Back to the Cottage….

17/10/16

Everyone’s favourite away journey of the year is upon us, Fulham. We always win there, right? Ok, maybe not, but Ffion Thomas wants to tell you a little bit about what makes the ground so unique and adorable…. They say you can prove anything with statistics, and never is that more true than with the […]

Everyone's favourite away journey of the year is upon us, Fulham. We always win there, right? Ok, maybe not, but Ffion Thomas wants to tell you a little bit about what makes the ground so unique and adorable....
They say you can prove anything with statistics, and never is that more true than with the statement that a trip to Craven Cottage is a prospect that strikes fear into the heart of any Norwich fan. Our record there in the last five years reads as follows: Played five, lost five. Goals for: 1 (thanks Aaron Wilbraham); goals against: 12.

For my sins, I was at all of these games. I even went to see our U21s there once, to see if they could fare any better. They lost too. I've not even got on to that day in May 2005 that we don't talk about. The last time we won there was over 30 years ago. That's even longer than Ipswich's current stretch in the Championship, so you know it's been aaaaages.

But following your team away is never something done solely in pursuit of three points. If it were, we'd have given up long ago - probably on that day in May 2005, in fact. It's also about visiting a new city, a new set of pubs, a new ground. Of course, your mood on the way home might be primarily dependent on points, or pints, or both, but when the raw elation or seethe - depending on whichever way that last minute goal went - subsides, there are plenty of other sources of enjoyment to be had from the day out.

According to American sports geographer Karl Raitz and colleagues, one of the key sources of this gratification spectators experience from attending sporting events is the location in which they take place. In the 1995 book 'The Theater of Sport', it is posited that when you attend an event, it's not only the sport you're watching, but also your interaction with the landscape around you - be it a football ground, racetrack or golf course - that contributes to your overall experience.

Their theory is that the more complex this 'landscape ensemble' is - the more different or unexpected elements it contains - the greater the level of gratification the spectator will attain. At the other end of the scale, simple landscape ensembles - where the sporting venue and its environment have few distinctive elements - engender low levels of gratification.

Think of your favourite football grounds, and I predict it's those with the more complex landscape ensembles that will be near the top of your list. Goodison Park is one of mine: I love the approach through labyrinthine terraced streets with blue-painted front doors; the Main Stand opposite the away end with its top tier teetering uncertainly as if on stilts; St Luke's Church peeking through the far corner. Walk along Penistone Road in Sheffield and see the exposed, tree-studded hill that gives rise to Hillsborough's gargantuan Kop, its contours conquered by the winding steps up which fans navigate its summit. Look out from the away section at St James' Park - once you've got your breath back - and the city stretches out, the arch of the Tyne Bridge, the North Sea. These are images that imprint on the mind, and none of them could be mistaken for anywhere else.

Think now about your least favourite football grounds (Portman Road aside) and I'll venture it's the more simple landscapes that dominate. Two that I've no burning desire to return to are Colchester United's Community Stadium and Reading's Madejski Stadium. There's not a single distinguishing feature to their architecture, and out on a limb surrounded by dual carriageways, there's no sense of even what town you're in. You could be anywhere - they're placeless.

Considering it with emotional detachment I think Carrow Road does pretty well with its landscape ensemble, and not just because we've got a hilarious rotating big screen. Sit at the back of the Jarrold Stand and scan your eyes from right to left beyond the City Stand for a box-ticking exercise of the city's landmarks. The soaring spire of Norwich Cathedral; the iconic clock tower of City Hall; the unconquerable fortress that is Norwich Castle; the 1960s splendour of Normandie Tower (ahem). It's indisputably our city and our stadium.

Were it still with us, The Nest, with its precarious cliff-face terracing and sheer concrete walls at the touchline, would surely have been Raitz's quintessential case study; the most complex sporting landscape of all.

It's easy to forget that, like The Nest, Craven Cottage could so easily be a thing of the past. In the 1970s and 80s, debt-stricken Fulham had a string of owners whose motivations for owning a club with a home ground located on several acres of West London riverside real estate were not exactly altruistic. The impending shadow of bulldozers persisted, until in 1996 the club obtained permission for partial redevelopment maintaining the site for football. With Mohamed Al Fayed's takeover a year later enabling the ground's purchase, the Cottage's future was seemingly secure.

Or was it? The rejuvenated club had shot through the divisions, but perhaps too quickly; the stadium failed the Premier League's all-seater requirements. Flirting with the prospect of a move elsewhere, a two-year exile at Loftus Road ensued. The 'Back to the Cottage' campaign saw fans successfully demand commitment to their home, with the new-look stadium reopening in 2004.

This quick fix is why the Putney End, where away fans are housed, has always felt so perilously temporary. While as Norwich fans we've not had much opportunity to test its foundations, I stood in there for a Europa League game against Wisla Krakow in 2011 alongside several thousand pogoing, piwo'd-up Poles, and just about lived to tell the tale.

How is it, then, that this highly desirable plot has survived as a football ground through decades of London property boom, while countless other clubs across the country, similarly riddled with debt and outdated infrastructure but sited in far less salubrious surroundings, have sold up and moved out? The ins and outs are both nuanced and lengthy, but a key factor underpinning the commitment of both club and fans to Craven Cottage seems to be what Raitz talks about; the high levels of gratification that such a complex landscape ensemble generates.

So what makes Craven Cottage so good? First of all, it's the getting there; stroll from Putney Bridge through pleasant and leafy Bishop's Park and you'll eventually come across the stadium up against the banks of the Thames. Very evocative, although such proximity has its drawbacks; when a bitterly cold wind blows off the river into the away end (January 2014, FA Cup Third Round Replay, Fulham 3-0 Norwich), you're more exposed than our defence that night. But when it's the first day of the season, the sun is beating down, and you're filled with optimism and expectation (August 2012, Premier League, Fulham 5-0 Norwich)...ah. You end up watching the activity on the boat club's jetty instead, and wondering why you thought this time it would be any different.

Enough nostalgia. This is a stadium that features not one, but two Grade II listed buildings, designated in 1987 as part of the fight against developers. The Stevenage Road Stand is a rare surviving example of architect Archibald Leitch's work. Built in 1905, it has barely changed since, save for a sympathetic refurbishment of the roof, maintaining the fine centre gable, and the installation of seats in the paddock terrace. It looks even better from the street, the red brickwork and decorative cartouches cleaned up to good effect in recent years. The English Heritage documentation notes the distinctiveness of the facade in being 'a conscious attempt to give ornate treatment to a building type which was usually austere and functional'.

The other listed building, and the stadium's pi`ece de r'esistance, is of course the 'cottage' in the corner. The original and eponymous Craven Cottage was a royal hunting lodge on this spot destroyed by fire in 1888; six years later, representatives of the nomadic Fulham club identified the abandoned site as a possible new home. Leitch designed this pavilion as an afterthought, when he realised he'd forgotten to put any changing rooms in his adjacent stand. Those are still the ones used today, and players' guests are granted access to watch matches from the three-row balcony with its ornate cast-iron balustrade.

And what have we got? A Holiday Inn.

Whatever your thoughts on Fulham as a club, their home is a stadium steeped in history and individuality, and it's to be celebrated that such a place has survived the many threats to its existence.

If you've a few minutes to spare on the way to the game (insert your own District Line joke here), walk to the ground down Finlay Street for an iconic approach that's barely changed in 110 years. The painted pavilion wall announcing this as the home of 'The Fulham Football Club'; the Stevenage Road Stand's ornate frontage; a sentry line-up of narrow brick turnstiles.

The scene is set; now to break the curse.

You can follow Ffion on Twitter @ffion_

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