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In search of the full-on Fulham experience

LONDON, England -- There are moments, sublime moments, when spectators sitting in the Johnny Haynes Stand at Craven Cottage can look to the far corners of the ground -- where the squared grandstands fail to meet -- and see straight through to the Thames. The river fairly well glistens on sunny spring afternoons like the one some friends and I spent in late March, watching Fulham FC and its sizeable American contingent of players and fans salvage a 1-1 draw with visiting Portsmouth. Through these gaps in the stadium seating, one spies Putney on the far bank before yet another eight sculls in and out of the V-shaped frame -- a window, however small and diversionary, on why Fulham is one of the Premiership's most compelling clubs.

American soccer fans might not know Fulham Football Club from Scunthorpe United if the two shared the same lower division and the same dearth of Yanks on their rosters. But Fulham does play in the Premiership -- for now -- and the club has made a habit of buying up American talent on the cheap, to the point where Craven Cottage has become ground zero for U.S. soccer fans heading to London to check on our boys.

That was our charge in late March: To stop merely scouring the Internet for the odd mention of Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey. To "just go" and see them in person, while sampling those venues where would-be Fulham fans might eat, drink and be merry on either side of Putney Bridge.

We didn't arrive in South London expecting to watch the club fight for its Premiership life, but as it turned out, our late-March visit would prove the club's last carefree weekend of the season. Having won only twice since Dec. 18, the Cottagers followed their draw vs. Portsmouth with two successive defeats. Coach Chris Coleman would be sacked April 11, replaced by Lawrie Sanchez, and Fulham's precarious position (just four points above the drop zone) set the stage for a harrowing three weeks.

None of this appeared possible just two weeks prior, when we alighted our District Line train into the spring sunshine. A quick, intuitive look at the London Underground map might lead one to exit The Tube at Fulham Broadway, but that's miles away. Putney Bridge Station is your best point of departure -- your gateway to the ground itself, a fine bunch of pubs and the folks who comprise Fulham Nation.

This tidy neighborhood on the north bank of the Thames has everything you need for prematch entertainment. The closest pub to the Tube stop, however, the Eight Bells, is one designated for away fans. So don't show up there in your Brian McBride replica shirt. The day we happened by, still some two hours before kickoff, Portsmouth fans had spilled out onto the surrounding sidewalk eight deep and there were dozens of policemen about, mounted and otherwise, to keep an eye on them.

We didn't venture into the Bells. Too crowded. But we did, as clear Fulham backers, enjoy a pint and some pleasant chat with several Pompey fans in the Temperance, formerly known as the Pharaoh & Firkin, another de facto "visitors" pub serving Craven Cottage. Just that day, rumors were swirling that Michael Dell, of Dell Computer fame, was angling to buy Fulham F.C. (word of Wal-Mart billionaire Stan Kroenke's new 9.9 percent stake in Arsenal emerged a week later). One Portsmouth supporter, Paul, politely bemoaned the fact that Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks had already purchased Liverpool, Randy Lerner had snapped up Aston Villa, and Malcolm Glazer had assumed control of Manchester United (against the club's will). "We didn't think you Americans even liked proper football," Paul said with a wry smile.

The best Fulham pub in this village is The Golden Lion, directly across Fulham High Street from the Temperance and teeming with locals. Gameday spreads are often served up gratis; the big screen beckons for those without tickets; there's always someone at the bar ready, willing and able to talk Fulham footy; and, if you don't fancy the menu's standard meat and potatoes, you'll find a great little curry house (India Cottage) right next door. What's more, there's an official Fulham supporters shop just around the corner.

There's also The Larrick here for fans in need of another pint option but, truth be told, the best Fulham pubs are located across the river, on the south bank. Just over Putney Bridge -- the very span featured as a shotgun-dump in the film "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" -- and up a quiet side street sits The Bricklayer's Arms, an old-fashioned, off-the-high-street, football-supporting, still-pulling-proper-pints public house if there ever was one. Another sign of its legitimacy? No TV. If you're a purist, they reckon, you're at the game and the other fixtures simply don't matter.

One Fulham supporter, John from Reading, explained to us that several "football" pubs on both sides have actually gone away of late, and not necessarily for lack of support: "What they've done with a lot of these pubs -- The Cottage is a good example -- is they'll rip out the insides and turn them into nice, gentrified dining pubs. All the clientele disappear; of course, all the football fans. A good British business model that. Get a load of Ikea furniture and there you go, you've got an empty pub. Well done."

Rest assured, plenty remain. The Whistle & Flute, Half Moon and Coat & Badge -- each another block or so inland from the Thames -- are all cracking pubs where, if you show up wearing FFC scarves, you'll be among friends. But The Brick is the choice here for atmosphere, beer selection (pulled pints of Taylor's; try the Landlord) and camaraderie.

There is no tailgate scene here. All that social energy is funneled into these local pubs, where the home club and its fortunes are dissected, lauded and bemoaned -- en masse, by turn and according to a predictable fixture list. One Fulham supporter at The Brick summed it up quite neatly: "It's a social life that I don't have to organize."

[Editor's note: Part II of this series explores Craven Cottage itself and details how the club's American players have been received by the Fulham faithful.]

Hal Phillips is a journalist and media consultant based in New Gloucester, Maine.