Exile at Boro

Monday 26 August 2002

'It's not over till it's over' is an old maxim but a good one, and the many fans from both sides who left the Riverside before the final whistle on Saturday missed an extraordinary finale to what, for Fulham supporters anyway, had up to then been a pretty ordinary game.

The Sean and Sava Show gave us a point we never looked like getting and Boro' manager Steve McClaren was not the only one in shock as the referee blew for full-time; many of us in the Whites corner could hardly believe what we had just seen. I am still re-running that crazy minute in my mind, and I had to open the Sunday papers to find that it wasn't a dream.

For most of the game it was our defence that looked as leaky as an old sieve. They had an unusual collective off-day, with even Steve Finnan making uncharacteristic errors and Andy Melville having a match he would probably rather forget. Is it mere coincidence, I wonder, that Andy had been on a long, tiring trip to Croatia with Wales in midweek? Managers must hate international friendlies.

At lunchtime on Saturday, wandering the streets of Sunderland, I wondered if I would see the match at all. The latest strike action by Arriva train crews, coupled with a string of misinformation which started in Edinburgh, had left me with a 'connecting' bus which didn't connect at all, and might, if I was lucky, get me somewhere in Middlesbrough by somewhere around 3 o'clock.

But Whites fans are nothing if not resourceful, and four of us persuaded a friendly taxi-driver (a fan himself) to drive us to Middlesbrough. I was pleased to find among the group another Scot, Davie from Dundee. Before we walked up to the ground, Davie and I sorted out a lift over to Darlington at the end of the game. At least we had some chance of getting home.

After 89 minutes I wasn't sure if I wanted to go home. Many of the failings of last season had returned. Far too many hopeful balls punted into the Boro box, a fruitless tactic with Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Southgate easily able to cope and a confident goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, behind them. Our dead-ball delivery was also not threatening enough, and surely we can find someone else to take corners to save poor Steed having to run 100 yards across the pitch when we get two in quick succession? Having another corner-taker might get a bit of variety into the delivery, too.

We played some neat football, but too much of it was in the middle of the park, and I don't remember either Louis or Bob having a real shot on goal. Boa looked good, and also covered back extremely well. His pace and an exceptional tackle in the first half probably saved a goal.

Boro' have invested well in the summer; I can see the Maccarone-Boksic combination, backed by Geremi, Juninho (when fit) and Boateng producing problems for many Premiership defences.

It is to our credit that we never gave up, and the double whammy has produced another classic Gentleman Jim commentary on a par with the Sean Davis winner at Blackburn in March 2001 (and made us equal top scorers in the Prem). But we'll need to be more disciplined at the back on Tuesday, or Bologna will punish us. It would be desperate to get this far in the Inter-Toto and not make it through.

We got our lift to Darlington - where, it seems, the ambitious Third Division club, having failed to net Gazza, might soon be graced by the silky skills of Faustino Asprilla. They have a new stadium but even with Tino might struggle to fill it. It's hard to envisage the Colombian's exotic tricks on display at Boston, Macclesfield and Scunthorpe in front of a couple of thousand diehard fans, but stranger things have happened.

It was good to see Geoff Horsfield taking the field for Birmingham at Arsenal. Geoff becomes one of a select band who have played at every level from the Conference up to the Premiership (by the way, is the tortoise called Horsfield we sponsored at the Zoo still gong?). Neither Brum nor West Brom have made the best of starts and we have the chance to consolidate our own position at The Hawthorns on Saturday.

By then, missing our scheduled midweek game against West Ham, I estimate we could be down to 7th, but a win would keep us well in touch with the top.

And by then I hope and pray we'll be looking forward to the next round of the Uefa Cup. Livingston would be a good draw. They have a nice stadium and an engagingly manic manager in Jim Leishman, who has brought them up the Scottish leagues as rapidly as Fulham have risen in England.

Fulham fans are noted for their loyalty to the club, as shown by the amazing lengths we go to in order to watch our team - and also by the many emails I get, from almost every corner of the globe. The real exiles are out there in South Africa, Russia and the USA, always keeping the faith. Keep them coming - it's great to hear from you all.

I also had an email this week from one of our many new friends in the Far East. A Korean fan sent me a message in the most wonderful fractured English pleading to be put in touch with Junichi Inamoto. 'Think of Beckham and double it' our website says of Ina's status in Japan. He continues to impress on the field and perhaps might get his first start for us on Tuesday.

But fan loyalty at its most passionate is surely shown by a man I heard interviewed on Radio 5 on Saturday morning as I was driving to Edinburgh. He lives in Hampshire, is partially sighted, and supports Queen's Park, the amateur team who play in Glasgow at Hampden. He travels up to every home game, with his guide dog, flying in both directions. Queen's Park are currently 9th of 10 in Scottish Division 3 with just one point from four games. Maybe the dog should get a game....

Roger is always pleased to hear from other fans. You can contact him at roger@smithwalk.demon.co.uk