when ETFC visit Hornchurch, for their return Bostik League fixture – currently scheduled for 16th February.

Final Round-Robin Tournament Table
Enfield “A”                                              9 points
Paul Millington’s Invitational              4 points
Enfield “B”                                             2 points
Hornchurch Supporters                       1 point

The Enfield squad members and invited guests are listed below. Many thanks go out to all those who came along and joined in the fun, including spectators - and Hornchurch Supporters Club, of course.

Bruce Palmer
Cem Ahmet
Chris Kalli
Des Harney
Sal Syed

ETFC “Invitiational”
Paul Millington
Leon Aresti (GK)
Dave Bryant
John Dolan
Dave (Hornchurch Guest)

David Exley
"Dusty" (Kevin)
Igy Principato
Tommy Moss

“There is nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”

Walking Football … coming to a pitch near you soon. If not sooner. Our Over-60’s side will be competing in a tournament at Southbury Leisure Centre, at the end of September.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

"How Would You Sum Up His Nutshell?" - Gary Richardson (inserting foot into mouth, again, on Radio 5 Live)

Bill Lawrance vs. Des Harney 

Thursday 16th July, 2018 

A supposed "Friendly" fixture, played at Colne Radio studios, Wivenhoe, Essex - 8 pm k-o

My nutshell is perfectly sound, Gary; but many thanks for asking! You can check for yourselves AND get more than your fill of anecdotes from Enfield Town, Fulham FC, Rwanda, the Caribbean islands, the Fenner's Cricket Ground, this summer's FIFA World Cup, Italia '90 - and MUCH else, besides - as your favourite sporting Pharaoh moves into the no-holds-barred, combative, dog-eat-dog arena of live radio. Listen to this special edition of the famous "Box 39" show at the following link: Hear "The Fabulous Football Pharaoh" - Un-boxed, Unmasked & Dangerous(?)
"Ambushed", at the tail-end of a recent 'road trip' and during what had hitherto been anticipated as a purely social visit to Colchester, The Fabulous Football Pharaoh was compelled to give up many of the deepest, darkest, well-kept secrets from his secretive sporting and professional past. Darn those unsurpassed, incisive and wily interviewing skills of Colne Radio's most investigative reporter. In fact, on reflection, on no account should you listen to the wide-ranging and entertaining radio show to be found at that link. If you do, I may have to kill you ... before I lose my Double-O licence!

Bill was recently described to me, incidentally, as "a young, cool biker dude" ... by somebody who clearly didn't know him very well - eh, Emma?! Meanwhile, for avid Football Pharaoh fans, more detailed coverage of Enfield Town Football Club's exploits is on the verge of re-commencing. Just hold onto your thingies for a little while longer and you WILL be fully satisfied - or your money back!

Thursday, 14 June 2018

World Cups: Two for the Price of One (manifest corruption optional)

SzĂ©kely Land vs. Padania - Saturday 9th June, 2018 

The CONIFA World Football Cup 3rd/4th Place Play-Off: 3 pm k-o

Karpatalya vs. Northern Cyprus - Saturday 9th June, 2018 

The CONIFA World Football Cup Grand Final: 6.30 pm k-o (delayed)

Welcome to Hell? Hardly; but Welcome to Enfield!

Most readers will already be aware [new readers are always welcome!] that it’s been one heck of a lengthy season of domestic football, for the Pharaoh, this year: starting on Tuesday 1st August, at Heybridge Swifts; and ending on 
Saturday 26th May, at Wembley Stadium (see my range of previous posts, below). From the sublime to the ridiculous, you could say; or possibly the other way around. Fewer of you, perhaps, will realise that I've also continued my commitments into a hectic summer of ongoing international soccer, too. 
The QEII's biggest ever crowd soaks up a carnival-esque occasion.

Football World Cups? They're two-a-penny, around here. With FIFA's (allegedly) corrupt media-fest waiting in the wings and already flexing its mighty PR muscles - and with the sound of the England team aircraft’s jet engines idling on the tarmac in Russia, ready for their expected, routine, early exit - many punters could be forgiven for remaining blissfully unaware that the World Football Cup has, in fact, already been competed for; and won by a little-known, ethnic population enclave, which isn’t even a “proper” country. All of which may take some explaining. So here goes ...

Ever heard of Karpatalya? No, I hadn’t either, until just a couple of weeks ago, when the CONIFA football circus 'came to town'. To Enfield Town, in fact, to be more precise. I hope you're ready for a lesson in international geo-politics? No, I wasn’t either; but this is a story that's well worth exploring. Karpatalya, it turns out, is not a new carpet super-store, on the nearby North Circular Road. The Karpatalya football team, rather, represents a Hungarian-speaking ethnic minority who live in Carpathian Ruthenia (aka Kárpátalja – or Transcarpathia) – in what is today south-west Ukraine. You've got the basis of at least a whole week of secondary school Geography lessons, right there.

Ever heard of CONIFA? No, I hadn’t either; but their World Football Cup is a bi-annual tournament for non-FIFA affiliated international teams (“The Confederation of Independent Football Associations”). The organisation proudly claims to be “the leading body for national representative teams outside FIFA” for football, futsal, and beach soccer; and it brings together such unlikely waifs, strays, outcasts and FIFA pariahs as Tibet, Cascadia, The Isle of Man, Matabeleland, Padania and the Chagos Islands, to name but a few. These teams may appear to have little in common; but they do share a deep love of The Beautiful Game and the absence of internationally-recognised nation status - plus quite a few of them do also sound like near-neighbours of Narnia.
Here, then, was a superb chance to travel to the far-flung corners of the footballing world without even having to leave the London Borough of Enfield - the capital of global sport! Anyone turning up on the off-chance of seeing Brazil play Germany in the competition’s grand final, though, would have been disappointed – plus a few thousand miles and few weeks off-target. Anybody turning up to witness a high level of individual skill played in a friendly venue / cauldron of cosmopolitan culture (and colourful atmosphere) would, however, have been in for a treat. As many, indeed, were!

