What a contrast! The day after visiting the rather grim Den of Millwall from the 1990’s, I went with my son and my cousin to Fulham’s Craven Cottage. Beautifully located on the north bank of the Thames, in the middle of a a network of nice little streets with semi-detached houses and flowering fruit trees. A bit like Loftus Road. But what makes Craven Cottage really special is the architecture of Archibald Leitch from 1905. The Stevenage Road (or Johnny Haynes stand as it is now called after the first player in England to earn £100 a week back in 1961) has a distinct brick facade with white cartouches and gables. The facade was restored a few years ago by a supporters’ group, whereas another group of local residents were campaigning to see the club move to another site, while the owner Mohamed Al-Fayed planned to sweep away the old ground and build a new all-seater stadium. Fulham went to play their matches at Loftus Road in 2002 – expecting to return to a new ground after 2 years. But the plans, fortunately, did not materialize, and instead the old Cottage was upgraded, and Fulham returned back in 2004. All that Al-Fayed came up with in the end was a Michael Jackson statue outside the ground, and even that had been removed a few months before our visit (and seems to be on its way to the National Football Museum).
The story behind the building of the ground is quite interesting. The previous year, the entrepeneur Gus Mears had bought Stamford Bridge, intending to turn this athletics ground into a football ground and therefore needing a football team. Stamford Bridge was ideally located next to the railroad as well as the tube, whereas Fulhams river side ground was not very well connected to the transport network. A move for Fulham seemed to be the only logical outcome, but the Fulham director Henry Norris did not want to be number two to Mears, so Mears had to form his own club, Chelsea. And Archibald Leitch ended up working on the two competing stadium projects!
Craven Cottage really is as a far cry from the modern glass facades of the Etihad, the Emirates or Old Trafford that give the grounds such a modern, corporate, anonymous look. Craven Cottage oozes history and atmosphere. This is no cheap carpark architecture brushed up by some glass. It cannot hold the big crowds of the new stadiums. But the Stevenage Road stand really has its appeal to a 17th century historian like me!
The stand is not very big – and probably not that convenient either. Even though it is quite small, it still has pillars restricting the view. But it also has a rooftop gable with club logo facing the pitch. And – there are good, oldfashioned floodlight pillars in each corner of the ground. Our tickets, though, were for the Putney End, so we didn’t get to try it out.
The most distinctive feature of all at the Craven Cottage is, though, the Grade II listed cottage – the pavillion in the corner, built because there was not enough space to make the Stevenage Road stand deep enough to incorporte the planned facilities, which not only included club offices, dressing rooms a billiard room and card room but also a one bedroom flat for the caretaker. A flat, which in the 1920’s was occupied by the club captain and his family! A balcony was added to the cottage, from where Directors would follow the game, but now it is used by players and their guests.
Of course, Craven Cottage has adapted to modern football. The Riverside Terrace was roofed in 1972 and the Hammersmith End is from the 1960’s, whereas the roofing of the Putney End is less than 10 years old. Particularly the Hammersmith End is in stark contrast to the Stevenage Road stand. And I could easily understand why there was a floodlight failure last season when Fulham played Manchester United, looking at the electricity work …
The Putney End, where we had our seats, is quite unusually a mixed area with away fans, neutrals as well as a few home fans.
The Everton fans were in the majority, but they were surprisingly quiet, despite being on their best run for years. They could only muster a few chants in the first half, in which Fulham did surprisingly well and carried the most threat. It was not until Everton took the lead from a rather fortuitous goal in the second half that the Everton fans found their voice – and they were silenced again when Fulham equalized, only for Everton to retake the lead some 10 minuttes later. Not that the Fulham supporters were special, but being at the foot of the league table that was a bit more understandable. And when they did find their voice, it was rather unimaginative “come on you whites”-like chants they came up with.
Still, the atmosphere was quite good. It was surprisingly friendly – there were no ill feelings among the supporters in the mixed-area. And the match was quite entertaining, ending with a 3-1 win for Everton, which was a bit harsh on Fulham. And entertaining matches always generate a good atmosphere.
Even the catering at Craven Cottage is something special. We had a really delicious Cottage Pie for pre-match snack, arguably the best one I have tried in a football ground. In a recent survey, the BBC stated that Craven Cottage has the most expensive pies of all the English football grounds. But the price does reflect the quality.
After the match, we marched through the gardens along the Thames. The downside to the nice location by the river and the tiny streets, is that there are no car parks or public transport in the immediate vincinity of the ground. It was not just the locals who made their pedestrian way to Putney like us, several Everton fans did that as well. Either because they live in London or because parking near the ground is impossible.
All in all, a great day out! Of course, sunny, warm spring weather, good company and an entertaining match all played their part in making it such a good experience, but I will at least for the moment put Craven Cottage in my top 3 of current football grounds. Top marks for Craven Cottage.