Craven Cottage: a masterpiece of old and new

Fulham fans are probably pulling their hair out reading this. And no, not because they were beaten 2-1 last Saturday after amassing 78% possession, but because we are assessing a ground, their ground, which is only 75% completed. 6819494e-ea41-407a-949e-163575b2e355In March last year, Fulham released the blueprint for their new corporate riverside stand. Renovations began in the summer, leaving the stand unavailable for this season and most likely the next. The wait will be worth it though, with the new stand extending majestically out into the Thames and raising the capacity of Craven Cottage to almost 30,000.

Ignore that temporarily uninhabited part of the ground, however, and you have an absolute peach of a football stadium. Spacious; modern but in no way soulless; and then there’s the famous cottage nestled quaintly in the corner of the ground, the symbol of Fulham football club and it’s 144 year history.  The cottage hosts the dressing rooms, along with a balcony for the owners to spectate from. It is not the only striking aspect of the ground, though. Walk along the Stevenage Road Stand, and -if it weren’t for the sporadic Fulham badge and ticket offices at the end- you wouldn’t have any idea there was a football pitch behind it. Erected in 1905, the stand can easily be mistaken for terrace housing, with it’s red-bricked façade providing another utterly unique aspect to an already mystifying ground.

Much like the San Siro, Craven Cottage manages to fuse old and new. One minute you’re marvelling at the ancient cottage, the next you’ve got a magnetic pint in your hand. The stadium’s concourse beneath the away fans’ stand is a slick, open-air plan, equipped with large TV’s and hot-dog stands that don’t, for once, use horse meat.

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The cottage

It was a welcome break from the grimy, claustrophobic tunnels of the City Ground. True, the old-school grounds are often the more atmospheric, yet Craven Cottage and, in many aspects, the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, have proved that you can harness both new technology and an intimate spectating experience.

A pet-hate of fans around the world is the misplacement of their stadiums. Location can mean everything. Too often are sacred grounds plopped beside some motorway in the middle of nowhere, away from the heart of the city. It robs the fans. Craven Cottage, though, is famously situated on the banks of the Thames, surrounded by a prosperous housing estate and the lush Bishop’s park stretching on from Putney Bridge. And when I say a prosperous housing estate, I mean a prosperous housing estate. I’m talking millions of pounds for semi-detached houses.

That’s West London for you, and in many ways that’s Fulham for you. With celebrity fans  from Michael Jackson to Richard Osman, Fulham is a real glamour club, and a rich one too. Lest we forget, Shahid Khan- Fulham owner and billionaire- was on the verge of buying Wembley a year or so ago. Of course, they aren’t in the elite bracket- but for a ‘small’ club, Fulham are one of the richest out there.

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Loftus Road: West London’s hidden gem

The city of London hosts a wealth of fantastic away days. From the depths of Brentford’s old-school Griffin Park to the idyllic views over the Thames at Craven Cottage, each ground and location seems to have it’s own little quirks. One ground, however, attracts little attention- yet offers so much. Wedged in between an unsuspecting housing estate is Loftus Road- the home of QPR.

Loftus Road was built in 1904, and first occupied by QPR in 1917. It’s last major alteration was the erection of the new Ellerslie Road stand in 1972, raising the standing capacity to around 35,000. However following the Hillsborough disaster the capacity plummeted to a mere 18,000 ( 4th lowest of the 12 football league clubs in London) as all-seater stadiums became mandatory. Yet what’s most surprising is not the size of the ground for a club dipping in and out of the Premier League in recent years, but the fact they can actually fit 18,000 people in there.

On my trip down last season, where Forest triumphed 1-0, Reds fans felt obliged to rekindle one of the old favourites from the dark days in League 1: “My garden shed, my garden shed, is bigger than this, is bigger than this,”. Tongue-in-cheek ? Yes. But wildly inaccurate ? Not so sure. It’s microscopical seats are accompanied by an equally dwarfish leg room, to the extent whereby one’s knees actually graze the person in front’s back. Crouchy, if you’re reading this, please never go to QPR away.

We can joke over the size all we want, but the bottom line is that it made for a cracking atmosphere and viewing. The seating at both goal ends is reminiscent of Valencia’s intimidating ‘La Mestalla’ stadium, where the stands angle at practically 90 degrees. It feels as if your perched in the heavens- yet directly above the keeper. What is most striking, however, is the compactness and sense of community within the ground. Loftus Road lies, quite magnificently, in the heart of an active Shepherd’s Bush housing estate. And that doesn’t mean there is some sensible gap between the houses and the ground, oh no. Some residents can literally walk out their garden door and find themselves face-to-face with the turnstiles. A proper hearty, old-fashioned set-up.