Tibet fans at their fixture against Northern Cyprus, early in the tournament (source: Joel Rookwood)

I will not attempt to cover the whole tournament in detail, here. Suffice to say that there is already ample coverage on websites as diverse as Sky Sports, CONIFA’s own platform and 
The South China Morning Post. I encourage you to go and check these out. Instead, I hope to try and give 
you a taste of the final day’s action; in the hope that it might encourage you to seek out further (and more professional) information and insight. Don't be fooled. This is no 'Mickey Mouse' event. There's been plenty of coverage of all sorts, from the British press, on-line outlets and TV to a strong presence in the international  sports media. The event even had its very own wall chart. 'Nuff said!
If a 3rd/4th place play-off for a global football tournament happened on your very doorstep, you’d be a poor sort of sports fan if you didn’t pay your money and go along in support of the initiative. Some might say you’d be absolutely crazy to miss it, if you could also take in the Grand Final on the same afternoon. Well that’s exactly what happened for me, when CONIFA chose a number of non-league football venues across London to host their 2018 World Cup. With Enfield Town F.C.’s Queen Elizabeth II stadium, in Donkey Lane, selected as the primary venue, football fans descended on my corner of North London from all over the world (and, for example, Bristol, Bracknell, Port Vale, Stourbridge, Stroud and elsewhere). Making Enfield, ever so briefly at least, the nerve centre of international football.
The QEII used to be a run-down and dis-used athletics track. Now it was fully restored and rejuvenated by a carnival of international football colour; a new home to that much-referenced beast, “atmosphere”. But why choose North London, after the previous staging of the competition had taken place in the far more exotic-sounding Abkhazia, in 2016. ["Abkhazia", incidentally, is a barely-recognised break-away territory within north-western Georgia, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea; recognised only by Russia, in fact, and a small number of other crack-pot states within the UN (Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela & Nauru). And no, I’d never heard of that last “nation”, either. It turns out Nauru is a tiny island state in the Pacific Ocean, covering just 8 square miles. With only 11,347 residents (in July 2016) it’s the world's second-smallest sovereign state, after the Vatican City. Its economy is dependent almost entirely on phosphate deposits originating from the droppings of sea birds. And there could be an implicit value-judgement lurking somewhere in that last sentence; but that’s probably all you’ll ever need to know about the place. Enough of the geography lessons, now ... well, perhaps there's time for just one more quick one!?]
The Matabeleland squad (where's that?!) help in the search for a lost contact lens (source: CONIFA)

The host team were Barawa: named after a port town in south-western Somalia, with their players drawn from the Somali diaspora in the UK. So North London, with its cosmopolitan ethnic diversity, was considered as good a host venue as any. Despite winning their group, in the first stage of the finals, the ‘hosts’ finished 8th overall and could do no more than watch on from the sidelines, on the last day of the tournament's festivities.
By coincidence(?) each of the day’s big games featured a Hungarian-speaking enclave. Perhaps this fact pays tribute to the Hungarian people’s deep love of football; and the impact of inspirational figures such as England’s 1953 nemesis, Ferenc Puskás - “The Galloping Major” of that Mighty Magyars side. The 3rd/4th place match pitched SzĂ©kely Land, a largely Hungarian area within Transylvanian Romania, against Padania, centred around the Po Valley region - a proposed independent state in Northern Italy.
SzĂ©kely Land (in blue) take a corner, as the QEII's stylish Art Deco clubhouse seems to set sail in the background; forming a tasteful, ageless backdrop (see it also featured here:
Full details of the games do not need to be dwelt upon, here. In the first match-up, Padania started well against SzĂ©kely Land; but the latter improved as the first half wore on – having the best initial clear-cut chances on goal, before Padania finally began to carve out a few of their own. The pattern of the game changed little. There was great individual flair and touch on display; but less organisation, tactics and strategy than one might expect at a major tournament. Perhaps the players had had insufficient time together to really show themselves off at their most organised best? The second half carried on where the first had finished. Some good passing, power and athleticism; but no end product. Early on in proceedings I had predicted the eventual score-line: 0 – 0; but this had been an entertaining goal-less draw.

Székely Land's #3, Csaba Csizmadia, executes a quality spot-kick, typifying the level of individual skill on show. His powerful drive accurately picks out the top-right stanchion, even before the GK (guessing wrong and going low) has reached the ground.

Given the jam-packed nature of the day’s itinerary, there was to be no room for extra-time. Instead, the game moved straight to penalties. In which the SzĂ©kely side gave up an early one-goal advantage to lose with the last kick of the match, after the first pair of ‘sudden death’ kicks. All of the penalties, in fact, were excellent - except for the three that were not.

The decisive moment: SzĂ©kely Land's #22, Balazs Csiszer, looks on in horror as his kick flies straight at Padania's diving 'keeper, Marco Murriero (check out his yellow-gloved left hand and arm)

Perhaps the result should come as no surprise, given the depth of experience in the Padania squad: Marius StankeviÄŤius, for instance, is Padanian only by dint of having played out his professional career in a number of Seria A clubs in Northern Italy. Whilst also winning 65 caps for Lithuania and scoring 5 goals (against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Romania, Serbia, Austria & Spain). His impressive CV includes spells at some very decent club sides, including: Brescia Calcio, Sampdoria, Sevilla, Valencia, Lazio & Hannover 96. He primarily played this game in a ‘librero’ style role; which suited his level of awareness, touch and finesse. A low-rent Bobby Moore, his was a stand-out rĂ©sumĂ© at this championship; but his side could only finish in third place - and there were many other very decent players on show, too.

Traditional folk dancing: an integral element of ethnic identity?

