“There’s no club like Fulham”

I interviewed Leroy Rosenior for January’s issue of Fultime, where we talked about Jimmy Hill, Craven Cottage and much more.

Leroy Rosenior still has a great deal of affection for Fulham Football Club. It is where he received his big break as a professional footballer, going on to play for the Whites in three separate spells, before his son Liam followed in his footsteps. Having experienced the game as a player, manager and now as a pundit, his passion for the sport that gave him so much is undimmed. 

Leroy first joined Fulham in 1982 and it is fair to say that the bedding-in process was not exactly smooth. “My debut had been against Leicester away and I had broken my collarbone, which I didn’t know at the time. I played the full 90 minutes, although I had broken it just before half-time. I got on the bus, went to hospital and found out the true extent of the injury. I was out for a year. Then I made my debut at home on my return [against Derby County] and scored two goals.”

Fulham’s link with the Roseniors lived in when Liam signed for the club. “I remember going to Craven Cottage to watch my son play against Man United. I was really proud, he marked Ronaldo and became captain of Fulham. Then a couple of years ago, I took my two young boys down there to watch Arsenal at home. The club got me seats right behind the dugout. So I’ve had lots of good memories at Fulham and every time I go back there I feel very, very comfortable.”

It is clear that the infrastructure has changed beyond all recognition in the 26 years since the Balham-born striker left Craven Cottage for the final time as a player, but the character of the ground helps to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

“I have seen Fulham move the club forward, the facilities have improved a lot from my playing days there, but if they are going to develop, they need to develop the club on that site [Craven Cottage]. It’s unique and it’s special and it has a heart. It’s a lovely place for supporters to go home and away. It’s a lovely place to play football and if you were to build a purpose-built facility somewhere on the outskirts of the borough, not only would you lose a lot of heart, you would lose a lot of the history as well and I think that’s massively important. When you go back, you can smell the history, you can sense the history. It’s a celebration of the people that have been there. When you go back to a ground like Craven Cottage, that’s what you are doing, you are celebrating all those people who have graced that football club.”

When I asked why he felt such a strong connection to the club, the response was immediate. “The club did so much for me. When I first went to the club [in 1982] under Malcolm Macdonald as a kid, I was at school. They gave me a trial and within three months I was a professional footballer and that was all because of Fulham. Over the years I played with people like Gerry Peyton, Paul Parker, Ray Houghton. All these players went on to have excellent careers and they taught me a lot.”

The 1982-1983 campaign promised so much for the club, as we fought for promotion from the second division, narrowly missing out in controversial circumstances to Derby. Although sidelined with his injury, Leroy remembers the game well. “I remember when the crowd came on with a few minutes remaining and there was the disappointment of the players. I really did feel for them. I didn’t actually really feel a part of that because I was still a kid, but I remember that and I remember the effect it had on the club, because Malcolm Macdonald had done such a magnificent job and from then on it was always going to be very difficult for him. Obviously, I think he left the club because of other things outside the game and the club really never recovered from that day.”

Leroy still remembers Macdonald’s flamboyant coaching style with great fondness. “Malcolm was a motivator. He would make you feel that you were the best player in the world. He’d come in and he’d have a big cigar on. In training, he’d say ‘no, that’s not how to do it’ and then he’d smash it into the roof of the net. He gave you unbelievable belief.

 “All of my managers at Fulham had positive traits and that’s what management is about, it’s about managing in your own way and getting the best out of people and they all did that.”

However, despite the high regard in which he held his former managers, the man who had the greatest influence on the club at that time, and indeed on Leroy’s career, was the late Jimmy Hill.

 “There’s no-one who is on a level with Jimmy in terms of his influence on the game of football in this country. He was so engaging. He engaged with people, he was inspirational in a lot of ways, but the most important thing was that he was a really nice guy. He was a fun guy to be around and I was very fortunate to get to know Jimmy.”

Hill was instrumental in kick-starting Leroy’s media career having enticed the striker back to the club when we were languishing in Division Three. “He [Jimmy] persuaded me to come back. I wasn’t sure about going back from QPR, because I was in the top division with them and I had to be really persuaded to go back. It could have been a backwards step, but it was the best move I ever made and not only did it give me the platform to go on and do well playing-wise, but it also gave me the platform to have this career that I have in the media now. Jimmy Hill got me to have media training and got me on Capital Gold with Jonathan Pearce.”

