Monthly Archives: May 2011

An early summer visit to Craven Cottage

Craven Cottage
In one corner stands the cottage, unique
A reminder of an earlier age
An age before the violence
Before the air was full of vile oaths

Opposite, sits the brash new stand
Overlooking the Thames
Smug, expensive, empty
There’s an electronic scoreboard to gaze at when the play gets dull, which isn’t often
Fulham play an attractive brand of football
£4.50 to get in* and the beer is great

Three English Football Grounds by I, Ludicrous

I, Ludicrous may have written these words in 1987 but I’m sure Craven Cottage would get a glowing write-up again today should the boys decide to pay another visit**

In one corner does indeed stand the Cottage (rear view)

As football in London goes it doesn’t get much better than an early or late season trip to Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham. There’s lots to enjoy about coming here: the lovely walk through Bishop’s Park, with the green, narrowing Thames to your left; London’s oldest football stand fronting the Stevenage Road entrance to the ground; the prospect of a waterside beer at half time and the old-fashioned layout which generally ensures a large and vocal away following.

One English football ground (Stevenage Road Stand to right of picture)

The most recent addition to the attractions of the area is surely the oddest sight at any English league venue. The statue of Michael Jackon, erected by Fulham’s owner Mohammed Fayed, is a long way from the usual bronze effigy of ex-legend found at Old Trafford (Best, Charlton, Law), Elland Road (Bremner) and the Britannia Stadium (Matthews). For starters it’s in colour, and secondly, Michael Jackson may have attended a few Fulham matches but he was hardly known for his extensive Panini sticker collections. No matter, says Fayed, who walks on water in these parts after bankrolling the club into the Premier League and returning Fulham to the Cottage after converting the ground to all-seater for the start of the 2004-5 season. It gives travelling fans a giggle, which is no bad thing as they’re much less likely to come away with a result than they used to be. Fulham are no mugs at home and are an established Premier League club. Not bad when you consider that Fulham were second bottom of the entire Football League in January 1996, and lost away to Torquay United, the one team below them. Cha mon indeed.

For various reasons I failed to get a photo of the statue – there are plenty here – but some waggish Arsenal fans’ song, produced below, raised a smirk:

Your statue is shit
Your statue is shit
It should have been Jedward
Your statue is shit

A large and vocal away following, today

The other famous feature of the ground is the Cottage itself. This unique pavilion is as old as the Stevenage Road Stand and dates from 1905. Legendary stadium designer Archibald Leitch put it up after forgetting to build changing rooms into his plans for the ground. I’ve never been inside but I hope they bring you cucumber sandwiches and tea at half-time.

Earl's Court platform indicator...

...and Putney Bridge station's elegant facade are two things to keep an eye out for on the way

*It costs rather more than £4.50 to get in to Craven Cottage these days. The beer is cold, which remains shamefully the best you can hope for inside any football ground in Britain.

**In fact, of the three grounds reviewed in the song, Craven Cottage is the only one still standing. Burnden Park and The Den, the homes of Bolton Wanderers and Millwall, have both been replaced by modern all-seater stadiums. Fulham FC kept their terracing later than any Premier League club to date, with standing in the Stevenage Road paddocks and at both ends until the end of the 2001-2 season. I paid the ground a visit in 2001 for the first time since 1994 when Arsenal visited, coming away with a 3-1 win that was closer than the score makes it sound. As with other visits to grounds with terracing it weren’t like the old days.

Arsenal 1990-91; the almost invincibles

This article originally appeared in issue 214 of the Gooner. It looks better in print.

Part two appears in issue 215, currently on sale, and I will post it here once that issue is no longer current.

It is Bank Holiday Monday, May 4 1991, and it is raining at Roker Park, the home of Sunderland. The ground has seen better days, and Arsenal’s away followers are massed on an open terrace with our backs to the North Sea, which is chucking everything it has at us. We’re here to see the championship won back off Liverpool, who we handed it back to rather limply last season. The rain and a fairly dour display by Arsenal mean that 0-0 is a fair result, and the title would have to wait until we’ve dragged our soggy bodies back to London.

Of more immediate concern is the mob of angry Wearsiders occupying the standing enclosure and, highly unusually, the upper tier of the stand to our left. From the moment the gates open they’re making a huge racket, one clad in a Hummel-era Spurs top just to irritate. The rest of them dredge up every 1970s chant about what they’re going to do to us outside. Combined with the poor football on show it’s like stepping back 20 years. Just as we’re all wondering how fast a fat man from Sunderland can run after us the mood changes. Possibly aware they’ve just seen this year’s Champions, or just to show they were only messing when they were threatening to tear us several new ones, the Sunderland lads suddenly want to be our best mates. They break out in song, swap scarves through the fence and shake hands, wishing us well for the run-in.

It was just one event in a very eventful season.