The Grand Final was played about 90 minutes after the earlier, appetiser game had finished. After some colourful and entertaining folk dance routines, on the athletics track. Kick-off was delayed by 30 minutes, as by far the QEII stadium's biggest ever attendance battled to get through just TWO old-school turnstiles. None of your soulless, fancy, bar-code reading automation here, thank you very much!  Typically representative of the politics behind the very existence of many of the teams in this tournament, the Final was played between Northern Cyprus (a state recognised only by its own ‘mother’ country, Turkey) and Karpatalya (as previously explained, a sub-region of a country which has itself recently been partially annexed by Putin the Terrible’s fascistic, jack-booted troops). When the draw for the finals had originally taken place, one group in particular had been described, almost inevitably, as “The Group of Death”; at least by those teams who’d been captured in its inexorable vortex. It did turn out to have been a particularly tough group, though, in this instance; since both the finalists had emerged from within it. Something that knowledgeable pundits had predicted, early on. So the ultimate match of the tournament took place against the back-drop of an earlier 1-1 group stage draw between the same two sides; and against a backdrop of colourful flares.
Anthems were impeccably observed; except by some boorish N. Cyprus supporters. The game was played largely in an excellent spirit; and barely needed the interventions of (2016 UEFA Champions League Final and UEFA Euro 2016 Final referee) Mark Clattenburg; imported from Saudi Arabia especially for the day – and also for the England vs. the Rest of the World celebrity-fest at Old Trafford, the following day. One of his assistants was named Andrew Parody. Luckily, he wasn't given any opportunity to offer hack headline writers the chance to flex their irony muscles.

Players from Northern Cyprus and Karpatalya line up for the pre-match ceremonies ... are they really strictly necessary? (source: CONIFA)

Bizarrely, game-play in this second match followed a very similar pattern to the earlier one. Good individual technique and build-up play was mostly coupled with poor finishing and tentative work in the final third. I soon predicted another 0 – 0 draw; and was proven right again. Even if the “Hungarians” did have to survive a massive aerial bombardment (not for the first time in their history!) inexpertly executed, during the latter stages of the second half, to make me right.

During this second penalty shoot-out of the day there were highs and lows again for both sides. Karpatalya’s Goalkeeper, Bela “three-names” Fejer Csongor was named the sponsor’s Player of the Tournament; and with good reason. He saved spot-kicks from striker (#99) Billy Osman Mehmet, then from defender (#7) Yasin Kurt; and, finally from N. Cyprus’s top-scorer, striker (#10) Halil Turan. The Mediterranean islanders had come back from 0-2 down, after the first two kicks apiece, to draw level; only to then hand the game, the glory and the golden trophy back to the Magyars again, with the last (missed) kick of the game (and of the whole tournament); and by a score of two penalties to three.
Karpatalya’s GK, Bela Fejer Csongor gets down on it in the shoot-out - again! Penalty hero AND sponsor’s Player of the Tournament.
The winners were only even in the tournament at all in the first place due to the withdrawal of qualifiers FelvidĂ©k (or “Upper Hungary” – yes, yet another Hungarian-speaking enclave; this one located mostly within present-day Slovakia) due to “internal organisational issues”. Had somebody spent the team’s bus money on Unicum, Tokaj and beer? Like Denmark, at Euro ‘92 (promoted at the expense of then strife-torn Yugoslavia) Karpatalya had been named first reserves – and had taken their unlikely global title with relish and aplomb. A tournament win even more extraordinary and unlikely in the context of the CONIFA rankings which, as of January 1, 2018, did not even feature them in the top 13 (why a “Top 13”? – don’t ask; I've got no idea!). FIFA World Cup pundits take note!
The Aftermath
Organising a sports tournament for the disaffected and the only partially recognised, comes with all sorts of man-traps and pratfalls. Prior to the event, CONIFA had had to deal with complaints from North London’s large and vocal Greek-Cypriot community, regarding the inclusion of Northern Cyprus. They had also dealt with pressure of various kinds exerted by the Chinese government, over the inclusion of Tibet (pressure which resulted in the withdrawal of some key sponsors, affecting their fund-raising from the event) – and much more besides. Tellingly, however, the organisers had stuck to their guns; and to the simple mantra that if you were a member team of the confederation and eligible to play, then you played ... and your fans let off exciting flares in your traditional colours!

(source: ETFC)
CONIFA claims to represent 166 million people, from 47 member bodies, an exotic mĂ©lange of “nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports-isolated territories”; a not-for-profit organisation that aims to “build bridges between people, nations, minorities and isolated regions all over the world through friendship, culture and the joy of playing football”. Theirs is a largely unenviable role: representing territories that others feel do not, or should not, exist. It is an inevitably 'political' task, regardless of their stated position on the matter; and they try to do a difficult job well.

CONIFA seemed to cover themselves in somewhat LESS glory, however, over the issue of a dispute concerning the eligibility of one Barawa player, Mohamed Bettamer. The 25 year-old London-born striker had previously represented Libya at U-21 level; and the acceptance of his late registration for Barawa for the tournament by CONIFA had not been made public. The Isle of Man side, Ellan Vannin, lodged an objection (perhaps unsurprisingly) after the apparently "ineligible" player scored one and set up the second in a Barawa's victory over them that saw them eliminated from the tournament. It also turns out that Bettamer had scored a healthy number of important goals for Staines Town in the Bostik Premier League this season (27 in total) including home and away strikes against Enfield Town. Small world, innit?! In a perhaps justifiable fit of pique, Ellan Vannin refused to participate in the play-off games for the lower-ranked sides; instead going home in a huff.

