The pubs throughout Putney were packed last night as I walked across the bridge. Men draped in black and white scarves stared fixedly at widescreen TVs, clutching half-full pint glasses of beer. Across the river the floodlights of Craven Cottage stadium, the near-Hammersmith home to Fulham Football Club, splashed across the water. Inside the stadium thousands of fans watched their team beat Swindon Town. Twenty two grown men chasing a ball around some grass for an hour and a half providing entertainment for those with nothing better to do with their Saturday night. And today the scarves will be blue, around the necks of numerous different fans, as Chelsea FC play down the road in Stamford Bridge, which confusingly is in Fulham.
On match nights the entire area changes. Pubs are rammed full, some often with signs on their doors saying "Chelsea fans only tonight", to avoid messy clashes between "home" and "away" fans. Swarms of people crowd the pavements, spilling on to roads around the stadiums. Outside Stamford Bridge burger vans and flag vendors throng the streets.
A match plays havoc with transport, as roads are closed and both buses and tubes are over-crowded. A Chelsea match diverts my usual No. 14 bus along the New Kings Road, which seizes up with overspill traffic. The District Line tube, notoriously slow at the best of times, becomes a lethargic slug, packed with Chelsea shirt-wearing fans and disgruntled commuters who didn't know there was a match on.
Being in a local pub to watch a football match is an experience in itself. (Pick your pub wisely girls, and you may find an answer to the age-old question "Where have all the good-looking men gone?"!) Bar-takings must double, if not treble, in an evening as people cram into pubs to stand pressed together on sticky floors in the absence of enough seats, yelling and swearing in a surprisingly un-South West London kind of way. As the match progresses the pub gets fuller, and the atmosphere gets more tense, helped along by too much beer and the rising temperature of too many hot bodies.
With the game over most people carry on drinking or spill out into streets to wend their somewhat unsteady way home. Fights are not uncommon, particularly during or after Chelsea games. Nothing as manic or scary as Millwall's matches down in Bermondsey, which, I am assured, by a keen Arsenal fan, are the most terrifying in London. The team has a long-running association with the kind of unsavoury hooliganism and violence that throws the odd Chelsea fracas into sharp relief. That said, however, the police presence during matches at Stamford Bridge is significant. They appear on foot, on horse-back, in mini-buses with riot guards across the windows, lining the pavements, and keeping a close eye on ticket touts and potential drunken trouble-makers alike. One of the Accidental housemates worked for a while above Fulham Broadway tube station, and reported stepping over a sizable blood puddle outside her office the morning after a particularly tense final match.
The Fulham fans, with their picturesque riverside stadium, appear to cause much less trouble; they at least warrant a far less evident police staffing schedule. Maybe it is the different area, and its different local supporters. I have a theory that the long walk back along the calm Thames after the game, through the gardens of Bishop's Park, lowers the raised blood pressures and soothes the over-excitement. The ever-flowing river provides a reminder for the departing fans of time moving on. More matches will follow, there are more chances to win and lose. Teams will move up and down the league tables each season until the end of football itself. Life goes on. It is only a game...