the real fa cup

Fulham 1 Swindon 0

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Over the last two season’s we’ve been searching for the romance of the FA Cup, we’ve been crossing fingers almost every game that the smaller team might spring a surprise. There’s been few. But a part of the cup’s rich history is, every now and again, the little side being given a big fat bloody nose by a bigger boy. And, today, we were feeling cantankerous.

We’d probably upset a few younger Fulham fans by suggesting they are not that much bigger than Swindon but, aside from spending more seasons in the top flight, Fulham haven’t actually won anything. Swindon, however, have, the League Cup but, despite never winning it, Fulham do have a good FA Cup record; once losing finalists and five-time losing semi finalists.

Today we should really be following Swindon but, initially at least, we fancied Goliath giving David a fat lip for a change, sorry Swindon. It is strange, given their slightly bonkers and outspoken owner, that Fulham are less frequently in the news for laughable decisions, sackings, dodgy finances these days than most other Premier League teams. They play nice football and their manager is a gent who few dislike. If any Premier League club deserves the support of therealfacup, Fulham are a candidate. We know it’s a bit wrong, a bit ITV, but every rule should have an exception.

Outside the Crabtree Arms, the only pub within 10 mins walk of the throwback that is Craven Cottage, we see a Police van. Normal for a football Saturday but at odds with the well heeled clientele present. We failed to make a dent on the 8-deep bar so after half an hour of looking for another pub we gave up, collected our tickets and entered the ground.

Unlike the games at Wigan, ‘Boro and Villa, it was really quite busy at the Cottage and, despite the usual ground prices, the beer was alright and the atmosphere convivial among therealfacupsters present. An optimistic post Christmas hubbub pervaded in the freezing winter sun.

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We took our seats, shafts of sunlight streamed through the gaps at each end of the Riverside Stand, one illuminating the line of white and red shirts of the teams as they emerged from the Cottage. For the first time we noticed that Swindon actually filled their end. Turned out they’d brought only a couple of hundred fewer than their average home gate this season. So, literally, everyone was there.

Swindon are 6th in League 1, a position that seemed unlikely after their 5-0 humping by Gillingham on the opening day, a result noted both with glee and annoyance by therealfacupsters present Gills fan. The reason? Norwich 1 Colchester 7 kept them off the top of the table. Fulham you all know about so we won’t go down that road.

Fulham fielded a strong XI, the only real absences due to injury. Johnson returned from his own injury problems to partner Zamora in attack, Schwarzer was in goal, Hangeland was missing but Hughes, Smalling, Kelly and Konchesky weren’t. Greening and Dempsey also started. For Swindon, we didn’t really know anyone. A look in the programme highlighted a few ‘known’ players like former Preston net-minder Dave Lucas, spotted by the Blackpool fan among us, and midfielder Hasney Aljofree, by all. I recalled Ipswich and Forest being linked with a Swindon player last week but I couldn’t remember who it was. Turned out to be Charlie Austin who didn’t play as he was cup-tied.

Fulham started as you’d expect and had the early chances with Zamora going close. Swindon played on the break, starting cautiously but bursting at speed when the chance arose. Immediately Swindon’s Daniel Ward and Simon Ferry caught the eye with their movement, pace and link up play.

The game was fairly bland and even after the first ten minutes of Fulham possession, Ferry blasted high over the bar a couple of times and Fulham strung together a lovely move down either flank with Riise and Konchesky not quite able to find Zamora or Johnson with the final ball. Fulham then upped the tempo again and Zamora clipped over the keeper to make it one nil after holding off two aggresive defencive challenges. He could have gone down but stayed upright and got his reward. 1-0 Fulham.

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The half essentially ended there, there were no more goals, but Swindon gave as well as they received. A side issue for the realfacupsters was mobile-phone watching for score updates as Ipswich (me) and Blackpool (Andy) were playing each other at the other end of the country. 0-1 Ipswich, woohoo!

Zamora had an airshot after a corner, which amused the whole crowd but I was surprised at the level of affection and songs for Bobby given his recent outburst at the fans getting on his back. As the half closed Greening, Dempsey and Riise were getting sloppy, inviting unnecessary pressure. Ferry blasted over again before Greening delivered the most exquisite of corners from which Zamora should have done better than head over.

From the quaint cottage to the prefabricated ‘box’ seats at the side of the stands via the cattle shed bogs, Craven Cottage never ceases to amuse and warm the cockles. A million commentators have noted that in the past but it really is a nice place to watch football. OK, the atmosphere isn’t always the best but when the noise is there the two opposing old school banks produce a symmetrical and pleasing arena that produces chant tennis.

By the time the remaining suds of the half time beer were drained our stance on hoping for a thrashing had dwindled. Swindon had not been subdued and we’d reverted to type and hoped for an upset. For the first 20 minutes of the second half Swindon attacked Fulham with a quality that belied their status but unfortunately the end product illustrated it. I say that but Fulham’s finishing was no better. The period was punctuated with Johnson being brought down for a penalty and sloppily presenting Lucas with a fairly easy save. That should have been game over and the natives were definitely getting restless, “get into them fuck them up” became increasingly regular.

By 75 mins our now big hope that Swindon would come back into the game was starting to look unlikely. They were knackered, passes were going astray, touches were heavy and the clever runs dwindled. After a rising Johnson drive Swindon came up with “You’ll never play for England”, the retort was “You’ll never get promoted”, all classic fayre.

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The stewards and police came out to form a barrier in front of the away fans with 10 minutes left. It seemed a bit early and almost immediately they dispersed to a loud and chirpy chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing” from the travelling Robins.

The final act of a nervous last few minutes was the not unfamiliar “Premier League, you’re having a laugh”. With the opposition spent and two leagues lower down the pyramid, you would have thought a Premier League fan would have laughed off the chant, patted the underling on it head and chucked off into the night. Oh no. The following just goes to show a) the ludicrous tension you can feel as a football fan in an important game, b) how easily tempers can fray in the cauldron of emotion that is a football match and, c) the FA Cup 3rd round DOES still actually mean something to even big sides.

Frothing at the mouth, a fan behind us decided that the song was a sleight too far from the upstarts so he stood up and bellowed “Yeah, we are Premier League, top 10, who are you, you’re shit. What’s next? ‘You’re just a small club in Chelsea'” Bizarre but indicative of the power that football has over us. Even odder as he had spent half the game telling Dempsey who rubbish he was.

With the warmth that seasonal overindulgence gives wearing thin, we ambled off in search of pint at the Crabtree feeling that Swindon deserved at least a draw. Blackpool 1-2 Ipswich, woohoo! 2010 realfacup gets off to a poor start, seeing a Premier League win and we had brought it on ourselves. Perhaps. With Notts County v Forest Green falling victim to the weather on Sunday we think we may have seen the last of this season’s premier cup competition. With only Brighton, Brentford and probably Gillingham left of the small clubs, it looks like we may be FA Trophy and Vase bound. The journey is just about over until August. Now very cold.

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