Fulham must evoke spirit of ’79 to upset Chelsea at Stamford Bridge

The year of 1979 saw the Sahara Desert experience snow for 30 minutes, McDonald’s introduce the Happy Meal and Michael Jackson release his hit album Off the Wall. More important, it also bore witness to a fantastic 2-0 win for Fulham at Stamford Bridge.

Little did we know that 39 years later we would have failed to add to our tally. Hopes are not high for that winless run coming to an end, but a new manager has brought renewed optimism.

Our last victory against our near neighbours took place in the old Second Division. Fulham came into the contest off the back of five straight league defeats, while Chelsea were flying high after five consecutive defeats and under the tutelage of the newly appointed Geoff Hurst.

Dave Wilson, a Fulham season-ticket holder for more than 40 years, was at the game.

“We were 3-0 down at half-time away at Birmingham on the first day of the season and won 4-3. We had quite a few high-scoring games, but then we had this bad run before the game at the Bridge.

“I don’t remember much of the game apart from the goals. John Beck’s was a shot from just outside the box midway through the second half and then the second goal was a corner by Peter Marinello which got flicked on at the near post by Tony Gale and knocked in by Ivor.

“Just after the second goal went on, they had this big scoreboard at the North Stand and it flashed up ‘that was Marinello’. It wasn’t corrected.”

John Clarke was 17 and working as a customs officer at the time and was also in attendance.

“I went to Stamford Bridge quite a lot during our Second Division games in that era. They still had the dog track around the pitch, so Stamford Bridge seemed a long way from the pitch.

“I’m pretty sure I went with him and a few of his friends because most of my pals were Chelsea fans and they’d have been done the other end, so I certainly didn’t want to stand in the Shed with that lot at a Chelsea-Fulham game.

“My dad, Don, was a Fulham fan, but he always used to work Saturdays. He was a butcher. He was born in 1933, so he started following Fulham around the end of the Second World War. He was part of the old school which would go to Chelsea one week and Fulham the next.”

Brian Phillips went to the game with “25 or 30” of the same Sunday football team based in Fulham.

“We played football for St. Thomas’, which had its own clubhouse just round the back of Fulham Fire Station. We all met up in there and then went off to the game together.

“They went into the Shed End and we went into the top tier of the East Stand. I don’t remember meeting them afterwards!” he chuckles.

Despite the difference in quality between the sides, they were several talented players in the Fulham ranks with the likes of Gale (a Chelsea fan), Les Strong and John Beck all capable of imposing themselves on the opposition.

Strong characters were needed, especially in an atmosphere far removed from the genteel surroundings of Craven Cottage.

Brian decided to sit in the home end to avoid being targeted in the away end by some of the more irate Chelsea contingent.

“Probably not the wisest decision,” he admits. “Chelsea were notorious [for trouble]. What was interesting was that the guys we went with were all Chelsea and if you were born and brought up in Fulham, most of your mates were Chelsea, but what Chelsea were attracting in those days were people from Kent and nearby areas, the troublemaking fraternity.

“Of course you didn’t have to buy your tickets in advance, you just walked up and paid on the door. Chelsea have always attracted bigger crowds and have had a great catchment pool mainly because of what happened late ’60s, early ’70s when they had the likes of Osgood and Hudson. They were a good side then.”

John recalls a confident performance despite our slump in form coming into the contest, unrecognisable from the team which was relegated at the end of that season.

“I don’t think we were under the cosh. We deserved the win. It’s a shame we didn’t follow up on that, which was bad considering we had quite a lot of decent players. I was scratching my head that season, thinking ‘we’ve got to turn it round sometime, because we’re not that bad’, but once confidence goes, even good players look poor and it’s been like that this season unfortunately.”

For Dave, the win marked the start of an unforgettable day.

“I went to see the Boomtown Rats the night of that game at Hammersmith Odeon. Having seen a great performance in the afternoon, I saw another very good performance in the evening.”

Gordon Davies

The west London rivalry dynamic is complex. Fans around are quick to scoff and what is perceived to be a middle-class and insipid affair. It’s clear that it matters far more to the black and white half of SW6. John feels it certainly has a different feel to other local derbies.

“There wasn’t that hostility, if there is real hostility between Chelsea and Fulham fans. A lot of my friends are Chelsea fans and other than their poor taste in football team, it’s what you’re born with, isn’t it? I don’t get the tribalism and hating other sides. We’ve got to support someone and fortunately I support Fulham.”

The appointment of Claudio Ranieri has enlivened the Fulham faithful and although the 3-2 win over Southampton was a significant departure from the high-possession style we had become accustomed to, it was a welcome change.

“We were happy to concede to concede possession and everyone bought into it,” John observed. “If we can get a few results under our belt, then we can get back to the nice aesthetically pleasing football that we were playing under Slav. Results are paramount for the time being.”

“You could tell the difference straightaway in the way he’s going to play,” Brian added. “The moment we lost the ball, everyone sprinted back to get behind it to condense the space. We only had 37, 38% and that hasn’t happened very often, even when we’ve played some of the better teams.

“I don’t think that gets you through against Chelsea. If we keep backing off against them, they’ll unpick us.”

As far as predictions go, there was reluctance to pin their colours to the mast.

“Ranieri’s got to believe that we can win and he’s got to instil that belief in the players,” said John. “He’ll be looking at it as a chance to get a point or if the Gods favour us, three points, but I think any Fulham fan would bite your hand off for a point right now. A draw at Stamford Bridge felt like a victory to me every time. A clean sheet would be nice as well. We’ll cross our fingers. If we can be four or six points better off by Wednesday night [after Leicester at home], I’ll be over the moon.”

Duff-Ramires 2012 0-0

Brian also was hopeful rather than expectant. “I think Chelsea will be too quick on the floor for us, but I think we can win. I don’t think we will and and Ranieri’s probably thinking that way. For him, this is the sort of game where whatever he’s been working on all week, he just wants to see which players can put it in place. If Hazard gets the ball, that’s easier said than done.

“I know they got spanked at Spurs last weekend, but that was their first defeat of the season. They’ve been really, really good, bearing in mind that Sarri’s started from scratch. There won’t be any surprises for Fulham. If there’s a bit of magic or there’s a deflection and it flies in, that’s life. You can’t do anything about that.”

Brian also mentions the possibility of Aleksandar Mitrović being dropped to the bench due to being one yellow card away from a ban and with a winnable fixture against the Foxes on the horizon. The Serbian’s temperament has been far steadier at Craven Cottage than it was playing for Newcastle, but controlling your emotions against two physical defenders in David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger is no easy task.

“If you’re the manager, are you thinking it’s better to leave him out at Stamford Bridge and play him on Wednesday? I’d be gutted about that. This is the holy grail, winning at Stamford Bridge,” he said. “But if Ranieri is going to be as methodical as it sounds like he is, don’t be surprised if Mitrović is on the bench on Saturday.”

This season has been tough, but it’s worth remembering that in 13 visits to the Bridge during our last Premier League, we managed five draws. The evidence is there. We can compete. The fans are happy to wait, but they wouldn’t mind a win.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Schürrle eager to repay Fulham’s faith

Motspur Park is usually the place where player interviews are conducted, but today was an exception. With the players due to have their annual team photo on the lush turf at Craven Cottage, training was moved to Fulham’s spiritual home.

