It’s 7pm on June 30th, precisely one month after Swansea’s play-off final triumph over Reading heralded the close of the season. Hoards of football fans flow out of Putney Bridge station, some adorned with white shirts, some carrying beers, but all looking distinctly out of season. The reason is simple: Fulham host NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands in the first leg of the first qualifying round of the Europa League and the 2011-2012 season is officially underway.
I’m joined by my friend and fellow Gillingham supporter Alex who seems to be the only person in mid-summer wearing a scarf. The scarf, he explains, represents Just Can’t Beat That, a website and collection of non-Swiss supporters who follow FC Luzern. Perhaps Gillingham, FC Luzern and NSI Runavik are the new holy trinity of teams to follow. Or perhaps he’s just naturally attracted to mediocre teams.
We join the away congregation in Craven Cottage’s Johnny Haynes Stand. By congregation, I mean a collective of at most a hundred Runavik fans – of which we, as curious outsiders, are very much the outsiders amidst a welcoming gathering of Faroese.
New Fulham manager Martin Jol’s team selection is clearly risk averse. Mark Schwarzer, Brede Hangeland, Danny Murphy, Damien Duff and Bobby Zamora all feature in an almost comically over-strength side. By contrast, Runavik’s most famous name is Christian Høgni Jacobsen, a player with an amazing strike rate at domestic level and barely a goal to his name internationally.
The gulf in class is evident almost from kick-off. Fulham – who qualified via UEFA’s ‘Respect Fair Play’ route – dominate possession, while Runavik’s limited forays into the opposition half are usually halted by the industrious presence of Dickson Etuhu. The Runavik fans celebrate their few half chances with panache. As the clock ticks to the twenty minute mark and then thirty, Jol must be growing restless. Despite the strength of his starting line-up, there’s not much flair on the bench; Jonathan Greening looks the most likely candidate should he need a substitute to unlock Runavik’s compact formation. But pretty much immediately, Duff puts the finishing touches on a team move to place a shot beyond Runavik’s Hungarian goalkeeper Andras Gango. 1-0.
The Boddington Pleas
At half-time we’re confronted by the surprising sight of a queue to exit the stand. On further investigation, the exit is being blocked by a fan asking a steward where she can buy a beer. Down at the refreshments stand, I ask for a beer. Alex asks for a beer. A man who looks like a Faroese media celebrity asks for a beer. We’re all denied. UEFA, apparently open to any sponsorship that brings some cash in, doesn’t allow the sale of alcohol at Europa League games. The warm cans of Boddingtons behind the counter look appealing for the first and last time.
For the second half, we choose to join the rowdiest row of Runavik supporters. Their chants are mostly variants on what you’d hear at any English ground on any day of the season, the most prominent of which is a repeated N-S-I! The pronunciation of I as ‘Oi!’ provides an edge that’s not quite nihilistic and not quite exotic, yet welcomingly unusual all the same.
Not that there’s much to cheer on the pitch. Fulham repeatedly attempt to breach Runavik’s offside trap and come close almost each time. Gango heroically keeps the score down. His efforts are greeting with their best song: “Gango, Gango, Gango, hey!” followed by a quivering wave of the arms that resembles an octopus’s sprawling tentacles.
But then Simon Davies is fouled in the box and Murphy has little trouble placing the penalty past our new favourite player. 2-0. The response is predictable: “Gango, Gango, Gango, hey!” The NSI fans tell us that they made up the song in the pub last night, being acutely aware that this evening might be a long one for the bald stopper from Győr. Soon enough, Andy Johnson completes the scoring.
From hereon in, the visiting fans opt to make the most of the night and have some fun. They have a peculiar take on goading the opposition. Johnson is mocked with “Andy… Andy…” while Hangeland gets the more creative “Too long!” When Alex yells, “Davies! Did you shag Ryan Giggs too?”, the Runaviks react like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. Davies doesn’t.
Looking livelier than he has in years, Duff runs into space on the left-wing in anticipation of a pass. Desperately calling for it, he makes an otherworldly high-pitched yelp that sounds like a pterodactyl being tortured. For the remainder of the game he’s mercilessly targeted with furious squawks and a particularly compelling impersonation of Duffman from The Simpsons. If only Duffman had been present at half-time…
“Number fifteen: insurance,” says the closest Runavik fan of their midfielder Helgi Petersen. “I’m insurance!” exclaims Alex, although the anticipated high-five doesn’t quite materialise. Given that Runavik’s population is around the 4000 mark, it’s hardly surprising that most people in attendance seem to know someone involved in the game. It is, however, something of a novelty to discover that substitute Andrias Liknargotu’s sister is in our row. We give his brief cameo the most rousing reception that our small contingent can muster.
As the game ebbs away, Fulham almost net a fourth but debutant Lauri Dalla Valle fires over from just a few yards out. “Miss of the season!” hollers a still energetic Runavik fan. It might well be, but the unwanted accolade has ten full months in which to be beaten.