Craven Cottage, if you don’t know, is the oldest football stadium in London and the home field of Fulham Football Club.
A few years ago, when I translated a soccer magazine from Swedish into Finnish, there was a story about the legend of Cottage, its demise and return to the days of glory and while I didn’t remember much of the story when I got there, I remembered this much: Craven Cottage was a magical place.
And there we were, Buddy and I, last Saturday. We clapped our hands when the players walked onto the pitch, cheered on Fulham – “Come on Fuuuuuuulham” – and jumped onto our feet when Berbatov scored for Fulham. Well, I did, Buddy just laughed at me. We ate the longest hotdogs I’ve ever seen, and we took a lot of photos. However, while the match was fine, it wasn’t magical.
After the game, while waiting for the line to the fan shop to clear, we walked to the other side of the stadium, the one that’s right on the River Thames.
The security guards were sending people home from the game, and turning people away from the gate. I saw an older gentleman talking to one of the guards.
“It’s really bad publicity, you know,” I heard him say. The guard smiled but kept sending people away. The old man turned around and walked towards me.
“There’s the Michael Jackson statue that people want to take photos of, but the security sends people away, I don’t understand it. I told them it was bad publicity and he said he’d bring it up in their next meeting,” said the man.
He was wearing a light blue polo shirt, a dark blue jacket and brown pants. On his head, he had a dark blue baseball hat. He must have been in his 70s.
I told him I completely agreed with him, now that I saw that there was a huge Michael Jackson statue looking out to the river.
“It is a really nice stadium,” I said.
“Yes, yes, well, it’s been here for hundreds of years. You’ve seen the park on the other side, right? Yeah, yeah, that used to be a royal hunting ground here in Fulham, when the original cottage was here. And now, they’ll lift this side up so we’ll get 5 000 more spectators inside. We used to get 40 000 in, when it was standing room only,” he said.
He walked to my other side so he could keep an eye on the security guards. I turned and looked at the river.
“You know here’s where they have the boat race every year, between Oxford and Cambridge, yeah, that place on the other side is where they keep their boats, yeah,” he said.
“It’s in April or so, and they start from under the bridge over there and then row four miles up the river,” he added. He took a few steps to my other side again.
“Have you seen the Johnny Haynes statue?” he asked me.
“Actually, we haven’t, where is that?” I said, like I knew who Johnny was.
“You haven’t seen it? It’s a big statue right next to the gate on the other side.”
He looked at me and smiled. His eyes looked big behind the glasses.
“Johnny Haynes was the first footballer to make a hundred pounds a week. Now Wayne Rooney makes 250 000 pounds a week.
“I made five pounds a week and I saved up and bought a television set. It was a 12-inch TV, made by the Queen’s factory here. Of course, I paid it in portions, you know, little by little,” he said, and took a few steps towards the security guard again.
“Listen,” he told the guard. “Listen, can’t you let people take photos of the statue, it’s bad publicity when you turn them away when they just want to take a photo. I spoke with the head guard earlier and he said he’d bring it up in your next meeting.”
Then he walked back to me.
“Back then, the working man couldn’t afford a car so we all rode buses. Players, too,” he said.
He was quiet for a few seconds as he looked up to the sky, looking like he was thinking about something.
“You know there’s a plane flying over here every ninety seconds? It’s true,” he said suddenly.
I looked up and saw a plane. When I looked down again, I saw the guard closing the gate. The old man was nowhere to be seen.
Buddy and I walked back to the fan shop, and then to the Johnny Haynes statue. West Bromwich players were walking out of the stadium and into their bus, so a few autograph hunters were waiting for them where the statue was.
Buddy pulled up his camera, and took a photo of Johnny Haynes. When he clicked the shutter, he laughed.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“Too funny. You know what my camera said when I took a photo? It said, ‘a blink detected’,” Buddy told me.
“It’s magic,” he said, laughing.
Craven Cottage’s still got it.