Winners' Joy, Unrestrained ... Briefly! (source: ETFC)

So, once upon a time, had we reached a happy, fairy-tale ending? One with everybody in the football-loving nation of Ukraine proud and pleased to plan a welcome home for their all-conquering representatives, after their glorious exertions in London? Errrm ... not exactly, no. In fact, the Sports Minister of Ukraine, Ihor Oleksandrovych Zhdanov, 
posted on his official Facebook page: ‘I call on the Security Service of Ukraine to respond appropriately to such a frank act of sporting separatism. It is necessary to interrogate the players of the team, as well as ... the deputy organizer of the “Carpathian” for the purpose of encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and ties with terrorist and separatist groups.’ Meanwhile, demonstrating once and for all that sport in Ukraine is entirely a-political, the Football Federation of Ukraine has "urge[d] the law enforcement agencies of Ukraine to pay attention to ... check their actions on the subject of propaganda of separatism and encroachment on the territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine." Well I guess that could have all ended better; and these reactions are despite CONIFA's insistence that "the [Karpatalya] team has a long-standing, demonstrable history of publicly embracing the region’s dual heritage; the team’s flag and logo contain both flags, while the team wears Ukrainian and Hungarian colours on the pitch".
Ihor Zhdanov: a surprise omission from the Karpatalya squad
(source: Wiki)

CONIFA appears to be confronted with just these kinds of political divisiveness at every turn. The organisation "believe[s] that everyone should be able to represent their identity via football"; and that is worthy stance. Coupled with a commitment to "monitor developments closely"; whilst also "urging Minister Zhdanov and the FFU to reconsider their position."
The Local Aftermath
After the last throes of the match-day celebrations had finally echoed away, matters in North London looked somewhat less turbulent and controversial. Enfield Town F.C.'s finances looked decidedly rosier than they recently had done. One official acknowledged that the club could look forward to starting its next Bostik Premier League campaign “in the black” – for the first time ever! @ETFC had tweeted: "What a glorious celebration of football it’s been. Thank you to everyone who has attended! ... Crowd is approx 2,500." So large a crowd was it, that they couldn't actually count them accurately. So many spectators, in fact, that they were taking up every possible vantage point - and even sitting on the roof of the changing room block.

The previous Saturday, earlier in the tournament, The Butler’s Bar had run out of beer; and been forced to order in FIVE additional emergency barrels. Since when, lesson learned, an additional outdoor bar area had been set up, serving ice-cold cans of beer for thirsty punters wanting to avoid a queue that ran from the counter, through the main bar, down the stairs and out into the concourse.
The playing surface held up well, despite necessary heavy usage over the eight days; thanks to the sterling efforts of ground staff Dave and Glenn and others. Many of the tournament’s fixtures had been played on 3G surfaces; but Donkey Lane is your traditional mud and grass variety. One player had paid the club the compliment of describing Enfield's pitch as “the best garden they had played on all week”. I think something may have been ‘lost in translation’; but you get the gist, I’m sure.
And ETFC had also earned a significant amount of positive media coverage and praise, too; including a double-page, colour centre spread in The Guardian’s Saturday Sport supplement:

So now our focus can safely switch to rather larger nations, competing for somewhat greater glories, in Mother Russia; at "Putin's £8bn vanity project" (according to the BBC). Before I had even finished the first draft of this blog page, two major FIFA World Cup announcements had already rocked the Twitter-sphere.

Firstly, t
he USA, Canada and Mexico had their bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup endorsed. The decision was such a complete surprise that everybody simply yawned and moved on. In previous years, the tournament would simply have been awarded to the nation who had stuffed the largest number of used dollar bills into brown paper envelopes, in certain hotel suites. Now those kill-joy FBI varmints have imposed a different kind of logic on such things. The hosting decision, of course, makes total commercial sense - the only sense FIFA now understands.
As the BBC's correspondent Richard Conway pithily observed: "Money talks"! And although Neil Diamond added 
"... But it don't sing and dance; And it don't walk",
HE clearly knows very little about 21st century 'sport'.
This news was followed by a somewhat more surprising story from Spain; which took me completely from behind, studs up and late. The Spanish FA should see a straight Red Card for the challenge, surely. Just hours earlier, prescient as ever, the London Evening Standard  had offered us the priceless insight that "Spain's World Cup bid won't be derailed by bitter club rivalries", in a major, well-informed, background 'colour' piece. Right on cue, then, the Spanish FA made their bombshell managerial sacking announcement, driven to action by the skulduggery of "bitter Spanish club rivalries". The Standard went on: "Spain coach Lopetegui has no such problems ...". No, indeed; that part of the story, at least, IS correct. His problems are somewhat different. Like no longer being the national team coach. Sports "journalism"? You simply couldn't make it up! Like Neil Diamond, above, correspondent Giuseppe Muro clearly knows very little about 21st century sport.

The Tibet CONIFA team discuss the comparative virtues of a back three with t
he Dalai Lama (source: COPAfootball)

All of this - and the World Cup tournament still hasn't even started yet! Except that well-informed sports fans and world religious leaders know, of course, that it HAS already started - and finished - in little old Enfield Town. Explanation over!

All the best from The Football Pharoah

Friday, 1 June 2018

A Grand Day Out? One Fan’s Perspective on “The Richest Prize in Sport”

Aston Villa vs. Fulham - Saturday 26th May, 2018 

The EFL Championship Play-Off Final: 5 pm k-o

“... I know that was then; but it could be again.
It's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming:
Football’s coming home”