André Schürrle is aware of his duties and, after filing into the changing rooms following a strenuous session, he reappears in the home strip. With a limited amount of time before the team take their places in front of the Riverside Stand for this season’s snap, we have to make do with a somewhat cramped side room just out of view of the pitch.

For someone who has a wealth of Champions League and international experience under his belt, the 27-year-old seems incredibly grateful to have been granted a return to SW6 and enthusiastically recalls his feelings on hearing that the move back to England had been completed.

“I was really happy because I wanted to come back to England and I spoke to Fulham for quite a while at the start of the summer,” he tells the programme. “Once you know a transfer is complete, it’s a relief, because you wanted it and I’m really happy that it got through.”

Inevitably, the Whites were not the only side vying for his services.

“The thing that really impressed me the most was that Fulham were there at the beginning of the transfer window. When I gave my agent a call to say that I wanted to move, they were one of the first teams that were persistent and gave me the feeling that they really wanted me.

“I made myself a picture of the club, the team and the manager. I watched the Play-Off games to give myself an idea of what I was dealing with and what kind of style the team played. I like to keep hold of the ball, so it was the team for me.”

Of course, most players moving abroad have some adjusting to do, but Schürrle’s time at Chelsea meant the process slightly easier.

“It was not so difficult for me this time because I know south-west London quite well and I knew where I wanted to live, but of course the first few weeks until you have a house and everything is settled is always difficult. Living in a hotel without a fridge, a dining table or anything is not easy.”

Away from football, he enjoys his life in the capital.

“I just like the people,” he says. “I like to go out with my girlfriend and my family. I like to visit coffee shops on Kings Road, I like Fulham Broadway a lot and I like this area, Parsons Green, because it’s a family area, a lot of nice people, a lot of coffee shops where you can just relax and look a little bit at people. I also like going to South Park and playing some basketball. The Fulham area is perfect.”

It is always difficult to set targets both individually and collectively when moving into a new division and the man on loan from Borussia Dortmund is reluctant to expect massive things from the squad after four years out of the top flight.

“We have quality, but as a promoted team, you can’t always aim for a top-half position in the table,” he admits. “First of all, we have to stay in the league – that’s the main objective. Then, when we achieve this, we can go further. We have to keep looking from game to game. We have to get points in all the games at home and after this, I’m sure we can go a little bit further, but the first objective must be to settle into the league.”

As for trying to predict how many he would score during the campaign, Schürrle is emphatic in his response.

“No, I never do this. I don’t set a goals target for the season because you always have to look from game to game. If you have your goals target, you want to score ten goals, you have nine and then you try to shoot, shoot, shoot. I don’t like this. I want to keep it simple, keep it natural and if the goals come, it’s good. If not, I hope we still win.”

The 2014 World Cup winner opened his account for his new side in front of the Hammersmith End against Burnley, capitalising after Aleksandar Mitrović’s fierce drive had beaten Joe Hart and thundered off the base of the post.

A smile breaks across his face when he discusses playing on the banks of the Thames. After all, he scored a hat-trick here for the Blues. It is nicer to see him scoring in black and white though.

“The ground is so special because it’s so traditional,” he gushes. “It feels like so many people have already played in this stadium because it hasn’t changed that much. I saw pictures from 60, 70 years ago when it was almost the same. It’s incredible. My family have been sitting in the Cottage [for the Crystal Palace and Burnley games]. This feeling that everybody’s so close makes it feel very special.”

Schürrle’s second goal for the Club against Brighton & Hove Albion came following a wonderful scooped through-ball from Jean Michaël Seri. The German has played with many technically gifted midfielders in his time, but certainly feels the Ivorian is one of the best.

“For sure, he’s up there. His quality on the ball is amazing, he is a good passer and has a good sense of his team-mates. He’s a brilliant guy and I hope he will help us a lot this season.”

The Fulham faithful have already become accustomed to seeing the forward shoot from range and he has already had 15 shots, with eight of them hitting the target. Down the years, fans have got used to seeing players who are reluctant to pull the trigger. Why has he adopted this approach?

“I need shots that feel good on the pitch. I don’t need to do a lot of dribbling or passing. I like to be where I can score a goal. I like to be outside the box, inside the box. I have really settled well into the team because I have found my position. Obviously I have had quite a few shots during the season and I hope to translate them into goals.”

Schürrle is more used to being stationed on the left flank during his career, but has quickly got used to playing on the opposite wing due to the performances of Luciano Vietto. However, his versatility has stood him in good stead.

“The teams I have played in are very flexible. You can start on the left and change to the right. You look for your position. Because the game is so fast, you always have to find where you can be better. It may be good to spend 20 minutes on the left, but then they change a little bit and adapt to this and it’s better to switch to the right. So I can play both. I can also play in the middle as a second striker; it’s one of my best positions. I look forward to keep playing like this.”

The trip to Manchester City last weekend was a stark reminder of how devastating the Premier League champions can be and the scoreline could have been an awful lot worse for Jokanovic’s men.

“They are one of the best teams in the world and you could see it at the weekend. In the end, we didn’t have too many chances there, because when they get an early goal at the Etihad, they will just play, play, play and try to find the spaces. They are a very good team and they will do well this season. We have to keep focusing on the games where we can really do damage and try to keep going.”

This afternoon’s match could potentially pit Schürrle against former Chelsea teammate Nathaniel Chalobah.

The pair never appeared alongside each other, but the ability the midfielder possessed was clear to see and his reputation travelled beyond England.

Schürrle has been keeping an eye on his career.

“When I went to Wolfsburg and Dortmund, the managers asked me about him because he was quite big at Chelsea in the youth team and was a promising kid, so I have followed him.

“He’s a good guy, a great player and I hope he can do well, but not on the weekend,” he chuckles.

For many footballers, a loan move is a means to an end – returning to the international fold. Schürrle though has not allowed himself to think about the possibility of a recall from Joachim Low.

“It’s not in my sight. I’ve played a lot of games for Germany and scored a lot of goals. I was part of the golden generation, but it’s not my goal to get in there as quickly as possible,” he insists.

“I want to play well for Fulham, that’s my main target. My main goal is to help the team play good football and the rest, we will see.”

Joe Bryan: “I was minutes away from signing for Aston Villa”

This interview was conducted for Fulham Football Club’s official matchday programme for the game against Burnley on Sunday 26th August 2018.

 

Considering he only moved two weeks ago, Joe Bryan seems to have already acclimatised to life at Fulham.

Relaxed and engaging, he starts this interview by expressing astonishment at how many media people there are at Motspur Park, another moment of realisation that he had achieved his dream of being in the Premier League.

The 24-year-old joined four others who put pen to paper for the Whites on what was a frantic deadline day which saw the club’s summer spending eclipse £100m for the first time.

Once the signing had been confirmed, Bryan did not have much time to catch his breath.

“I physically signed the contract at 4.45pm, so 15 minutes before the deadline and then trained Friday morning,” he tells the official matchday programme.

