Just hours before Crusaders FC were to take on Fulham in the Europa League 2nd Qualifying Round, 1st leg, it finally sunk in that our beloved semi pro team on the Shore Road were going to be pitting their resolve and skills against the pressures, athleticism and fitness of a fully pro mid table English Premier League side. It was a two legged tie between English Premier League and Irish Premier League - Elite Professionals vs Part Time Semi-professionals.
The first leg was at the newly revamped Seaview Stadium. It was Crusaders first competitive game of the season and the anticipation and excitement of a Premier League team coming to Belfast had the crowd really up for the game. And it really was a Premier League Fulham side that was fielded - not just a reserve team.
Up front were Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora, a midfield of Damien Duff, Danny Murphy, Kerim Frei (reserve team player) and Dickson Etuhu. In defence, Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes, Matthew Briggs (another reserve player breaking through) and to complete the outfield line-up, one of the best defenders in the Premiership - Brede Hangeland. Just when you think that's probably enough, in goal was Austrailian international goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. A subs bench featuring Philippe Senderos, David Stockdale, Stephen Kelly and Steve Sidwell was also a little daunting.
To put the strength of that side in context - 8 out of the 11 that were on from the kick off at Seaview also started in Hamburg when Fulham played Atlético Madrid in the Europa League final in 2010.
The Crues were up against it... especially when you consider the fact that 3 of our first team were unavailible; Chris Morrow and Declan Caddell through injury and Colin Coates through suspension.
We had called into the social club before the game and so found the now all seater stadium pretty much full up and an eagerly anticipating crowd awaiting the start of the game.
The ground was looking great and the scene set for a memorable evening of football at Seaview.
Before the action started the 2 new stands were opened by well known supporters and a plethora of balloons released into the evening sky.
After the now traditional line of handshaking by the players and officials and a brief pause to kick off on time for the TV cameras it was all down to the players on the pitch - and for the Crues, some of those players had only finished their day jobs hours before the game, about to take on a fully rested Fulham side whose starting line up's combined wages for just a week or two would likely fund the entirety of an Irish League club's existence for a year or more.
Here are the highlights from the 1st leg:
As you can see in the highlights, it wasn't all one way traffic. Six minutes before half time the Crues went a goal down to a great finish by Briggs but in the 2nd half, rather than roll over, the Crues came out and pressed, it paid dividends for on 54 minutes, Timmy Adamson looped and twisted his way past Aaron Hughes just enough to get a shot in which pinged in off the post. I don't think I've been happier about a goal since Mark Dickson scored the winner in the 2009 Irish cup final, or the Jermaine Beckford goals scored for Leeds against Man United in the FA Cup and another against Bristol Rovers that won Leeds promotion back to the Championship.
With nothing to lose the Crues went on the attack again, Stuart Dallas breezed his way into the box but a split moment before being able to release the ball was struck with cramp, before succumbing to it he was able to lay the ball into the path of Adamson again who struck the ball at the net. Schwarzer beaten, it was like watching in slow motion to see where the ball would go. Sadly on this occasion the ball hit the crossbar and flew back into play, the chance had gone but we'll all remember the time the Crues had the Fulham first team and the crossbar shaken.
That shake was a wake up call though and the Fulham players began to raise their game. We knew set pieces were going to be a problem given Hangerland tends to get on the end of corners against English Premier League opposition and at 1.94m tall dwarfed even our tallest striker Jordan Owens who was given the unenviable task of trying to mark him in those instances. In the end, it was Bobby Zamora who got onto the end of a Damien Duff corner to force the ball home with a powerful header. The game was then put to bed by the pros when Danny Murphy stepped up to put a penalty into the bottom corner of the net after an unlucky handball in the box by Paul Leeman.
In the last 10 minutes the Crues were hanging on but that was understandable given the fact our players have day jobs that don't involve preparing to play football.
We stayed long enough after the final whistle to see a few interviews being performed on the pitch - including a slightly relieved looking Martin Jol talking to the cameras.
A 1-3 loss at full time doesn't sound like much success but considering that Fulham with a similar side beat Sunderland 0-3 away in the premier league earlier this year and in domestic cups, swept aside lower league opposition, we were very proud of our side's achievement of not being overwhelmed. For 70 minutes they were able to give the multimillionaires of the Fulham side a run for their money.
Fast forward a week and it was the 21st July, the date for the away leg.
After a long day sightseeing in the centre of London, we made it to Fulham, got checked into our then headed out for food and drink. Time flew and before we knew it we were walking with the crowds through Bishops Park towards Craven Cottage.
Outside it was great to see so many Crues fans had also made the journey and that there was no segregation, home and away fans just mingling outside the ground like at Seaview the week before. I bought my programme and we found our entrance. I got searched twice, once either side of the turnstile which was novel but the security were polite and friendly. The stand we were in was the Johnny Haynes stand (formerly the Stevenage Road Stand), the structure according to the Fulham site is a grade 2 listed building. Once we'd got sorted, had a look around and Norngirl had got her coffee, we headed up into the stand.
It wasn't really the same instant impressive sight that you'd get walking out at say Elland Road or The City of Manchester Stadium but it was nice to be walking out into a top flight football league ground once again. I'd never been to Craven Cottage before so it was all new to me (except what I'd seen on TV) and I was intrigued to see the Cottage itself which sits in the corner of the ground. It kind of reminded me of the control tower that used to sit in the corner at Highbury, but of course much more historic and pleasant on the eye.
The view from our seats was ok but we couldn't even see the top of the end stands so it made it feel quite contained and closed off from the rest of the ground. The view we had of one of the penalty boxes was obscured by one of the stand's roof supports which is understandable (as many grounds have the same problem) but it does make watching the goal mouth action that little bit more frustrating compared to the clear unobstructed views of most modern stands. I did like the wooden seats, not the most comfortable but not the worst I've ever sat on given that their design is at least 100 years old and people on average were smaller back then.
The compact nature of the stand however did seem to add to the noise we were generating and the whole game long there was barely a moment that the Crues support didn't sing.
Once the game itself kicked off, it was as expected a little more one sided than our home leg. The first half had few chances really, Fulham had a lot of possession and went ahead after 18 minutes through Andrew Johnson who burst through the defence to slot home. Fulham should have gone further ahead through Steve Sidwell but he put his chance wide and then for the Crues Timmy Adamson got a little too much on our best chance and put it over the bar.
The 2nd half started well, the Crues got forward a couple of times but up against a strong defence it was hard for the Crues to form any clear cut chances though. Once Fulham had their 2nd goal though it was one way traffic for a good 15 minutes and this resulted in 2 more goals, Fulham winning the game 4-0 and the tie 7-1 on aggregate.
As the teams headed off the pitch, spirits were still high and we sang our side off with the verve you'd expect from a support who had just seen their side win. If you'd just entered the ground 30 seconds after the final whistle and didn't know the score you'd probably have thought Fulham had lost. As it was, being there and competing against the likes of a Premier League side was a level of success everyone at Crusaders was proud of, including manager Stephen Baxter who came into the stand to join us. We didn't expect to get a positive result from either game, we just hoped the side would do us proud and they did. 7 against over 2 legs given the calibre of player Martin Jol fielded wasn't too bad and best of all we had our memorable moment with our goal and knowledge that we didn't just sit back for 180 minutes, that was worth cheering.
Here are the highlights from the 2nd Leg:
As we headed back in the dark through Bishops Park we could look back on a memorable couple of games and hope, that if the Crues can continue to do well domestically, that there could be the possibility of more chances to play against sides from the big leagues in the future.