Well that’s been one heck of a season. I’m not quite sure how I survived it - nor how many of my blog posts you’ve followed and survived, either. Maybe just a few of the one’s I’ve written on Enfield Town; or perhaps the ones from Fulham FC, as well? [New readers are also always welcome!] Either way, my domestic season finally finished this fine Bank Holiday weekend; and what a weekend it was. After forty-eight games in Fulham’s Championship season, it all came down to 90 minutes more (and perhaps a little extra, on top of that - and penalties) in the play-off final. It was the absolutely last day of the second tier season. Fans of both sides went into the day with, theoretically, the same 50-50 chance of promotion – and with 100% belief in their own team's ability to win. Something had to give. Spoiler Alert! Let’s get the formalities out of the way immediately. After all, if you are a sports fan of any standing, you’ll probably already know the result of this particular game. Suffice it to say, then, that Fulham are back in the top flight (yes, that’s the promised land of the English Premier League) after what has seemed an interminable, four-year absence. “We’re coming for you; we’re coming for you … Man-ches-ter Ci-ty, we’re coming for YOU!”
Fulham achieved this promotion feat by securing only their second EVER play-off fixture victory, in 9 attempts; and by scoring the only goal the club has ever notched up at the home of English football. This was the perfect day to break that Wembley duck and to double their tally of play-off wins. Perfect not just because of the great company (Graham and Jeff, Matt, George et al) the glorious, hot sunshine (thermometers in the stadium reached over 32 degrees Centigrade) and the carnival atmosphere in the stands … but also perfect because the Championship play-off “final” is widely touted to be the most valuable single fixture in the entire football world. Globally. Full-Stop! As a Fulham fan of just less than 42 years standing, this was the first time I’d ever had the chance to follow my club to Wembley; but it may have been worth the long wait, after all. Estimates of the financial value of the outcome of this one game, alone, range from a mere £160 million all the way up to one quarter of a BILLION pounds … depending on whether little old Fulham F. C. (who still play their unfashionable football outside a quaint cottage, down by the river) can maintain their Premier League status, at the end of their first season back in the top flight, starting in August. But for true fans of the club, the supposed financial value of the game is entirely irrelevant, no matter how much it is obsessed over by sports “journalists”, looking to fill blank column inches. What really matters is that coveted top-flight status; being at The Big Show; dining with the Big Boys; watching your club pitting its wits against the best, etc. [The Pharaoh says: since completing this page, I have come across a nice background 'colour' piece by a fellow Fulham fan; whose dad, alone in all the world apparently, archly references the prospect of those lovely 'parachute' payments made available by a generous Premier League, awash with TV cash. Recommended further reading - nice one, Archie!]
The match saw two of the game's longest-established clubs, both with European titles to their names, going head to head, on a flaming hot May day. The weather was so warm that most fans seemed to need to drink their own body weight in fluids, just to make it as far as the turnstiles. Luckily, many licenced premises along the way were more than happy to help them achieve this goal. Some fans almost didn’t make it as far as the turnstiles. Aston Villa (founding members of the Football League; founding members of the Premier League and UEFA Champions in 1982) faced Fulham FC (London’s oldest professional club; Intertoto Cup winners in 2002; and beaten UEFA Europa League finalists in 2010). One curious, related stat which aficionados might like to reflect upon, is that Fulham remain unbeaten at home, in all European competitions; with 17 wins and six draws. We are also the last English club to have beaten Juventus (by 4 - 1, no less!) – a win which came on our run to the Europa League final. So Barcelona, Bayern and Real Madrid: Beware!

The last time Fulham fans had made this journey, in earnest, up the sacred Via Dolorosa of the Wembley Way (now officially renamed Olympic Way, by grey-suited officials, devoid of any empathy) the two biggest-selling UK songs of the year (1975) were “Bye Bye, Baby”, by The Bay City Rollers  and Rod Stewart's “Sailing”. By the very nature of the play-off final fixture, today each team’s fans would find one of these songs to be their appropriate anthem. Last time they were here, Fulham fans had said “Bye Bye, Baby”, to the FA Cup, as West Ham United’s supporters had gone “Sailing” home on clouds of ecstasy, with all the glory of victory.

I’m not going to bother and bore you with all the dull, dry, dusty details of a factual match report. The game has already been covered to within an inch of its life in the sports media; and I’ve told you the outcome, above. Rather, I will attempt to interest and entertain you with a view from just one common man who was on Wembley’s uncommonly over-priced, over-heated, under-respected, yet still fully-packed “terraces”.

“We’re the oldest club in London and we’re going to Wem-Ber-Ley! 
Wem-Ber-Ley! Wem-Ber-Ley! …”

First of all, let me comment on the stadium itself. MY team ended as the winning side. So it's easy to only remember the good parts of the day; of which there were plenty. But what does Wembley stadium contribute to the fan's match-day experience? Apart from the famously clear sight-lines that everybody mentions, what a total disaster that stadium project has turned out to be! Over-budget, over-leveraged, and built in completely the wrong place for twenty-FIRST century football - with vastly insufficient transport infrastructure to cope with an audience of 85,000 paying guests. It’s not too difficult to get to; but it’s almost impossible to get away from. “New” Wembley is England’s very own “Hotel California” … you can check out any time you like – but you can NEVER leave. Amongst the carnage and errors of its project planning and delivery nightmares, Wembley became the subject of the largest construction litigation claim in UK legal history – valued at £253 million. That probably tells you pretty much all you need to know about the FA’s mismanagement of the entire process. Not an ideal start for anybody’s new ‘baby’. Least of all when anybody with more than half a brain was queuing up to offer the opinion that it was the wrong location. When it was first built, the stadium sat in rural isolation. It cost £750,000 and took 300 days to complete, ahead of the 1923 FA Cup Final. The same financial, time and location objectives should have applied to its replacement, some 75 years later. Sir John Betjeman (born 1906) had known that part of 'London' well from his youth, before the stadium came to town; and and summed up the area neatly:
"Beyond Neasden there was an unimportant hamlet where, for years, the Metropolitan didn't stop. Wembley: slushy fields and grass farms." (from "Metro-Land")

The Rural construction site for the Empire Stadium, Wembley (in 1922, when Wembley was still all "
slushy fields and grass farms"; and Britain HAD an Empire - rightly or wrongly)

"New" Wembley was always going to be the wrong solution to the FA’s problem; but they just wouldn’t be told. The FA board seemed obsessed with and influenced by OLD Wembley's “heritage”; caught in the dazzling headlights of sepia-tinted PathĂ© film footage featuring the twin towers; PC George Scorey on his white horse, "Billie"; Stanley Matthews; Ferenc Puskás; 1966; Eusebio; the Charlton brothers; Moore, Hurst & Peters with Jules Rimet; Jimmy Armfield; Johnny Haynes. They were mesmerised by grainy, early colour TV footage of Charlie George (does he really "wear a bra"?); of Bobby Stokes & Bob Stokoe's hat; of Mick Jones's dislocated elbow, 
Keegan & Heighway; of the Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club and much more, besides. But most of that cast are long-dead; and the world has moved on to multi-billion pound TV deals, hi-tech communications networks, social e-media, "TOWIE" and "Love Island". Instead of making a clean break from the shackles of their outdated, black & white past, when they finally had their chance, the FA made a deliberate point of ignoring all the many nay-sayers; and bloody-mindedly sticking to their mis-firing guns. A "fail" of epic proportions; achieved against the tide of all modern trends - and logic. A stadium designed by committee will always end up a 'camel'.