Home of the Champions, 1990-91

The George Graham years, and indeed the entire history of Arsenal from 1980 to 1996 revolve around one moment: Michael Thomas’s immortal surge through the Liverpool defence  (click for video, go on) and flick past Bruce Grobbelaar to take the 1989 league championship. The drama of that season, and that defining goal, overshadow much in the memory of everyone connected with Arsenal of what came after. But 1990-91, which was twenty years ago this season, offered thrill after thrill, and twists and turns to keep us all gripped from the moment the first ball was kicked.

It was a big season for me, too, my first of following Arsenal away pretty much everywhere. I was an Arsenal obsessed 14-year-old and life revolved around Saturdays, home or away, heading up the motorway with my Dad and some friends.

So much has changed in twenty years. England had just reached the World Cup Semi Final and the humdrum reality of league football seemed to contrast with the glamour of the tournament in Italy. There was one ITV game a week on live if you were lucky, and no European football at all.

We were playing for the Barclays League Championship, an ugly triangular shaped thing with the graceful Football League trophy, now awarded to the winners of the Championship thrown in as an afterthought. Ian Wright was playing for a youthful Crystal Palace side that would finish third and impress everyone in the process. Highbury was, apart from the recently-erected executive boxes and roof over the Clock End, pretty much unchanged in fifty years. The Taylor Report was soon to change that, but as the teams ran out for the first home game of the season, an evening match against Luton Town attended by 32,723 the players applauded the West Stand with Junior Gunners enclosure in front of it, the Clock End, East Stand still with old school greenhouse-style dug outs and the boisterous North Bank, enclosed by its low, noise-echoing roof.

Before that we’d kicked off the season at the Makita International tournament at the old Wembley Stadium. Both the weekend fixture against Sampdoria and the evening victory over Aston Villa,   managed by Dr Jozef Venglos, the last and possibly only man with a doctorate to manage in England, were played in very hot weather, and the heat went up a few degrees at the latter when new signing Anders Limpar (some great goals by the original Super Swede here), who looked like a pacy replacement for the departed winger Brian Marwood, burst through the defence to lash home from a tight angle. He was one to watch. Other new signings were Andy Linighan, an addition to the already-established back four, and most controversially David Seaman in goal. He’d nearly joined us on deadline day the previous season but the deal had fallen through. Arsenal fans had rallied around John Lukic and Seaman got a mixed reception at first. He won us over by being fantastic.

The first day of the season took place against a club who no longer exist at a ground that is long gone. The tube journey to Plough Lane, Wimbledon through the longest tunnel on the Underground seemed to take forever, and when we got there we were greeted with a ground offering, like so many others, unreconstructed Victorian facilities. Years after this match I went to Tanzania and used a pit latrine and the smell reminded me instantly of this afternoon: a slowly boiling outdoor toilet. Goals from Merse, Alan Smith and an absolute belter from Perry Groves got us off to a winning start.

Plough Lane: even the horse didn't think the toilets in the away end were up to much

My ticket stub collection for this season is a bit sparse, not because I wasn’t at games but because you could often pay cash on the door at many away grounds. At Nottingham Forest’s City Ground a policeman stopped me, baffled, at the turnstiles and asked what the large wooden block I had in a bag was. My father, who had made the item, explained that it was for me to stand on as I was a bit of a short-arse those days (I still am), and the copper gave me a stern glare and ordered me to ‘grow!’. This box was a feature of that season. People next to me would try to knock me off it to get a better view themselves, and when a goal went in and everyone went flying I had to push through the post-goal scrum to try and retrieve it.

The previous season we’d gone to Old Trafford on the first day of the season as champions. Michael Knighton had just had his bogus bid to buy the club accepted and jogged round the pitch bouncing a ball on his head. Gus Caesar had a shocker and we’d taken a 4-1 hammering. A couple of years before there had been two bad-blooded encounters, one as we lost a long unbeaten run at the same ground and then when Brian McClair had missed a last minute penalty, earning him a taunting from a delighted and relieved Nigel Winterburn. Their fans were confident, taunting us as we walked around the ground beforehand. Long queues formed by red-brick turnstile blocks three hours before kick off. It was never going to go down well then when after United throwing the kitchen sink at a by now firmly established David Seaman for half an hour we scored from an Anders Limpar wonder-shot from by the corner flag. United were seriously wound up and Arsenal weren’t giving an inch.

The second half brawl didn’t affect the result but it made the day unforgettable. The United fans behind the away enclosure were baying for blood and we were kept in for a long time afterwards. Not that it mattered, three points under those circumstances was a triumph to savour. Incidentally, it cost £5 to get into Old Trafford that afternoon.

To be continued…

Seeing Sicily with children

I like places that think they’re at the centre of the world –  I am from London, after all. Sicilians, custodians of a beautiful, historically fascinating island slap bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, are entitled to hold this conviction about where they live.

Roger II: unlikely name, great King of Sicily, had at least 15 kids. Proof it's a great place for nippers!

