It is impossible to visit Fulham Football Club without thinking about the history oozing from the walls of Craven Cottage. Situated along the banks of the Thames, it is fitting the club has both sparred with the big boys in the top flight and scrapped with those in the lower echelons of the football league.
The Cottagers date back to 1879, when they were merely an amateur church club. Things stayed this way for 19 years until they became professional, after moving into Craven Cottage two years prior. For the first half-century of their existence, the Whites floundered in the lower tiers of the English football league. When there were just two divisions in the league structure, Fulham were in the bottom for many years after they became a league club. A third division was created in 1920 and the Cottagers were relegated to it just eight seasons later. Although they weren’t in Division three for long, the Londoners didn’t have a taste of top-flight football until 1949 and, even then, it was short lived – just three seasons passed before Fulham were once again outside the top division.
The Golden Era
At the very end of the 1950’s, Fulham were to have their taste of the big time. Duly thought of as ‘The Golden Era’, the west Londoners were playing the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United on a weekly basis, with some of the most gifted players to ever play for the club. The undisputed best was Johnny ‘The Maestro’ Haynes, who played for just the one club throughout his entire career, making over 650 appearances. If you were to ask any player from the fifties and sixties who was the most gifted footballer they shared a pitch with, Haynes would never be far from anyone’s lips.
Throughout the ‘Golden Era’, Fulham were never title challengers, in fact quite the opposite – they were always more concerned with staying in the division, much like their recent history in the Premier League. After a great escape (a word becoming synonymous with the club) when they managed 20 points from the final 26 available to stay up in the 1965/66 season, the Cottagers were eventually sent back to the second tier just two seasons later. Crowds of more than 30,000 were packed into Craven Cottage to witness this decade in Fulham’s history.
33 Years of hurt
After relegation from the first division, the Lilywhites succumbed to another awful season of football and plunged back into the third tier just one year later. The next quarter of a century saw the club yo-yoing between Divisions Two and Three and, in the early nineties – after a league structure re-shuffle – ended up in the fourth tier of English football. In 1996, Micky Adams became manager and he can be credited with the initial revival of the club, taking them back into Division Two.
Fulham icon Jimmy Hill was Chairman back then, before Mohamed Al-Fayed bought the club from him in 1997. Those who thought the outspoken Egyptian mogul was crazy were delighted to be proved right when he revealed his goal – to get Fulham promoted into the Premier League in just five seasons. Doubters were soon eating their words as it ultimately took the club just four seasons.
Under manager Jean Tigana, the Cottagers ran away with the 2000/01 first division – the Championship as it is now affectionately known. They broke into triple figures (just), finishing on 101 league points, which was the second-highest division points total ever (now third highest). To go up with the 30 wins they managed that season, there was also a legal victory for Chairman Al-Fayed, winning a case against a company that had bought the domain ‘fulhamfc.com’, on the grounds that he owned the copyright for the words ‘Fulham FC’. The Whites had achieved top-flight status for the first time in 33 years. That summer, they were to go to lengths to become as Al-Fayed wanted, “The Manchester United of the south.”
Premier League Debut (2001/02)
Incredibly, Fulham were expected by some bookies to have an outside shot at a Champions League place, despite being in their debut Premier League season. Big spending over the summer months seemed to suggest the Whites were in this league for more than 17th place. Funded by his ambitious chairman, Tigana brought in several expensive summer acquisitions, namely Steve Marlet for £11m, Steed Malbranque for £5m and, the biggest name of all, Edwin Van Der Sar from Italian giants Juventus, for £7m. Despite a strong foreign contingent now at the club, Fulham failed to live up to the hype that both the media and their own Chairman had placed on them. There is no more daunting prospect for a newly promoted side than an opening day trip to Old Trafford, but this is exactly what the Cottagers had to face and, despite twice having the lead, they were eventually defeated 3-2, altough looked to have shown the nation there was at least some sense in Al-Fayed’s claims.
But the season never really improved beyond this point – in terms of success, that is. For the fans, it was a chance for the old to relive the memories of being a top-flight side, and the young to forge new ones. On the pitch, the Whites huffed and puffed but the same attractive, liquid football that made the club the envy of the first division never truly came to fruition and eventually finished a respectable 13th. Slim initial Champions League hopes gave way to modest UEFA Cup ambitions – thanks to the FA Cup – but a semi-final defeat to west London rivals Chelsea put paid to direct European qualification. Instead, the SW6 side applied for, and were accepted into, the Intertoto Cup – the tournament running during the summer, before the new season began.
Second Season Syndrome (2002/03)
A 5-3 win over Bologna in (one of) the finals of the Intertoto Cup, qualified Fulham for the UEFA Cup proper. It was surprising and, perhaps, undeserved after finishing in the bottom half of the league, but they qualified nonetheless. The July 7 start (against FC Haka) brought mixed fortunes for the Cottagers, as it gave them very little preparation time for the new season, but meant when the league kicked off again, they were match-sharp, unlike most of the league. This meant Tigana’s side started the season well, taking their Intertoto form into the new campaign. They won three of the five opening matches and were sitting pretty – their superior match fitness showed against Spurs in particular, coming back from 2-0 down at half time to snatch a dramatic last-minute 3-2 win.
But, towards the end of September, the Intertoto Cup started to take its toll on the players’ legs. The strong early start gave way to sloppy football, and the Whites began to draw blanks and promptly plummeted down the league. With Fulham’s Premier League status in jeopardy, Al-Fayed lost his patience and Tigana lost his job, with pundits pointing to the failure of the club’s record signing, Steve Marlet as the defining aspect of the Frenchman’s Fulham career. Ex-player, club coach and fans’ favourite Chris ‘Cookie’ Coleman was given the job until the end of the season with one requirement – keep the club in the Premier League.
Things were exciting at the bottom of the table, and with both Bolton and West Ham on good form, the race was on for the final relegation spot. Coleman achieved 10 points from the last 15 available, which guaranteed safety for another season. Fourteenth place for the Cottagers, and a new era was beginning.
Chris Coleman – A natural talent?
After his heroic start at the end of the 2002/03 season, Coleman was given the manager’s job on a permanent basis. Fans believed the club could push on to be