The Cottage becomes a stately home

After a two-year facelift Fulham are back where they belong.
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The Independent Online

Football's come home to Fulham. Yesterday, albeit on a muted note, the Premiership side returned, after a two-season absence, to Craven Cottage by staging a friendly against Watford.

Football's come home to Fulham. Yesterday, albeit on a muted note, the Premiership side returned, after a two-season absence, to Craven Cottage by staging a friendly against Watford.

The attendance of 6,947 was one-third of capacity in a refurbished stadium which can now accommodate just over 22,000, all seated, but the happiness was genuine from supporters who had endured those years of exile at QPR's Loftus Road stadium. At last the Cottage now looks like a Premiership ground should, with covered stands on all four sides, though the cottage itself remains tucked into its corner, the lacy ironwork of the balcony railing freshly whitened.

The improvements cost £7.5 million and were funded, as you might have guessed, by the chairman, Mohamed Al- Fayed, who contributed his thoughts as well as his cash. "I have kept my promise to the fans by taking them home," he said, "but now we need to fill this stadium every game."

The terraces, so familiar from the playing days of Johnny Haynes, Tosh Chamberlain, Bobby Robson and Jimmy Hill, have been replaced by covered stands with executive boxes under the roof at three corners. What are called "the existing covered facilities" have been refurbished, with the newer sections painted in Fulham's basic colours of black and white. The refurbishment extends to the dressing rooms and even the press box, which now boasts desks wide enough for computers rather than, as previously, barely having space for notebook and pencil.

Yesterday's crowd was temporarily capped, under the local council's health and safety regulations, at 11,000, but at such a time of the so-called summer, when we haven't even got as far through the sporting calendar as the Open golf yet, the arrival of football does seem a mite early.

However, for the home friendlies over the next two Saturdays - first Celtic and then Rangers - 22,000 can be packed in, which is just as well given the support the Scottish giants will bring to London.

The return of Fulham fans to their home had brought the hamburger stalls back to the riverside park which lies between Putney Bridge and Craven Cottage. Among the supporters was one small girl whose T-shirt bore the slogan "Cookie's Angel", Cookie being the nickname of Fulham manager, Chris Coleman, who has signed a new rolling contract, along with his assistant, Steve Kean (nicknamed, unsurprisingly, "Keano").

Stevenage Road, outside the Cottage's main entrance, carried the manure deposits of the mounted police patrols, and the jets still whined overhead, homing in on Heathrow. No change there, then.

Although the increase in capacity is a modest one, only 2,000 up, Sarah Brookes, Fulham's head of communications, said: "Our crowds were predominantly around 18,000 before." They were frequently even less during the two-year exile at Loftus Road, when attendances dropped alarmingly as diehard supporters, infuriated by the decision to sell the Craven Cottage site to a property developer, stayed away.

The message was taken in. Fayed bought back the rights to the ground and has done enough to show a decent improvement without riling the sensitivities of the people who live in this residential part of Thamesside London.

"When so many of our supporters appealed to me to return to Craven Cottage, I began to look at ways we could make it possible," he said.

Now the Harrods owner is asking Fulham's supporters: "Prove your support and help us establish Craven Cottage as a formidable place for teams to visit by coming to the ground for every game. The more successful the supporters make the ground, the more likely it is that we will be able to stay there."

Most fans will need no urging to get behind the Cottage, so to speak, and they will appreciate the novelty of having a roof over their heads in all parts of the ground. The cover soon came in handy when, after four minutes of the game yesterday, steady rain set in. The consolation, after the 0-0 bore of multiple substitutions, was that the crowd left in bright sunshine.

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