Their homeland is also a superb place for a family holiday, as the Hall clan just found out. There are always nuances, however, to travelling with children that are less obvious before you visit, so I thought it may be worth passing these on. Here, then, are some tips for visiting Sicily with children:

Sicily's provinces (Wikimedia commons)

1. Don’t try and see the whole island in a week

The main reason for saying this is because you can’t. Sicily may not look big on a map, but it’ll take longer than you think to travel places. Distances are reasonably big, Trapani to Palermo for example is 43 miles (69km) while Catania to the capital is 100 miles (160km). Larger cities are linked by smooth dual-carriageway roads, but head inland and you’ll find yourself on spectacular but slower roads through the mountains.

Sicily has an amazing amount of things to do, too, and there’s enough for a month of child-friendly half-day trips. Once the island is seen there are islands too, including volcanic Stromboli and Vulcano. We chose an area – the north-west of the island and saw it in some detail, visiting Palermo, Monreale, the hilltop treasure of Erice (best reached by a fun cable car) and the ancient sites of Selinunte and Segesta in a week, exploring from our base in Castellammare del Golfo. We are fixed on returning soon and basing ourselves on the Ionian Coast to see the highlights of this area, as well as returning to Palermo. If you try to pack in too much you’ll exhaust yourselves and get frustrated, so slow down and make the most of your immediate surroundings.

2. Hire a car

Sicily has trains and buses but a car is perfect for touring with kids. You quickly get the hang of driving (including mastering being on the ‘wrong’ side of the road if you’re British) but also adapt to  Sicilian motoring style, which means going fast, driving right up the jacksy of the car you wish to overtake and, in Palermo, ignoring whatever lane restrictions or rights of way are in place. I found it quickly became a lot of fun, even in the capital. Trains were slow, and buses left you reliant on someone else’s timetable, plus with a car you could go precisely where you wanted, when. There are beautiful drives everywhere.

3. You can go to Palermo

Big city + hot sunshine + a fearsome reputation for traffic = a succession of tantrums from children and parents. Right? Maybe. But Palermo doesn’t have to be like that. If you’re a gallery fan, church crawler or a mosaic obsessive you might feel the odd pang of frustration that you’re in a city offering serious cultural overload much of which will be out of reach, but then you’ve probably come on holiday prepared to compromise. This might mean that you bag the wonderful Arab-Norman cathedral from the outside. No biggie. Its interior won’t get your blood pumping if you’re been to Monreale or even the Chiesa della Martorana, the wonderful chapel that’s home to some of Palermo’s best mosaic work. It might also mean heading for the Palatine Chapel first thing in the morning or not at all. But there’s more to Palermo than this. Our eldest grizzled at being in a trafficky, smelly city so we took a stroll through some random back-alleys, discovering a quieter side to the city and getting glimpses of baroque palaces hiding behind enormous, ancient doorways.

There’s enough at nearby Monreale to visit this lovely hilltop town separately, by the way. And in many ways it is more kid friendly, as you can ascend dome of the Cathedral, run riot in the Cloisters and lunch in the lovely piazza, complete with fountains.

4. Self catering may suit

Self catering is a good idea with small children anyway, but unless yours like staying up late it can be pretty much the only way to feed them in many places between 4 and 7pm, when restaurants stop serving and many cafes shut too. Though things start waking up in the early evening, this is Passeggiata time, when Sicilians hit the streets for a promenade, gossip and an espresso or something stronger. We tended to feed our lads the usual time they had dinner and then head out and join the fun.

5. Ancient ruins can be fun

Sicily has some wonderful ancient sites, and it’s not hard to make them fun for those too young to appreciate the subtleties of Doric capitals and the superb settings of many of the islands Greek sites. Climbing, hide and seek and even an impromptu concert in the amphitheatre at Segesta made our visits to these places some of the best of the trip.

The subtleties of Segesta - best appreciated during a game of hide and seek

6. Splendid sand

You’re never far from a great beach, and if you’re from a northern climate you might be able to enjoy them when the Italians shy away from a dip. In early May we had a vast stretch of beach at Castellammare, obviously mobbed in July and August, all to ourselves. The sea was around 20c and eminently paddleable. Keep buckets and spades in your hire car.

Mmm, Cannoli

7. Food and drink

This was easy. Pasta and pizza were always on hand, and could be followed up with delicious fresh fruit, gelato and sweet pastries for after, either as pick-me-ups or bribes after another Arab-Norman church. In Maria Grammatica’s famous patisserie in Erice we got pretty much all of these on the table at once, and took half of them away with us for later. At weekends you can get huge cannoli – crunchy pastries with a creamy filling – as an afternoon treat.

8.  Vorresti qualcos’altro? (Anything else?)

Most of all, don’t fret too much. Sicilians love kids and will love yours, so bring them along when you go to buy fresh-baked bread, cheese, olives and tomatoes first thing in the morning or kick a ball around the piazza at Passeggiata time. There’s nothing you’ll need that you can’t find easily, apart from a good stack of English-language DVD’s, books and magazines for the flight home you can pull out when some fresh stimulation is needed.