Spot The Difference: steel arch for twin towers; but still the same old location.
"slushy fields and grass farms" here, any more; and no Empire!

In recent weeks, the FA may not have actively put the world’s largest “For Sale” sign on their ‘crown jewels’, exactly; but that hasn’t stopped Fulham’s chairman putting in a cheeky little bid for the place. The fact that they are even considering his offer speaks volumes about their desperation to be shot of one of the worst ideas in the history of world sport. It is a “White Elephant” to lead the herd. A proper, tough-skinned tusker. Here’s a thought: let’s knock down an outdated stadium which has outgrown its (originally semi-rural) location and replace it with an “improved stadium” (i.e. a characterless concrete and breeze block over-sized urinal) in the very same, inappropriate location. To the best of my knowledge, nobody responsible has yet done any “time” for this crime against all logic and common sense – a trait which of course, apocryphally at least, is not as common as it ought to be, nor as its name suggests.

I can’t let the small matter of ticket pricing go unmentioned, either. I went to the game in a group of 10. Each of us paid sixty-seven of your English Pounds for the privilege of attending (yes, £67, including "booking fees", whatever they are) and that was just for mid-priced tickets. The pricier seats cost considerably more. Before anyone starts thinking about trying to justify that level of pricing, let me quickly remind you that this was NOT for a World Cup match, or an FA Cup final. This was for a Championship fixture. One which represents entirely incremental revenue to the FA, above and beyond their regular league season income. Being held in a stadium built specifically for the purpose of hosting football matches. So it must be a super-efficient and super-profitable venue, no? And what did we get for all that ticket price amount, exactly? With seats in the back row of the lower tier, we found ourselves beneath a low, suspended ceiling, in airless seats. Stifled, on the hottest day of the year so far, stuck under an over-hang, on what seemed to be radio-active concrete; it felt very much like being placed in a microwave oven, on high power, for two hours. Thanks – for sweet FA! And thank The Lord there wasn’t extra time. They would have been carrying us all out on stretchers with heat-stroke. Or possibly in boxes. Not that I ever did actually do any sitting. My expensively-rented, sweaty, plastic chair remained a curious ornament, for the entire time I was inside the building. I wasn't just being a rebel; nobody in front of us sat down either. So Wembley's famously perfect sight-lines would have been rather lost on me, if I had actually sat down on my over-priced piece of red plastic.
Pre-match beer (and I use the term only very loosely) costs £5.50 per pint for lager and £4.50 for a can (i.e. for less than a pint) of bitter. Both appeared to have been brewed specially, with almost no alcohol; boasting little more % ABV than any self-respecting shandy should. In the case of that can of bitter, I very roughly estimate the margin (Profit on Return) being made by the stadium bar to be something close to an eye-watering 90%. This gives some sense of the desperate levels of fan-fleecing which are required to keep one of the world’s largest white elephants in business – or at least in iced buns and bananas. Unsurprisingly, as a result of these costs (and the soulless environment, inside) most fans stay away from the stadium for as long as is humanly possible before a fixture, without actually missing the kick-off. Many, in fact, are happy to miss the kick-off as well; something that TV cameras regularly demonstrate. Yet another glorious own-goal by the body responsible for notionally running / ruining (* delete as you see applicable) our national game. I say “notionally” because, as most football fans have by now realised, it is in fact the country’s four of five biggest clubs who are really running / ruining football. Unsurprisingly, given the massive cash hand-out on offer, Villa and Fulham couldn’t wait for the opportunity to try and work their way up the greasy pole, into that golden circle; which is strangling its very own golden goose, even as I type.

And as for “security”: don’t make me larrff! I had an opened bottle of water in a plastic carrier bag. It got a cursory glance and an orange “Cleared” sticker, almost before I’d even offered it up for inspection. If we’d been boarding a jumbo jet, I wouldn't have been confident about our prospects of staying in the skies for very long. On this showing, the stadium might be about as safe and secure as some areas within the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Not Just a Match; but One Big Family Day Out …

Fulham Fan Mark Harcombe's‎ grandson walks up the Wembley Way for the first time. Hopefully NOT for the last time! Would it be a day to remember - or to forget?

Children's writer Michael Morpurgo famously knows a thing or two about people, families and 'belonging': "Fulham Football Club ... are a lovely crowd ... very much a family club, compared to the big brassy, money clubs". It's difficult to argue with that view, which you'll hear repeated often, elsewhere. The day would be a big family day out for South Londoners everywhere; from as far afield as Australia. When Fulham missed out on automatic promotion back to the Premier League, at Birmingham City, on the final day of the 'regular' season, many fans were down-hearted; but not me! I never doubted we had enough quality to make it through the play-off process. And why would anybody give up on the chance of a sunny, May, family day out at Wembley? Transport and other logistics matters excluded, that is. I suspect Villa fans may feel differently about this, now; but, unless you are a follower of one of the biggest English clubs, trips to Wembley to see your team play are likely to be as rare as hens’ teeth, or a fully functioning UK rail network.