“I met most of the lads on Thursday whilst doing my medical, but I met everyone in training on Friday, so I had a two-hour session where the manager taught me the basics.

“I spoke to him after I signed, had a meeting and he told me the way he wants me to play and showed me what he wants from full-backs.

“I had an idea, as I’d played against Fulham, so I know their style. It’s not rocket science, it’s not like changing careers. It’s just playing for a different club in a different environment at a higher standard.”

Joe is no stranger to playing against Premier League opposition, as his Bristol City side knocked out Manchester United in the Carabao Cup last term and also put neighbours Manchester City under significant pressure before bowing out 5-3 aggregate at the Semi-Final stage.

However, he argues that playing regular league football against top-flight opposition is a tougher challenge and has already noticed the increase in difficulty from the second tier.

“In the cup, it’s always a little bit different. In league matches, there’s always a different buzz and that extra level of quality. It’s definitely a way higher standard [compared to the Championship]. It’s the speed of the players and their ability to capitalise on mistakes. You can’t switch off.

“There aren’t bad players in the Premier League. You don’t get to that standard without being quite good at football,” he says wryly.

The question of how his transfer came about then crops up and the 24-year-old lets out a loud laugh. He is happy to clarify what happened and put any lingering rumours to bed.

“I knew I’d have to tell that story eventually. I went to Villa, I did the medical. I’d signed nothing. I hadn’t had any photos. I hadn’t had a steak dinner with Steve Bruce and he didn’t chase me down the motorway.

“I read a tweet that said I’d left him in the middle of a dinner after playing a round of golf with him. I don’t play golf and I don’t eat steak!

“I got a call that Fulham had had an offer accepted while I was at Aston Villa and I said: ‘I want to play in the Premier League, I can’t turn down this opportunity.’ This was after the medical had occurred. I hadn’t signed a contract or anything tying me to Aston Villa. So I said to the manager [Steve Bruce] that I needed a couple of hours to think. Then we got back to the hotel and in my heart I knew I wanted to play in the Premier League, but I was probably 15, 20 minutes away from signing for Aston Villa.”

Joe clearly still has fond memories of his boyhood team and went to watch them beat Queens Park Rangers 3-0 on Tuesday night at Loftus Road. However, just as the step up a division is a reality check, the change in city will also take some getting used to.

“I played 230 times for Bristol City. A lot of people say Bristol’s a more relaxed London. In my head, London’s like Bristol on steroids. I’m settling in. I’m moving into an apartment in the next couple of weeks.

“For me it’s quite easy because I’m English, so I just went on Rightmove and had a little look. Someone at my agency helped me, booked a few viewings within a couple of days and sorted one out. I think it’s a lot more difficult for the foreign lads, because obviously they can’t speak the language and that’s why they’ve got the network here to help them out.”

Despite the high turnover of players over the past few months, Joe had played against a number of his current team-mates, with the West Country outfit coming away victorious from SW6 four times in the last three seasons.

“We always liked playing Fulham when I was at City, for some reason we always used to do well against them. I spoke to a couple of the lads when I signed and they were like ‘yeah, they always used to play really well against us and we don’t know why.’  We played a similar style of football to Fulham with high-tempo passing, so it’s been fairly easy to slot into the style of play.”

When Lee Johnson’s men outplayed Fulham by the banks of the Thames last October, it would have been hard to envisage the Whites enjoying a Play-Off Final victory at Wembley nearly seven months later. Their form in the second half of the season made everyone sit up and take notice, including Joe.

“They did really well. They put that really good run together after Christmas and it’s testament to the character and quality within the squad. They’ve always played good football and they’ve obviously got Premier League quality with players like Sess, Kev and Tom.

“The Championship’s like a little Premier League now. Any team in there, apart from a few, can step up to the Premier League and that’s why it’s such a hard league to get out of.”

Bryan looked set to grab an assist last Saturday against Tottenham, when his cross landed at Sessegnon’s feet, only for the 18-year-old to square the ball to the prostrate Aleksandar Mitrović to bundle home. Joe is just happy to have played a part in Fulham’s first goal back in the big time.

“I had a conversation with him [Sessegnon]. I just said, ‘When I get into that kind of area, I’m going to put it round the back of the defence. Just make sure you’re getting in there.’ It doesn’t really matter who gets the assist or makes the contribution, as long as it goes in.”

However, Joe’s is not solely preoccupied with on-pitch matters. Having been voted EFL Community Player of the Year last season, he is keen to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate than himself. He recently informed his old club that any City fan who had his name on the back of their shirt could swap it for a new one. Other gestures have included helping out amateur footballers in Mangotsfield after their pitches were vandalised and becoming the ambassador for Children’s Hospice South West. How important is it for him to contribute?

“Massive,” exclaims Joe. “I’m not one to shout about things I do, I just think it’s human nature to do nice things. If you’re in a privileged position to help people out, I think you should do. There are a lot of people that struggle for opportunities to play football or to do things with their life and we as footballers are lucky in that we earn a lot of money and do a job which 95% of people would give an arm and a leg for. I think we do need to remember where we come from and that we need to give back.”

The signs were there against Mauricio Pochettino’s men that the team can dominate the ball for spells, even against some of the best opposition in the country. Mitrović’s equaliser came at the end of a move comprising almost 30 passes and involving every Fulham player. That style won’t change.

 “There are a lot of new faces in the squad, which has made it easy for me to settle in, but on the pitch, it makes it a little bit more difficult,” Joe admits. “We’ve had two good weeks of training now, so hopefully we’ll start kicking on, picking some points up and getting the wins.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, as long as you trust in your ability. If you play football right and pass it correctly, teams won’t be able to get near you.”

 

 

 

Looking back: The 1975 FA Cup journey

The day is almost upon us. Wembley provides Fulham with another shot at glory.

Back in 1975, West Ham proved just too strong for the Whites. Now another claret and blue obstacle stands in our way.

Fulham fans never expect, but always hope. Nevertheless, the return to the national stadium has been long overdue.

“You look at pictures of during the Cup run when you’ve got the team bus going around and you suddenly realise how distant a time 43 years ago was.

“Between then and now, I’ve gone to work, retired It’s a big spread of time,” reminisces Glen, who was 17 at the time.

In the pre-internet age, programme tokens were the way of getting your hands on a golden ticket. Stephen Date was one of the lucky winners and was driven to Craven Cottage by a West Ham-supporting cab driver to exchange them at the ticket office.

“He drove me all the way from West Ham to Fulham that morning. No fare,” he recalls.

“We pulled up outside Stevenage Road and got in the queue there. The funny thing I remember is that we were queueing up and half of us are wearing black-and-white scarves. It was a Sunday morning.”

The build-up was certainly not in keeping with Fulham’s status as a club that kept a low profile.

Under the guidance of Alec Stock, they had charted a seemingly impossible route through to the season’s showpiece, disposing of three First Division sides and somewhat surprisingly, every win came away from Craven Cottage.

 

Simon Coote
MEMORIES: Mementos remind fans of a bygone era

 

The concept of extra time and penalties hadn’t been introduced, meaning teams would contest replay after replay until there was a winner.

