Fulham is the oldest of London’s first class clubs and its long history began back in 1879 with some Sunday-school boys knocking a ball around on a long-forgotten park pitch. All a far cry from the international stars who make up the Premier League team of today.
Seventeen years later, when the first game was played at Craven Cottage, the symbiotic relationship between Club and ground was forged. More than almost any other club Fulham has become synonymous with its home, and the battle to stay there has been a dominant feature of Club affairs on numerous occasions during Fulham’s history.
Fulham’s history has, at times, been a genuine “Who’s Who” of football folklore and the roll call underpins the achievement of the Club through the years. England captain Johnny Haynes, one of the most gifted players of his generation, spent his entire first class career at Fulham between 1952 and 1970. The original Maestro, Haynes made the unprecedented steps of becoming the first footballer to earn £100 a week.
However, the list does not stop there. Playing alongside Haynes in Fulham’s last top-flight side of the 60s was another one-club man, England World Cup winner George Cohen. And to this day it can still be claimed that England have never won the World Cup without the contribution of a Fulham player.
Fulham has long been renowned for discovering promising young talent that has progressed to win major honours elsewhere. Alan Mullery (Tottenham & England), Rodney Marsh (QPR, Manchester City & England), and Allan Clarke (Leeds & England) all came to prominence with Fulham.
Bobby Robson has achieved success at the highest level in four countries over five decades and it all began, for him, as a 17 year-old at Craven Cottage in 1950. More recently Ray Houghton (Liverpool, Aston Villa & Ireland), Paul Parker (Manchester United & England) and Tony Gale (West Ham & Blackburn) all forged their careers at Fulham before moving on to play in Championship-winning sides.
In addition to being a springboard for many blossoming futures, Fulham has been home to numerous legends in the autumn of their footballing lives. Mullery returned to Craven Cottage in 1972 and linked up with the legendary Bobby Moore, another of the World Cup-winning XI, to don the black and white.
Together, Moore and Mullery guided Fulham through a record 11 matches to reach the 1975 FA Cup Final. Unfortunately, Moore’s former employers West Ham got the better of his new team at Wembley. A year after the Cup final another old boy returned to join forces with a legend in his twilight years when Rodney Marsh and George Best signed. They were both past their best, however the entertainment factor was at a premium.
Despite the FA Cup Final and the star-studded line-ups of the 70s, it is the 60s that are viewed as the sepia-tinted halcyon days in Fulham’s post-war history. The reason is pretty straight forward – between 1959 and 1968 the banks of the Thames were home to top-flight football. This was the era of Craven Cottage crowds exceeding 30,000, the era of regular visits from the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. But Fulham’s existence in the old First Division was often precarious. Never pushing higher than mid-table, it was only the threat of relegation that forced Fulham to raise their game.
By May 1968 Fulham had ridden their luck once too often and the sultry 27 points on the board made relegation unavoidable. “The real reason why Fulham have never won the League Championship is that we could never work up enough speed. That’s why we’ve dropped back into the Second Division – to get a longer run at it,” quipped Fulham’s music hall Chairman of the time, Tommy Trinder. The rabble-rousing comment may have been uttered in a light-hearted attempt to keep spirits up, but the reality of the matter is that the run-up he spoke of took 33 years.
Top flight Return?
In stark contrast to the relative stability of life in the top flight in the 60s, the ground beneath Craven Cottage constantly shifted as Fulham bobbed between the old Second and Third Divisions. Malcolm Macdonald’s young Fulham side of the early 80s looked to be the ray of sunshine the Club so desperately craved and were touted by many as the best Fulham team since the 60s. However, two consecutive promotions in twelve months were denied at the final hurdle as Fulham threw away their last genuine attempt to regain top-flight status until the arrival of Mohamed Al Fayed.
The Dark Years
As the face of football changed, so too did the disparity between the have’s and the have nots, and mounting financial pressures led to the premature break up of this side which inevitably triggered a major downward spiral in Fulham’s fortunes.
In the meantime, as the Club passed between a succession of owners, all with their sights firmly set on the real estate value of the ground, the fight to remain at Craven Cottage intensified. By this time Fulham Football Club had been at the heart of the community for one hundred years.
