No-one in the JCR TV room is a Fulham supporter, but that doesn’t seem to matter. With an almost nonchalant flick of his trailing right heel, Diego Forlan has just driven a stake into our neutral-turned-fanatic hearts. Atletico Madrid close out the final 5 minutes of an entrancing extra-time period, clinching the inaugural Europa League with the most gut-wrenchingly tight 2-1 victory. Fulham’s travelling cohort of celebrity followers struggle to contain themselves, too: Lily Allen is openly sobbing, Hugh Grant spills his beer in frustration, and owner Mohammed Al-Fayed looks like a man who’d trade all the money in the world (£1.5 billion from this week’s sale of Harrods, to be exact) for a re-scripted ending to one of the most amazing near-misses in European football history.
There’ll be enough glowing panegyrics in the national press: Roy Hodgson has orchestrated a transformation of truly epic proportions, moulding a Premier League bottom-feeder into continental finalists within 3 years. What a massive shame that a remarkably successful season was not crowned by the club’s very first piece of silverware: to lose a match in such late and crushing circumstances is as brutal as sport gets. Fulham are a small-sized, average-funded top division club- they certainly don’t spend wildly, and rely heavily upon the proven tactical astuteness of their outstanding manager: in short, this Europa League final had all the feel of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the west Londoners. Distraught players litter the post-match pitch in Hamburg like wounded soldiers, men haunted by the immediate spectre of glory unfulfilled. Everything that has been accomplished crumbles to dust, at least for some time, in the wake of plaintive defeat.
Nonetheless, minute-by-minute, kick-by-kick, the trusty band of JCR football regulars watched with increasingly partisan excitement: who doesn’t love an underdog, especially an English one? Before long, even the dangling anvil of looming exams became trivial in the face of Fulham’s outrageous bid for a midweek Spanish conquest- 2 hours of tense sporting drama can provide a much-required distraction from academic demands, if only for its inimitable offer of sheer escapism: Forlan’s late dagger is plunged into JCR spectators across the city.
Fulham, we share your pain. Vicarious viewing is what football is all about, even when your supported team isn’t involved: exult with every goal and die with every defeat. Throw yourself headlong into the operatic theatre of the beautiful game- it’s well worth the emotional investment. Watching football is an under-valued antidote to the stresses of work, and one that will be in plentiful supply over the next few months; with a World Cup on the not-so-distant horizon, we can once again gorge ourselves on the tasty forbidden fruit of exam-season sport. Fingers crossed, then, that England’s South African progress doesn’t inflict too much damage on the Prelims and Finals performances of Oxford’s football-loving population. After all, let’s be honest: who’ll be revising once Rooney & Co. get rolling?