Fulham’s journey to the Final was the longest in history. This remarkable string of matches included four ties against Nottingham Forest, the last of which saw the enigmatic Viv Busby score twice to help the Whites progress.

That meant a fifth-round clash with Carlisle United and a long trek up to Brunton Park. It was a day Wayne Bradford would never forget.

“The players came on the train with us,” he remembers fondly. “I spoke to Alec Stock, got his autograph.

“They appreciated the fact that for someone to travel up to Carlisle back in the 70s, you were talking leaving at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning. It seemed to take forever.”

One of Wayne’s most vivid memories is staying in, desperately waiting for news from the semi-final replay against Birmingham. He had gone to the first game at Hillsborough, but being just 12, the journey to Maine Road was not possible on a school night.

“My friend was round my parents’ house and I remember it coming up on the news, saying: ‘Good news, it’s an all-London final.’ With that, we were all up in the air because that was the first time we knew what the score was and it took ages to see the actual goal from John Mitchell.”

West Ham, with Billy Bonds roaming the midfield, awaited and were probably slight favourites, but that underdog status did not dampen Stephen’s expectations.

 

FA Cup Final line-up
UNDERDOGS: If you want your son to play for Fulham, call him John

 

“I thought we were going to win it. I loved Viv Busby, he was on fire. Don Revie almost considered taking him into the England squad at one stage.

“We had Bobby Moore and Alan Mullery. What else do you need? You had the greatest player ever to wear the shirt playing against his old club. I thought it was written that we’d win.”

Others concur that Moore, despite moving to SW6 in the twilight of his career, was up there with the best to have pulled on the black and white shirt.

“It was amazing to watch him,” gushes Paul Baker, who attended the Final with a group which included Lesley Dunlop.

“He was amazingly calm because his positional sense was so extraordinary that the only time you noticed there was a problem was when he put on a turn of speed. If he was caught out of position, I remember seeing him and thinking: ‘What’s happened? Bobby Moore is sprinting, he never does that.’”

Saturday jobs were postponed for the occasion.

“I used to do rounds as a milkman and get a couple of quid,” said Wayne, who went with his friend Paul.

“I didn’t do it that day because we wanted to be up there to savour the atmosphere. We wanted to see what was going on.”

Sadly, the game didn’t go to plan for Stock’s men, with two second-half strikes from Alan Taylor taking the Cup to the East End for the second time in their history.

 

FA Cup Final photo
NO CIGAR: Mervyn Day scrambles the ball away from the attentions of John Mitchell

 

Stephen was not allowed to forget the result.

“I went on my own and stood in the Fulham end and the worst part of that story, apart from losing, was where I lived in those days was West Ham territory. We went out for a pint, me and my Dad, surrounded by West Ham fans celebrating. I was sitting there in my Fulham scarf. I felt a bit of a plum that night.”

Paul was similarly downcast. “What I remember about that day was a sense of inevitability when West Ham scored and then almost immediately again. That was such an enormous deflation. After all the excitement of the Cup run, the dejection of the match was tough.”

Wayne’s recollections are somewhat more rosy. “It was me and my friend, along with 20-odd thousand Fulham supporters. It was just a fantastic day and all I remember is from the time we walked into Wembley, we never stopped singing, even when we were losing.

“I’ve never known Fulham sing like that and I’ve never heard it since, to be honest.”

Clubs were not considered merchandising machines as they are now, but thankfully Stephen has some tangible reminders.

“Last year, for a Christmas present, my son got a programme of every team we played in ’75. He put them all in a picture frame, put a Wembley programme in front of it and a copy of a Wembley ticket – it wasn’t my ticket, I’d lost that since. It’s in a part of my lounge where I can see it. That was a really cool present.”

 

Stephen
COMPREHENSIVE: The Christmas present Stephen received from his son

 

However, there are other, more poignant memories attached to the occasion.

“My dad Bertie and I only had enough tokens to get one ticket,” Glen recalls. “So I ended up going. He died shortly afterwards.

“A friend of mine is a Spurs supporter and they got to the final which then went to replays, so I managed to get tickets on both occasions [in 1981 and 1982].

“That was still pretty good, but it wasn’t the same as my dad going to watch the club he’d supported all his life.”

Stephen is going to tomorrow’s match with his wife Christine and son Stephen, but working as a magnetic health jewellery on Romford Market means the decision does not come without its sacrifices.  

“Every time I give up a Saturday or a trade market, apart from the costs of the tickets and the fare, it also costs me a day’s takings and Saturday is my busiest day. This Saturday is costing me hundreds to go.”

 

Soccer - FA Cup - Final - West Ham United v Fulham - Wembley Stadium
ATMOSPHERE: The Fulham players were backed by a vociferous following from SW6

 

Wayne will be there with three generations of his wife’s family as well as his younger son Jack, who is, shock horror, a Chelsea fan.

“He always gives us a big cheer until Fulham start singing about the blue flag,” Wayne chuckles.

“I’ve already had a cheeky bet – 3-0, Mitrovic to score first. I really do believe Fulham will win this one.

“I just feel it’s right for us and my only dread is if we lose, what would our team be like next year. The one we don’t want to see go is Slav. Will he give it another go?

“That’s why I think the pressure is on Fulham a little bit more than Villa. If we don’t go up, we could lose a manager and maybe five or six players.”

 

Current crop
CURRENT CROP: The class of 2018 have shown remarkable spirit in an incredible calendar year

 

Despite the monumental changes that have taken place, the charm that characterises Fulham and Craven Cottage is still there for all to see. It keeps drawing Stephen back to the banks of the Thames.

“I know we’re all biased, but there is something about the club. It’s wonderful. I remember Chris Coleman said: ‘We don’t play in a stadium, we play in a ground.’

“We’re all going to say our fanbase is unique. It’s probably no more unique than Aston Villa’s, but we feel it is. We feel there’s something special.”

Now living in Falkirk, Glen is unfortunately unable to make the trip due to health reasons, but will enjoy the game in front of the TV with loved ones. He is happy with the owners.

“The way the Khans are looking after the club is pretty positive. You feel they have an affinity with what the club is about and appreciate keeping the heritage of the place as well.”

Stephen feels regretful about not inviting his dad along in 1975.

“I hope it’s not another 43 years, because I won’t be around to see it, that’s for sure.

“We’ll get the first goal, it will open them up and that suits us. I think that’s how it will be for us. What do I know? I just support Fulham.”

Featured image: Alex White

Images (top to bottom): Simon Coote, YouTube, Alex White, Stephen Date, Getty Images, Fulham Football Club

Maidenhead step into play-offs after deserved win at Sutton

Sutton United 0-2 Maidenhead United

Sam Barratt was the star of the show as Maidenhead United took a deserved three points back to Berkshire after seeing off in-form Sutton United at the Knights Community Stadium.

The hosts went into the game in top spot, but struggled to cope with the vibrancy of the visitors.

In a game of relatively few clear-cut chances, the deadlock was broken when Barratt’s free-kick was bundled home after 73 minutes by Ryan Upward.

