As Manchester United winger Nani lined up the penalty that would put his team out of reach in the dying moment of the match, my thoughts were on something else. How the hell were we going to get out of the stadium without causing a riot?
The stadium went quiet. Nani began his run up, kicked the football and, at exactly the point where the ball hit the goalkeeper’s gloved hand, the crowd exploded back into life.
Moments later, Fulham grabbed a late equaliser in the last minute of play. The final score: Manchester United 2, Fulham 2.
But I wasn’t safe yet. And neither were my three mates – all of us Kiwis living in London, all of us at our first ever football match in the United Kingdom.
You see, we had the ultimate prize. A prize so, um, prized that as soon as we caught it we immediately hid it and never spoke about it again for the remainder of the match for fear that someone would rip it from us.
Oh yes, sports fans, we had a match ball.
To a an outsider – as I was then – hooligans, riots and football-related violence are seemingly as synonymous with English football as Wayne Rooney’s ugly mug, David Beckham’s considerably nicer one and that one World Cup victory way back in 1966 (not to rub it in or anything).
So, with our precious cargo wrapped up in our jerseys in a plastic bag, we slowly made our way out of Craven Cottage, Fulham’s home ground, careful to not make eye contact with each other or the other Fulham fans.
I looked back and, sure enough, the people who were sitting immediately behind us were searching nearby seats for any sign of the ball.
It wasn’t until we were nearly home – a 30-odd minute walk from Craven Cottage – that we finally unveiled our match ball. And when we got home to our Putney flat it took pride of place on one of the couches – much to the chagrin of our respective partners, who were just jealous anyway.
As far as first football matches go, surely it doesn’t get much better than that. A tense and exciting Premier League match between the most famous sports team in the world and my local club, a last minute penalty, a big score line, and a souvenir.
I realise now, of course, that we were supposed to throw the ball back on to the field. (Whoops!)
How to avoid an English football riot
Like any good sports-mad antipodean living in South West London – as I did between 2008 and 2012 – I have been to several football matches since – although none were as exciting as this first one.
Also it’s worth noting that I’ve yet to encounter any form of football-related violence or hooliganism whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong; it is definitely a problem in English football. Sometimes the beautiful game can get ugly.
But with a bit of common sense it’s a fairly easy problem to avoid. So, if you’re considering going to a football match in the UK, I’ll leave you now with a few simple tips to avoid getting into any riots.
Don’t sit in the away stand if you support the home team (or vice versa), avoid local derbies between heated local rivals with a history of conflict and, finally, avoid any and all Millwall matches. Seriously, you do not want to mess with Millwall.