As a selection of ground share options and residential developments that threatened the very survival of the Club were tossed around, it was the mettle of an alliance of supporters, led by former Fulham player and TV pundit Jimmy Hill, who ensured that Fulham Football Club would not be displaced from Craven Cottage.
Hitting Rock Bottom
As battles were fought and won in the board room, the gradual slide on the pitch continued until Fulham hit the football basement in 1994. In January 1996 the situation hit absolute rock bottom. Home gates were averaging a meagre 4000.
The Club had less than 1000 season ticket holders, and employed only seven full time staff. In a bid to stem spiralling debt, the team trained on Epsom Downs and, so the story goes, one infamous training drill involved circuits of a park bench!
Relegation to Non-League Football?
In January 1996 Fulham travelled to Torquay United who were bottom of the entire Football League. Fulham were second from bottom, the Club’s lowest ever League position. Fulham lost. For many it was the blackest day in the entire history of the Club. Staring non-league football right in the face, Fulham Football Club in its traditional guise was also staring at the prospect of extinction. Such a far cry from the days of Haynes, Cohen et al.
Rising from the Ashes
But Fulham Football Club was too much a part of the football establishment to slip away into the abyss, and this was at the forefront of former player Micky Adams’ mind when he assumed control of team affairs in 1996. Steering the ailing side out of the danger zone, he secured Fulham’s future as a Football League club before embarking on a comeback campaign the following season. Fulham finished 1996/97 in second place in Division Three – the Club’s first promotion in 15 years, achieved solely on spirit, hard work and determination.
The Al Fayed Era
Mohamed Al Fayed’s glorious tenure as Chairman of Fulham Football Club began in 1997 when Fulham were on the brink of obscurity. Racked with debt the Club required a saviour and following his takeover of the Club, Al Fayed promised the fans a return to the top-flight of English football within five years and a remarkable turnaround in the Club’s fortunes commenced.
Al Fayed’s Fulham blazed a trail through the lower divisions and by 2001 the Whites secured their place amongst the elite, securing their place in the Premier League with a record-breaking points tally as Champions of Division 1.
Fulham’s success under Al Fayed’s stewardship has been mirrored by the development of the Club off the pitch. A stunning Training Ground in Surrey provides the team’s management and staff with state of the art facilities and The Chairman’s redevelopment of Craven Cottage has provided the fans with a home to be proud in an exquisite Thames side setting.
Despite his considerable business interests the Chairman retains a hands on approach to Fulham and demonstrated his intuitive decision making once again in January 2008, installing Roy Hodgson as Manager as Fulham teetered on the brink of relegation. The Whites went on to record a stunning run of results and secure their top flight future against the odds.
The following season saw Club history made as the Whites recorded their highest ever league finish, ending the season in 7th position and qualifying for the inaugural UEFA Europa League. The 2009/10 campaign saw yet more success as Fulham reached the Final of the Europa League, beating the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg en route. Unfortunately Fulham narrowly lost a tense battle against Atletico Madrid in the final minutes of extra time.
The following campaign saw the Whites continue to consolidate their status as a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League as some fine form in the second half of the season saw the Club end 2010/11 in eighth place in the league.
A managerial change followed as Martin Jol brought his Dutch style of attacking play to Craven Cottage. The brand of free-flowing football was a joy to behold and Whites fans witnessed the first ever Premier League hat-trick scored by a Fulham player when Andrew Johnson bagged a treble in a 6-0 routing of local rivals Queens Park Rangers. Jol’s men certainly knew where the back of the net was in the 2011/12 season, as Clint Dempsey and Pavel Pogrebnyak would also collect the match ball for their contributions in a 5-2 win over Newcastle and a 5-0 victory over Wolves, respectively.
The Chairman’s commitment to Fulham Football Club remains as strong as ever and has been highlighted by the considerable investment he has made over the past ten years. It is impossible to say where the Club would be now without Mohamed Al Fayed, but it’s equally impossible to imagine that any alternative realistic scenario could have brought more joy and progress.