Alan Devonshire’s side wrapped up the three points when Harold Odametey embarked on a marauding run down the right wing before sliding the ball past Jamie Butler.

Maidenhead had endured a frustrating week, losing 1-0 at home to Leyton Orient before losing star striker Dave Tarpey to Barnet.

Last season’s National League South champions were the first to test the keeper, with James Comley unleashing a rasping drive which stung the palms of Butler.

Sutton then almost opened the scoring when Josh Taylor flicked the ball around the corner to Tommy Wright, who hammered a half-volley from distance just wide.

The half-chances continued to come and go, as both teams worried each other’s defence but struggled to find that clinical edge.

Barratt was the game’s brightest spark and on 32 minutes whipped on a vicious delivery, but Harry Pritchard’s desperate slide was not enough to apply the finishing touch.

Both sides continued to probe, with Aswad Thomas heading over a chipped delivery from Moses Emmanuel, before Pritchard’s low drive from Odametey’s low centre was blocked heroically by Nicky Bailey.

The early stages of the second half were lacklustre and it looked as if the match would trundle to a goalless conclusion.

Kenny Davis had been introduced at the interval and the summer signing from Boreham Wood almost sent the crowd into raptures with a powerful shot that whistled over the bar.

Barratt continued to show why he had played for Reading’s youth team as he flew past Bailey and Louis John and threw in a step over, but he did not trouble Butler.

However, the 21-year-old soon finally had some joy, with his set-piece leading to panic stations in the Sutton defence and allowing Upward to get on the scoresheet.

This spurred the south Londoners into a response, with Kieron Cadogan knocking the ball over the heads of the Maidenhead backline for Craig Dundas to chase.

The striker rounded Craig Pentney, knocking the keeper over in the process. However, he could not get the shot out of his feet.

Pentney was subsequently treated for several minutes, leading to accusations of gamesmanship from the Sutton fans.

The hosts continued to press in an attempt to salvage a point, with crosses bombarding the Maidenhead box without a finishing touch being applied.

However, they were made to pay in the second minute of stoppage time when Odametey picked up the ball close to the halfway line and went on a rampaging run before guiding his effort into the bottom left-hand corner past Butler.

Following their victory, the Magpies rose to seventh, while Sutton fell from the summit to fourth and both sides will look to push towards the automatic promotion place when they face Halifax and Gateshead respectively next weekend.

 

Ayité confident Fulham have the players to avenge last season’s Play-Off travails

This interview was conducted for Fulham Football Club’s official matchday programme for the game against Wolves on Saturday 24th February 2018.

 

A fit-again Floyd Ayité is looking to put this season’s injury frustrations behind him and aid Fulham’s promotion push…

This has been a difficult season for Floyd Ayité. Four separate injury problems this term have prevented him from enjoying a sustained run in the side, while the left-wing berth he has so often occupied since joining in the summer of 2016 has been taken by Ryan Sessegnon.

There’s no doubt the injuries have preyed on the 29-year-old’s mind, but he’s embracing the chance to come back stronger.

“I was frustrated,” he told the official matchday programme. “Every time I came back, two or three games later I was getting injured again.

“I worked with the staff to try and resolve all these physical issues, including changing the way I eat.

“I even went to see a specialist. He explained to me that I had a back problem causing an imbalance in my body and I was putting too much stress on my left calf and thigh. We’ve worked to realign the balance and avoid repetition of the problem.”

Nevertheless, he’s still only one goal shy of his tally at this point last season, with his long-range strike against Aston Villa a week ago the most eye-catching during his time in SW6.

“That’s the goal I scored from the furthest distance,” smiled Ayité. “It’s a pretty tough move to make. You can easily kick it outside on the right or on the left or above the bar, or just not hit it strongly enough. It was one of my favourite goals.

“I was very surprised to receive the ball. I quickly turned around and tried to control it as fast as I could, and there I glimpsed the empty goal at a distance. Then I remember concentrating to the maximum to hit it perfectly.”

The victory was a real statement of intent against a Villa side that had won seven league games on the spin, with the Whites recording their seventh consecutive Championship triumph at Craven Cottage in the process.

While Ayité is keen to guard against complacency, he believes Saturday’s win sends out an ominous message to their promotion rivals.

“It’s proof we can beat anyone in the Championship. As we’re about to play top teams, it’s important to know we have it in us. Against a team like Wolves, one just cannot afford to make mistakes.”

In becoming a professional footballer, Floyd followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Kodjo Afanou, who represented Bordeaux for ten years between 1996 and 2006, as well as picking up 12 caps for France U-21s.

Floyd’s older brother Jonathan also found his way into the pro game and is currently for Samsunspor in Turkey after spells at Nîmes and Brest. Their paths crossed at hometown club Bordeaux and international level, with both turning out for Togo at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Les Eperviers reached the Quarter-Finals, the only time the West African country has progressed beyond the group stages at the tournament.

The relationship between the siblings is clearly strong, despite the vast distance between their current club sides.

“My brother started one year before me,” said Ayité. “We were together at Bordeaux.

“I was younger so he helped me a lot. We were sharing the same apartment. He helped me every day and we shared everything, like brothers do. We get to advise, support and encourage each other throughout our careers.”

Despite success in France, a move to England was always on his radar. After transferring from Bastia in the summer of 2016, it’s clear he is relishing the opportunity.

“It was one of my career goals for me and my family,” he explained. “I like the culture, the country and the way we play football here in the UK.

“The atmosphere we get in the stadium is incredible. I chose Fulham because it’s a great and famous clubs.

“At the time, I saw the opportunity to be part of the great project of bringing the Club back to the top, I saw that Fulham was ready to invest to achieve its goals and I wanted to be part of that.”

Ayité immediately noticed the difference between the respective countries, but had prepared himself to the adjustment.

“It was good to arrive during pre-season to get accustomed to the new style of play and work conditions.

“The difference was both the higher physical intensity and the higher speed of play.

“The games go from one side to the other very quickly. Meanwhile France, without being more tactical, is not as intense on the pitch and in the stands.”

Ayité also believes there’s a contrast in style between managers across the Channel and those in the UK.

“The coaches don’t talk the same way in France. Those I worked with were not as close to the players,” he observed.

“With our current Head Coach, we see that we can be both serious and easy-going at the right time. He knows how to convey the right message and keep us focused in reaching our goals.”

Last season saw Ayité stationed predominantly on the left wing, but this term he has increasingly been deployed on the opposite flank or as a ‘false nine’.

The latter of these positions may not be ideal, but the form of Sessegnon and Matt Targett means that situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“Playing as a false nine isn’t my favourite position, but as long as I play as a forward, I’m happy,” said Ayité. “I give 100 per cent wherever I play, it’s that simple.

“In Bastia, we had a forward player who was unavailable for a long time. I had to replace him. Since then I’m considered a false nine, but I would prefer playing on the wings if it was down to me.”

After the last two transfer windows, the squad looks even stronger than last season and Ayité believes the new additions have taken the team to the next level.

“If the Club targeted them, they can bring something that was missing,” he remarked. “The team is stronger than ever with the value they bring to the group.