So when they do come about (in Fulham’s case, that's about every 43 years; for Network Rail it's somewhat less frequently) you’ll probably want to spend a bit of time planning a big day out, like Pee Wee Herman. Ours started at The Horse and Groom, in Great Portland Street, around lunch-time. Strangely, there were no other Fulham fans about. Although I did see a few folk wandering around Oxford Street in Villa shirts, they just appeared to be lost in the Big Smoke - or “… In Translation”, like tennis reporter Jonathan Pinfield, of Yorkshire's BCB Radio, this week. One reason the Horse & Groom wasn’t busy (there were just 2 people inside, apart from the bar staff) is because it's a Samuel Smith’s pub: an acquired taste, for those who like such things. Nobody had a good word to say about the beer (“all head and no body!”); but the location could hardly have been better. After a few scoops, enjoyed while basking in the warm sunshine of the Beautiful South, we took a gentle stroll up to Great Portland Street station. From there, a Metropolitan Line tube train whisked us off directly to Wembley Park. As we neared our stop, I couldn’t help reflecting on those lyrics, penned by the Eagles. It couldn’t be easier to arrive at Wembley; but how bad would getting away be, later that day; and what sort of mood would we all be in?

Being English football fans, it was clearly time for some more beers. We avoided the Fan Zone (of course!) and headed north up Bridge Road to The Torch public house, via a convenience store selling comparatively cold beers at relatively reasonable prices. The corner shop pit-stop was well-advised. Although The Torch had been designated as a Fulham fans’ pub for the day, the security cordon at the entry gate was far more effective than the equivalent checks at the stadium itself. So effective, in fact, that there appeared to be more people outside the barriers, on the pavements and grass verges in front of the pub, drinking from cans, than there were within the barricaded confines of the venue. Although the photo below might suggest otherwise.
Fulham fans leaving it as late as is humanly possible to head for the soulless concourses of England's National Stadium (source: Archie Rhind-Tutt)

There was a loud wall of noise generated by pre-match singing and chanting; but it grew super-humanly louder still, whenever a bus full of fellow supporters (or, more rarely, a lost Aston Villa coach which had come the wrong way) passed by outside. There was dancing on the picnic tables, flag-flying, an occasional plastic glass which chose to go airborne - and a growing sense of pre-match hysteria. Was this for real; or were we still dreaming?

Many fans had posted in the run-up to the match that they were “buzzing” and having trouble sleeping. I suppose we all respond differently. Personally, I slept untroubled sleep. Long before I made it to the bizarre white tubular arch over Wembley (and no, it doesn't trip off the tongue, like "The Twin Towers", does it?) this play-off final lark already had me behaving like an 8-year-old, again. Actually dreaming about football in my sleep. First of all I dreamed that Mitro was on fire (not literally, of course) and scored Fulham's opener. Then I dreamt that the second was scored, after a mazy run from the right-back position, past most of the Villa side, and after a cleverly disguised cut inside, onto his left by … 


Now, back in the bad old days of the early '90's (when Fulham were, briefly, the second worst team in the Football League) if I'd bothered to bring my boots along to Craven Cottage, I might have quite fancied my chances of getting a game. It had been an easy decision to leave them at home today, though, as I set off for Wem-Ber-Ley. I reckoned Ryan Fredericks starting place was fairly safe. I'll stick with my Over-50's Walking Football side, for now. Unless Slav needs me next season, of course, if Ryan F moves on, at the end of his contract.
"He Comes from Ser - Bee - Ya. He'll F** - Kin' Mur - Der Ya!"
Slaviša Jokanović: the man with a plan, which doesn't include me. Yet!

Some People Are On The Pitch! They Think It's All Over - It Is Now!

The match itself felt far more exciting to me, at least, than its eventual scoreline (0 – 1) might imply to the neutral. That was in part because it was filled with so many of the various dramas that devotees of The Beautiful Game seek out on a weekly, fortnightly, or other basis. There were heroes and (pantomime) villains; there was, indeed, a tight score-line; there was a sending off; there were penalty appeals and (other) controversial refereeing decisions; there was a singing duel held by fans throughout; and there was nail-biting aplenty – especially during the six minutes of added time, at the end. This was Shakespearean tragedy, writ large. Villa’s Grealish gamely tried to deliver Prince Hamlet; but was mostly reduced to a cameo as King Lear’s fool. There were strong hints at the deadly jealousy of Othello and Iago; but we had come to bury Villa – not to praise them.
Villa's play-maker goes airborne (yet again!)
It was just about the only way through Fulham's dominant defence.

Grealish spent much of his energy, throughout the match, diving around unnecessarily (like Olympian Tom Daley on the ‘reality’ TV show “Splash!” – but with an even worse barnet) yet still found time to play many other roles, besides; like Alec Guinness in “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. At one point, just before the half-hour mark, he even managed to impersonate a  beached octopus, by throwing himself to the ground (yet again!) and flailing his many limbs about, in front of the referee. In that particular incident, Grealsih filled so much of the available, hallowed Wembley turf that there was nowhere for Fulham’s poor old Fredericks to put his feet – so he just had to step ever so lightly and carefully onto Grealish’s leg! The latter’s reaction to this moment, alone, was worthy of several Oscars. Some fans thought he had actually died.

If the same Villa midfielder had got the straight red card that his late, studs-up "tackle" from behind on Tom Cairney had deserved (after 63 minutes) then Grealish wouldn't have even been on the pitch, seven minutes later, to over-react to Denis Odoi's clumsy challenge on him, which earned the diminutive Fulham central defender his second yellow card and an ‘early bath’. 

Grealish takes out his opposite number, Cairney - and somehow avoids a red card.

Despite the obvious bias of TV commentators and highlights editors, they could not influence the actual result; and the better footballing team won, on the day. Villa managed just ONE goal in their three play-off matches (and that was from a set piece) and spent most of the first half of the final trying to stop Fulham from playing, rather than getting on with an attacking game plan of their own. They never really looked like scoring; even against “ten-man Fulham”, in the last 26 minutes (and they still only ended up with 49% of possession, even then; despite that extra man advantage). The best players on the pitch were ALL on the Fulham side. Grealish would have struggled to make my top 5, ahead of Cairney, Sessegnon, Bettinelli, McDonald, Mitrovic, Ream and Johansen. Two of these had combined for the decisive goal, demonstrating their individual brilliance as well as their team ethic. Sessgnon battling to secure a ball he should by rights have lost, after a heavy first touch, before turning and delivering a slide-rule pass through the Villa defence, in front of Cairney's intelligent and incisive run.
Captain Cairney finds space behind Villa's AWOL back four and slots past a slow-to-react Johnstone, combining with teenager Sessegnon for the game's defining moment of brilliance. Stourbridge were NOT happy!