The QPR away day, though, is much more than the match itself. Put it this way, you have two options: glamour-fest or absolute p*** up. Loftus Road is a mere 10 minute drive from the famous Notting Hill and Portobello Road, which hosts an abundance of beautiful pubs and restaurants for those who need a bite to eat after catching the morning train or coach. Post-match, the likes of Marble Arch, Grenfell Tower and Hyde Park are all nearby landmarks available to visit. And then there’s option two. Scattered among the various Shepherd’s Bush alleyways are your grimy, hooligan boozers: open all night long and ideal for those middle-aged, Stone Island head-to-toe men who came down to London for a scrap outside the “White Fox” or some other generic pub name. QPR away really does have it all.

Why San Siro is the most magical stadium on the planet

Your hungry eyes are first greeted by the protruding, maroon, metal slabs, positioned at each corner of San Siro like wings on some interstellar orb. Star-struck, and gaining closer to the place you’ve been dreaming of for the past month, you’re instantly drawn to the iconic coiled columns, engines, poised to shoot off into a distant galaxy. And as the undulating roof, the tunnelling facade and the razor teeth of the upper-tier come flooding into view you really are half-expecting some green, one-eyed, eight-handed creatures to stumble across the car park. But don’t let the futuristic looks fool you. The stadium hasn’t been fully renovated for 30 years. And this is where the magic lies. San Siro manages to marry old and new, authenticity and freshness. It is, for FTT, having also visited the Camp Nou (it’s only other feasible rival), the greatest stadium on the planet.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to visit Milan, have a tour of the San Siro and also watch an Inter Milan game there. If anyone knows anything about the San Siro, it is that it is one of the few stadiums in Europe shared by two clubs- two giants, at that. How they manage it, is somewhat fascinating. AC Milan and Inter Milan have long shared a fierce, bitter local rivalry, dating back to the years of Giuseppe Meazza- arguably the greatest Italian footballer of all time who made the controversial switch from Inter to Milan (and whom the stadium is formally named after). The contrasting philosophies between the two sides is most starkly portrayed in, well, quite an unlikely place: the changing rooms. Milan’s holds 23 leather-decked thrones, reminding each individual their privilege and importance of playing for the club, valuing the talent and power of an individual very highly. When you think of Milan, you think of Rijkarrd, Van Basten, Baresi, Maldini, Gullet, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Cafu. Inter, though, opt for the simple bench, emitting teamwork, squad chemistry and bonding.

And the Nerazurri were doubtless the more successful club in the start of the 19th century, winning 3 Serie A’s and 1 Coppa Italia in the 1930’s but over time the honours have evened themselves out, with both clubs now tied on 30 domestic trophies, and a few memorable spells of pure dominance. For Milan it was their back-to-back European cup wins in the late 80’s under the legendary Arrigo Sacchi, while Inter fans will never forget winning four league titles on the trot between 2006 and 2010, polished off with an emphatic treble under Mourinho in the final year.

It seems ludicrous that these two heavyweights don’t hold a stadium of their own, which they used to, in fact. Inter used to play their home matches at a ground called Arena Civica while Milan were at the San Siro. In 1935, though, Milan sold the stadium to the city council, who felt it necessary to bolster the size of the ground and improve the facilities as football became a real fashion, and was beginning to globalise. Inter played their first game in the San Siro in 1945, and although the stadium has gone under multiple renovations, they still share it to this day. Indeed, there is much hassle.

Inter ultras at the San Siro.

Decorations are completely changed weekly, fixture lists have to be meticulously planned (one team home, the other away), and then you have to go about satisfyng both sets of ‘ultras’ (groups of hardcore, Italian fans), which is by no means a simple task. Yet, after 30 years of practice, the transition is seamless and, for me anyway, San Siro is somewhat otherworldly in the way that such a gigantic monument can morph into it’s polar opposite so frequently.

You sometimes forget how different football can be just 800 miles away. I was dismayed by the smoking permitted at matches, taken aback by the noise and passion of the ultras (which makes the Lower Bridgford End at the City Ground look like a family stand), and having played against an Italian side and also having watched two youth Inter matches (one of which being a feisty Milan derby), noticing the pre-match clapping for the parents who have brought them there was admirable to say the least. The visit to Milan reminded FTT of the sheer beauty of football, the way it brings all corners of life together, the contrasting cultures, the diversity- a game where everyone can find their place. Oh, and by the way, Pepperoni pizza is really not what you think it is in Italy.

Yes, Pepperoni pizza is red peppers on pizza.