“On all sides of the pitch, we’ve built a team with very clear qualities. Their arrival was a great boost.”

Ayité’s first season as a professional for Bordeaux in 2008/09 saw him farmed out to Angers, as his parent club claimed the Ligue 1 title for the first time in 10 years. Understandably, he didn’t feel part of this success, but thinks this Fulham side is the best in which he has featured regularly.

“With Bordeaux, we were French champions with [Yoann] Gourcuff, [Marouane] Chamakh etc., but I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I could because I didn’t really play,” he admitted.

“With this Fulham squad, I get to play with high-quality players: any of them is Premier League-worthy. To me that’s beautiful and definitely the team with the most qualities in which I have played so far.”

Fulham’s visit to Molineux in November was dispiriting, as Wolverhampton Wanderers toyed with the Whites and emerged 2-0 winners. The Black Country side’s stylish brand of football has wowed spectators, while the likes of Rúben Neves and Diogo Jota look ready-made for the Premier League.

However, this Fulham team is a different beast to the one that was comprehensively outplayed on a cold Friday night three months ago and Ayité is confident there will not be a repeat outcome.

“We always learn from our defeats and mistakes,” he insisted. “The team is particularly confident and motivated at the moment.

“When we played them we’d lost a couple of games before that. It’s not going to be the same script this time.”

Wednesday’s battling draw with Bristol City saw Slaviša Jokanović’s men exhibit different qualities to the win against Villa, as the defence repelled a barrage of crosses and long balls into the box to help extend the unbeaten league run to 11 games.

Now eight points adrift of second place, hopes of automatic promotion look to be fading. Ayité, though, is positive about the trajectory the Club is taking.

“Arriving here, we set ourselves a clear objective to reach the Play-Offs. Attaining it in the first season was already a great memory,” he recalled.

“There are still a lot of games to come. We’re on the right path and as we work towards the same goal, I’m sure we’ll have a beautiful surprise at the end.”

Mitrović aims for Premier League return with Fulham before summer with Serbia

This interview was conducted for Fulham Football Club’s official matchday programme for the game against Aston Villa on Saturday 17th February 2018.

 

The Newcastle United loanee discusses Serbian connections and his aims for success at the Cottage…

As the January transfer window meandered into deadline day, many Fulham fans will have been relatively pleased with the month’s business. Keeping hold of prize assets Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon was no mean feat, with the arrival of Matt Targett adding Premier League pedigree to the squad.

However, there was an Aleksandar Mitrović-sized hole. Aboubakar Kamara and Rui Fonte had turned on the style in recent weeks, but reinforcements were always welcome.

The transfer was as remarkable as it was frantic, with the Club’s Twitter account hinting at the last-minute arrival with a tantalising teaser video following Cyrus Christie’s unveiling at Motspur Park.

After all the drama, the Serbian appears to have acclimatised to his new surroundings.

“I’ve settled in. The lads help me a lot,” Mitrović told the official matchday programme. “I already know how they play, what they want and what my job is. Of course I need time to adapt, but it’s going well. Every game, every training session, I feel better.”

His first cameo appearance was certainly all-action, with a bullet header on his opening outing against Nottingham Forest cleared off the line by Joe Worrall.

Mitrović’s first impressions of playing in front of the Craven Cottage faithful were positive.

“The stadium is really old and traditional, so it was a real pleasure to play there and the atmosphere was really nice,” he said. “The fans really accepted me well from the beginning.”

Fulham’s bid for the 23-year-old came at the eleventh hour, with a number of clubs on the continent set to secure his signature.

“On Tuesday night, we made a deal that in the morning, I should fly to Bordeaux,” explained Mitrović. “After I made the deal with Bordeaux, I went for a sleep and then Anderlecht called my brother who is also my agent. I was thinking, because I’d already played for Anderlecht, I would adapt faster because I know people there. That’s why I changed my mind.”

Mitrović flew to Belgium, but the Brussels outfit couldn’t stump up the cash required and late on Wednesday Fulham stepped up their interest, with Slavisa Jokanovic sending WhatsApp messages to the man he coveted so highly.

This eventually convinced Mitrović to opt for a move to SW6 and it’s clear the young striker holds a great deal of admiration for Fulham’s Head Coach. Their association goes back to Partizan Belgrade, where Jokanovic won the double in both the seasons he was in charge.

“He did a lot of great things for Partizan as a player and a manager,” the Newcastle United loanee gushed. “He’s one of the best managers Serbia has. He represents our country in the best way, so I’m very proud. He’s a lovely guy and it’s a pleasure to work with him.”

However, the pair didn’t know each other well at this point. While Jokanovic was winning titles, Mitrović was juggling his responsibilities as an academy player with his duties as a ball boy for Partizan.

“I had to stand behind the goal with the home support on the south side,” he continued. “I watched so many big teams and big players.”

After growing up during a period of great unrest in the Balkans, Mitrović is mindful of the help his family provided in setting him on the path to becoming a professional footballer.

“It was hard for all my family,” he remarked seriously. “They gave me support and didn’t allow me to quit. They gave me that power you can only get from family. In the end, I made my dreams and they really helped me a lot with that.”

Mitrović believes the difficult circumstances in the region forced people to develop grit, something he believes has stood him in good stead.

“It’s hard to break the Serbian guy, so I think I’m like that,” Mitrović smiled. “I never give up.

“This is something you pick up in your childhood. It’s not always going to be nice and sometimes it’s going to be awful, but like Serbian people say, ‘After any war comes sun.’ That’s life.”

It’s perhaps little surprise that Mitrović’s other sporting interests in his younger years revolved around physical combat and aggression. However, these took a back seat once the football started to take off.

“I played fighting sports a little – kickboxing, a little bit of karate – and that’s it. After that, it was football,” he insisted.

After spells in the first team at Partizan and Anderlecht, a move to England beckoned in the summer of 2015 and a chance to showcase those competitive instincts to a wider audience.

For many players, the Premier League is an extremely attractive proposition. It was no different for Mitrović, who sought the advice of players from his homeland who had found success on these shores, namely Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Dusan Tadic. It is not a bad contacts list to have.

“They are big names in Serbian football and here in English football and they told me it’s the hardest league in the world, so I wanted to see what it was like,” Mitrović said.

“I joined Newcastle because from a young age I supported them. I don’t why, but they had black and white colours, the same colours as Partizan Belgrade. I chose Newcastle and I didn’t make a mistake.”

The first season at St. James’ Park was certainly a baptism of fire. Despite posting a solid tally of nine goals in 34 league goals, the Magpies were relegated.

This meant Newcastle and Fulham collided in England’s second tier and Mitrović was impressed by what he saw of the Whites.

“Last season, Fulham definitely played the most beautiful football in the Championship. They beat us at St. James’ Park 3-1. It could have been 7-1,” he admitted.

“They were unlucky in the Play-Offs, but I also followed the team this season. Fulham have some new players, but the manager and the staff and a lot of the players are the same.

“They played really offensive football, so that is the reason I chose Fulham.”

The other motive for moving south is to get regular playing time ahead of the World Cup in Russia this summer after falling down the pecking order under Rafael Benitez.