Yet many sports writers were having multiple orgasms over the genius of Grealish's performance. Several said, bizarrely, that he was unlucky to be on the losing side when, in fact, his poor match-day was probably THE decisive Villa factor in the result. He barely got going, “bottled” his side's best three goal-scoring chances and, otherwise, mostly just generally failed to turn up. Instead he expended his valuable energy, on a stifling-hot day, executing perfect, Daley-esque swallow dives; and generally looking enraged at the "attention" he claimed he was getting from his Fulham markers. At this point, The Pharaoh simply scratches his head, sighs and walks away to prepare for next season, in the English Premier League. Where the standard of match reporting will (surely?!) be so much better and less biased - and the standard of diving will be more professional.
... and cue the goal celebrations 

One SKY TV commentator neatly summed up Fulham’s season: “Nowhere, in November; then half a season unbeaten. Now Fulham are at their desired destination”. Followers of last season's Chris Martin debacle will know that our destination, infamously, "is not a train station"! Elsewhere, the Sport Witness website summarised the media's under-whelming confidence in Fulham FC’s new, hard-won top-flight status: “… now they need to start planning for at least one season in the top tier of English football.” Fans will be hoping for many more than just ONE season back in the world’s best and most exciting domestic league.
A former England Captain searches for Mitro's wallet. No foul here: now move along!

As for John Terry: how the once-mighty have fallen. Almost 11 years ago, the first game involving the full English national team at this New Wembley stadium was a friendly against Brazil, on 1st June, 2007. The match saw the England captain (JT) become the first England international goal scorer at the new stadium, when he notched the opener, in the 68th minute. For the record,  the full-time result was a 1–1 draw… and, as Max Boyce used to proudly boast, “I was there!” JT was much vaunted as a possible deciding factor, ahead of this play-off final; but he turned out to be mostly a passenger - and he is now no longer even on the Villa bus. 

Cairney & McDonald share the spoils of victory, with some friends

The After-Math

Fulham FC were the third-best team in the Championship this year, measured over 46 regular season games. For much of the last four months they had topped the league's form table. Now they had reconfirmed their status as the third-best side, through the ordeal of those three extra post-season play-off fixtures. There was an hour or so of post-match celebrations in the Fulham half of the stadium; somewhat less in the Villa end. The players partied; 38,000 Fulham fans partied; GK Bettinelli carried a streaming black flare around the stadium, like an Olympic torch-bearer; red-carded Denis Odoi partied on the Wembley cross-bar, in scenes reminiscent of a visit by Scotland fans, 41 years earlier – though with less tartan on display and with less turf stolen. There were ‘official’, stage-managed celebrations on a hastily-erected sponsor's stage; there were rather more instantaneous celebrations pitch-side, in front of the fans; there were mad scenes in the (Fulham) dressing room. Every player on the winning side was interviewed to within an inch of their lives. And then we all went home; at first VERY slowly, down the STILL over-crowded Wembley Way (see above - "... you can NEVER leave!"); before eventually continuing, still slowly, via the welcoming hostelries of Central London.

When it's party time, down South

On returning home late that night, I also received a welcome, if somewhat surprising, compliment from Mrs. Pharaoh: “Wow! You’re hung like a horse!” I must have still been a little deafened (and perhaps also somewhat ‘tired and emotional’) at the time; since it later turned out that what she’d actually said was “You’re a little hoarse” … but, then again, she is not a sports fan of any standing. I’m still buzzing now!
Odoi Celebrates, Scots Wa Hae Stylie, in front of the Villa Supporters
(source: Getty Images)

The Premier League's own website could not help but heap praise on Fulham's achievement AND their style of play. In their official preview of next season, they say: 
"Fulham look well suited to Premier League football ... the Cottagers pass and move with confidence ... Fulham remind me of a Pep Guardiola team. They play attractive football, based on movement and domination of the ball ,,, It will be tougher to repeat this in the Premier League but ... Fulham are set to be a delight to watch." You heard it here first! AND you can still get odds of 1,500-1 from some bookies for Fulham to win the Premier League, next term. Similar odds, in fact, to those for finding Elvis alive, at the back of your wardrobe.

There is, however, barely any respite from the Beautiful Game, these days, for true fans. Almost before the ink was even dry on John Terry’s misspelt letter of resignation (there are at least TWO 'K's in "knackered", John!), the CONIFA World Cup was getting under way at non-league football grounds across London. Including the prestigious, primary venue of Enfield Town’s own Donkey Drome – the QEII Stadium … refurbished just a few years ago for less than the price of a round of drinks, at Wembley. More details will follow from this fascinating tournament, soon, I suspect. And then, before the over-paid stars of the EPL can regroup in August, there will be the small matter of Russia’s (allegedly) corruptly purchased FIFA World Cup; and the disappointment of watching England’s early exit.
“Three lions on a shirt; Jules Rimet still gleaming.
Fifty-two years of hurt never stopped me dreaming.”

I leave you with one final, intriguing football statistic, from this near-perfect Championship season. Fans of other teams regularly justify their status as a “Big Club” by highlighting the size of their fan base; particularly their away support. Thanks to the incremental impact of their epic, final away day, at Wembley, little old Fulham topped the league table for away support, this season. Ahead, even, of those “Bigger Clubs” (e.g. Leeds United, Wolves, Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday – and Aston Villa). If size matters, then perhaps “now you’d better believe us …”? But I suspect that many still will not. See: 

So many jokes, so many sneers;
But all those "oh-so-nears"
Wear you down, through the years ...
It's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming,
Football's coming home.

All the best from 
The (Fulham) Football Pharoah
Photos: mostly sourced from the FFC website - plus some fan snaps, credited where possible.