Going into their last qualifying match against Georgia, Serbia’s qualification hopes were hanging in the balance.

Despite leading their group, they’d suffered a 3-2 defeat to Austria a few days earlier and needed to win to ensure their place at the finals.

The enormity of the occasion wasn’t lost on Mitrović and his compatriots.

“It was the hardest game I’ve played in my life,” he admitted. “Not physically, but mentally.

“You have players like [Branislav] Ivanovic, who has won everything in club football. I spoke to Matic as well. They say it was one of the hardest games they’ve ever played.

“When we played our first qualification game against Ireland, it was like 7,000, 8,000 people and in the last game it was almost 50,000, a full stadium, so it was a really nice feeling. It was a big thing for the players and the whole country because after eight years, Serbia will be in a big football competition.”

It took 74 minutes for the deadlock to be broken, with Mitrović arrowing in a pinpoint cross for Aleksandar Prijovic to stab home from close range.

“Two or three times they kicked the ball from the goalline,” he recalled. “I get the ball on the side, I see Prijovic, I just put the ball in. I didn’t think too much and he finished it.

“It was an unbelievable feeling, some release. The stadium exploded. You cannot describe this with words.”

Having dropped down a rung on the English league ladder, Mitrović will be looking to add further firepower to a team that has only been outscored by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the current campaign.

However, Saturday’s draw at Bolton reminded everyone that this league is no walk in the park and the Smederevo-born player believes that in some respects, the Championship is the more difficult division.

“In the Premier League, you have seven, eight top teams and seven or eight alright teams, but in the Championship, all the teams are of a similar level,” he said.

“There are so many games with a short time to recover. In the Premier League there are better teams with more quality, but you see Man City played Bristol City and Bristol was really tough.

“They beat Man United, so it’s not a big difference between these two leagues. For me, the Championship is a physically harder league. The Championship has so many running, fighting duels and it’s really tough football.”

While Mitrović relishes the battle, the hot-headed streak that led to him receiving two red cards in his debut season at Newcastle appears to have been reined in.

Fulham fans will no doubt hope this improved disciplinary record continues. Mitrović, meanwhile, recognises the crucial role the supporters can play as we enter the business end of the season.

“This is going to be a long 15 games and we need their help,” he said. “I hope they stay behind us and help us to get promoted.”

After donning black and white during a successful promotion charge last season, Mitrović hopes lightning can strike twice in three months’ time.

When asked if the team can finish in the top two, his response was emphatic.

“Of course, why not? In the next two weeks, we have really tough games against direct opponents and the gap between us is seven points,” he stated.

“This is nothing. If we win most of the games, we have a big chance to get automatically promoted.”

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Fulham Football Club

 

Edmund success heralds new dawn for British tennis

It was perhaps inevitable it would end here.

After slaying Grigor Dimitrov, a second consecutive top-ten triumph was a tall order, but Kyle Edmund has finally thrown off the shackles of being Andy Murray’s friend.

His career trajectory has not been quite as spectacular as his British compatriot thus so far, but his progress in the last few years is cause for optimism.

To describe this as a changing of the guard may be straying into hyperbole, but if the condition of Murray’s hip fails to improve, Edmund will have to get used to being the headline act.

Going toe-to-toe with Cilic is no easy task, but the 23-year-old was holding his own in the early stages and had twice had the opportunity to break.

Those went begging and from there, the 2014 US Open champion took charge with a break in the sixth game.

Edmund barely had time to draw breath before Cilic sealed the set with a laser-sharp forehand into the corner. 

The Beverley-born player was receiving a tough lesson on one of the biggest stages in the sport and was beginning to be bothered by a groin problem, leading to a three-minute medical timeout.

Nevertheless, the underdog came out fighting in the second set and this passion spilled over in the fifth game.

A Cilic serve was called out by one of the line judges. The subsequent challenge showed the ball had dropped in, gifting the point to the Croatian.

Edmund was incensed, arguing with chair umpire John Blom that the call led to him dumping his forehand into the net.

It is a rule that needs urgent review, with a replayed point far more appropriate in the circumstances.

After turning his ire on the tournament referee, the man resembling a liquorice allsort flounced back to the baseline. 

The injustice certainly seemed to sharpen his mind, with a thunderous forehand skidding off the baseline shortly afterwards. The anger was palpable.

A tiebreak was the natural conclusion to a set in which both players had been exceptionally potent on their own serve.

Cilic’s big-game experience came to the fore again and a two-set lead was looking insurmountable for his plucky opponent.

The groin injury that reared its ugly head earlier on in the match was beginning to impede Edmund’s movement, as the match began to drift towards a disappointing denouement.

Cilic seems to be enjoying life under new coach Ivan Cinkus and he was really starting to find his range against an opponent who seemed to have accepted his fate.

A further break in the seventh game was the final nail in the coffin, with an Edmund error bringing an end to the match.

While the result was ultimately emphatic, there is no need to be downhearted from a British perspective.

This was a notable milestone for Edmund and, at 23, you would expect there is plenty more to come.

Cilic was modest in victory and is on course for a showdown with Roger Federer, who comfortably dismantled him in last year’s Wimbledon final.

Asked about Edmund’s physical condition, the World No.6 said: “I noticed in the third game of the third set, he let a couple of balls go.

“I saw that his movement was restricted so I was trying to move the ball around.”

There was a relaxed focus to Cilic’s game and although he has a massively inferior head-to-head record against Federer (8-1), his sole triumph came on a hard court at the US Open.

Edmund will only be looking up.

Murray’s career has been defined by an incredible consistency at Grand Slams and a relentless work ethic to maintain that level of excellence.

The fact that the Scot has invited the young charge to his training camp in Miami shows that he clearly has the appetite to succeed.

If Edmund continues to show the hunger and big-game composure that has characterised his Australian fortnight, accolades will surely follow sooner rather than later.

Featured image: Getty

Chris Baird: A foot in both camps

Now wearing the black and white of Derby County, Chris Baird’s passion for the game remains undimmed. Having started out at Southampton, he later served Fulham with distinction….

 

Chris Baird is the epitome of an unsung hero. While flashier teammates have stolen the headlines down the years, the Northern Irishman has been working diligently and without fuss, admired greatly by both Southampton and Fulham fans. He turns 36 next month, but his stellar performances for current club Derby County suggest there’s no reason for him to hang up his boots.

Baird’s big break came in 1998 when, at 16, he left the comforts of home and Ballymena United for Hampshire.

“I didn’t know what to expect going to a different country,” he says. “I know it’s only across the water, but it’s still very strange for a 16-year-old. Once I got to know the rest of the players in the academy, I settled in really well. They looked after me brilliantly. I’ll never forget it, because it was my first club and it just took off from there.”

As a defender, he was in good company. He continues: “I cleaned Jason Dodd’s boots, along with Francis Benali and Claus Lundekvam. I always looked at them and how they would perform week in, week out. They would always have a chat if I had any problems and gave good advice about how to improve my game.”

The fixture Baird is perhaps most well-known for during his time at Saints is the 1-0 FA Cup Final defeat to Arsenal in 2003. It was just his second start for the club, but he acquitted himself superbly and was singled out for praise.

“One of the best days of my career,” he states. “I was just delighted to be in the squad, so then to be named in the team was overwhelming really.”

After a sustained period of nearly 30 years in the top flight, Saints men dropped into the second tier in 2005. Although it was a devastating blow for the South-Coast club, it did allow Baird to establish himself as a regular fixture in the team.

Two years later, Baird opted to make the move to SW6, but looks back on his time at Southampton with pride and a tinge of regret after the side fell at the Championship Play-Off Semi-Final stage to Derby.

“I really wanted to get promoted with the club,” he reflects. “It wasn’t to be. I was just grateful for the opportunity they gave me.”

Lawrie Sanchez brought his fellow countryman to the Cottage as part of a Northern Irish influx that included Aaron Hughes and one of today’s opponents, Steven Davis, but it was under Roy Hodgson when Baird really blossomed.

Many argue the ‘Great Escape’ began with the astonishing second-half comeback against Man City. Trudging back to the changing rooms at the interval, Fulham’s relegation seemed pretty much certain. For Baird, it underlined the potential in the squad.

“Anything can happen when you show a bit of fight about you and that set us up for the rest of the games,” he says. “We knew we could do so much more and it showed in the second half.”

The transformation was remarkable. Having conceded 60 goals in the 2007/08 campaign, they nearly halved that figure the following season. Baird was to quick lavish praise on his former boss.

“Roy made us such a hard team to play against,” says Chris. “We never really had any massive players in the squad. We were just a really organised, hard-working, hard-to-beat team. That was all down to Roy.

“We had a fantastic record at home [from 2008/09]. Even against the big teams coming to the Cottage, we turned them over. You could just sense they didn’t want to be there.”

The incredible improvement was topped off by qualification to the Europa League. Of the many highlights during an extraordinary journey, the Juventus home leg stands out.

“We lost away 3-1 and Dickson [Etuhu] scored,” remembers Baird. “It was a big goal for us. Bringing them back to the Cottage, we knew we had a good chance.

“In the first minute, Trezeguet scores and you’re down 4-1. Looking back, it made the achievement even more amazing. To come back against a team like that was truly unbelievable.

“The fans still got behind us right up until the 94th, 95th minute. The Cottage only holds 25,000, compared to Man United or Liverpool which can take 60,000 or 70,000, but it did sound like that, because the fans generated so much atmosphere. It was a big help to us.”

There were so many firsts for Fulham that season. Was it the most enjoyable of Baird’s career?

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he agrees. “Just for what we achieved. We played 63 games that season and I played 52 of those. It was non-stop, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday for a long, long time, but it was really enjoyable.”

That said, Baird is keen to highlight the brand of football played by the team during the season under Mark Hughes, a period often overlooked. Despite languishing dangerously close to the bottom three in December, the team rallied to finish eighth. The managerial change also saw a more expansive style of football compared to the conservative approach adopted by Hodgson.

“Players have asked me who the best manager I played under was and I keep mentioning Mark,” Chris reveals. “I wish he had stayed on for another year.”

Baird spent much of his time on the banks of the Thames at right-back and it comes as little surprise that one of his favourite players was Damien Duff.

“I did like playing with Damien because his work rate was fantastic,” smiles Chris. “He would always help me out to double up, but when I had the ball, he would give me so many great options. He would go long, he would come short, he’d be inside, he’d be outside. It made it easier for me.”

This was not the only position Baird occupied during his time at the club and the reason he’s held in such high regard by the supporters was his ability to adapt, with his pinpoint passing and excellent positional sense proving to be major assets. He sees this versatility as both a blessing and a curse.

“Whether it’s right-back, centre-half, left-back, holding midfielder or central midfielder as part of a two, I’m not really fussed,” says Baird, who returned briefly to Fulham on loan in the 2015/16 campaign. “I really enjoy football. Sometimes being versatile can be a bad thing. For example, when John Pantsil’s playing and he’s playing well and we had a fully fit team, then I have to wait for someone to get suspended or injured to get my chance.

“Sometimes I wish I had just held down the right-back position, but on the other hand, I was happy to play in midfield. I got to know the position well.”

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: PA

 

Cockerill: ‘My deal to join Fulham was done in half an hour down the local pub’

This is my interview with Glenn Cockerill about the incredibly successful 1996/97 season. It was published in the matchday programme against Derby on Saturday.

Glenn Cockerill may have made only 36 competitive appearances for Fulham, but he played an important role in guiding the club to the Premier League.

After saving the Whites from relegation in his first season as a manager, Micky Adams set about putting together a strong squad on a relative shoestring.

He needed someone with a strong character and knew Cockerill well having played alongside him at Southampton. The partnership proved fruitful, as Fulham gained promotion from Division Three in 1996/97.

“I know Micky was my manager,” the midfielder said, “but he was probably my best mate at the club. My nickname for him was ‘Tarzan’, I don’t know why.

“We both lived in the same village and drank together. My deal to join Fulham was done in half an hour down the local pub, The Jolly Farmer in Warsash.

“He just wanted somebody to socialise up the dressing room and I think by the end of pre-season, my job was accomplished.”

However, that strong team spirit was not just forged in happy times. Cockerill feels the turning point for the campaign took place after a match the players would have wanted to forget.

“The game that stood out for me was our first away trip of the season, to Hartlepool. On the way home, me and Morgs [Simon Morgan] had a chat at the back of the bus. I said ‘come on, I’m here to dig in with you lot’.

“It was a long, long trip home because we’d been beaten, but from that day, I had a feeling that the team would go on and achieve something. We won the next five games.”

Cockerill had been a regular in the Southampton side for the best part of ten years. However, he started to fall out of favour.

“I was in and out of the team in my ninth year and was offered another year to get my testimonial, but I knew I wasn’t going to play every week because the Premier League was getting quicker.

“I was playing against people like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Giggsy and I didn’t want to stick around just to pick up a testimonial game.”

A few seasons with Leyton Orient followed before the move to SW6, where he became Fulham’s oldest-ever debutant, a record that still stands.

Although having a spread of goalscorers was vital for promotion, Cockerill notes the meticulous work done on the training ground to ensure they had the tightest defence in the division.

“We did so well because there were probably four of us who couldn’t move! But no, we were well-drilled. Micky and Corky [Alan Cork] did a good job with us all and did a lot of work on shape, especially with the back four. We also had a top-class keeper [Mark Walton].”

The arrival of Mohamed Al-Fayed ushered in a new era on the Thames, as the arrival of more high-profile names meant that Cockerill was no longer in the frame.

His love affair with the club was rekindled however when he became U19 coach in 1998/99. During this time he met his current wife Angela, who was working at Motspur Park as the academy director’s PA. The couple have three children.

It is not so easy for Glenn to go to Craven Cottage anymore, but despite this he has not forgotten the role the fans played in the on-field success.

“My nine-year-old boy Brody plays football on a Saturday, so I tend to watch him and see the results on TV.

“We were very close to the fans. They were terrific all season, home and away. I believe they saw something different for the first time in many years at Fulham.”

Little did anyone know the adventures that lay ahead in the coming years.