Leroy almost made it into the Fulham coaching set-up due to Hill’s influence. “There was a point when Ian Branfoot was manager and Jimmy wanted me to be the next manager of Fulham and asked me to make sure that I got my coaching badges. I had my coaching badges at the age of 24 because of Jimmy Hill and when Branfoot got the job, he [Hill] wanted me to be his assistant manager with a view to being the next manager. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a relationship between me and Ian so that never happened and it was a big regret that I never managed to fulfil that ambition. Jimmy was the person who saw that potential in me. And I’m sure that he not only saw that in me, but he saw the potential in lots of people, he saw the good, the best bits in people and he brought it out in people and that is a rare, rare talent.”

After hanging up his boots, Leroy made the thankless transition to management. He is realistic about his prospects of returning to the dugout. “You never say never, but I’ve been out of management a little while now. I didn’t really get the opportunities that I thought I’d get, but I was lucky because I found a career in the media. However, I love coaching, so if the opportunity arose I would obviously think really, really carefully about getting back into the game.”

The lack of black and ethnic miniority managers in English football is glaringly obvious and while the pace of change may seem frustratingly slow, Leroy insists that progress is being made. “They aren’t many more black and ethnic minority managers than there were ten years ago, but there are lots more black players now who are more inclined to get their coaching badges and look at a career in coaching, which hadn’t been the case because they didn’t have any role models.

“I think that organisations like the FA, the Premier League, the PFA, Kick It Out and Show Racism The Red Card are always looking for positive ways to promote ethnic minorities and to encourage them to get into the game.

“And it’s not just about black managers, it’s about grassroots and administrative positions. When I was managing, when I went into a football club, the only other black people I’d see in and around the football club would be the cleaners and that is what I wanted to change.”

Since the BBC stopped airing Football League highlights three years ago, Leroy’s attentions have turned to the top-flight. “I work for the Premier League and watch every single game. Our analysis is broadcast around the world and we do four or five live shows a week. I engage with people from all around the world and everyone thinks it’s the best product in the world.” He is also an ambassador for Show Racism The Red Card and writes a column in the Bristol Evening Post looking at both league clubs in the city. As well as that, he has a book coming out, which will predominantly touch on Leroy’s experiences as a professional footballer.

It can be easy to forget what a special club Fulham is. It is clear from listening to interviews with numerous current and former players that they often form an affinity with the club that endures for far longer than their spell by the river. This is certainly the case with Leroy.

‘You don’t realise what a unique club Fulham is until you come away from it. There’s no other club that has such an unbelievable setting, the type of fans that it attracts. It is a very, very homely club and that’s a massive strength.

“I was very fortunate to come from school at that age and to go to a club like Fulham. I think if I had gone anywhere else, it would have eaten me alive. But Fulham was a really lovely way to start my career. It was no surprise that I went back, I kept on going back, because you always go back to somewhere where you’re comfortable and happy and I was always happy there.”

Leroy’s book, It’s Only Banter, is out on February 28.

Image credit: The Telegraph

Gander Green Lane a happy home for Sutton

Sutton United 2-0 Bromley

Sutton United maintained their impressive home form with a 2-0 win over Bromley at Gander Green Lane. In the process, the U’s avenged their 1-0 defeat against the Ravens on Boxing Day.

By all accounts, the first half was poor. Neither side got into their rhythm on what was a cold afternoon. Most of the attacking moves broke down after just a few passes, with both teams opting for a direct approach. However, as has been the case for much of the season, many of Sutton’s best moves went through Roarie Deacon. The tricky winger had a shot deflected wide in the sixth minute before playing a ball down the right wing for Dan Fitchett. The striker collected the pass and cut inside his marker, but the shot went wide of Alan Julian’s right-hand post.

The home fans were angry at what they perceived to be unsporting behaviour from Bromley, who booted the ball out of play after Sutton had allowed one of the opposition players to receive treatment (cue a cry of “you’re a horrible cheat” from one of the Sutton fans). The hosts continued to have the lion’s share of the opportunities, with Deacon’s delivery falling loose, allowing Bedsente Gomis to send in a shot from close range that was palmed over impressively by Julian. At the other end, the visitors almost got a chance of their own, with David Martin’s cross crucially cut out by stalwart Nicky Bailey.

Every time it looked like that the deadlock would be broken, a wayward shot or inaccurate pass provided a reality check. Chances for Bradley Hudson-Odoi, an early replacement for Ben Jefford, and Bailey went begging. Deacon continue to buzz around Bromley’s box, fizzing a fierce effort wide from just outside the box, before former Arsenal man Craig Eastmond screwed a presentable chance wide. However, it was Bromley that had the clearest chance of the match up to that point, as Conor Dymond raced into the box from the left-wing, only to inexplicably lose his footing at the vital moment. This led to a flurry of activity with a header from a corner by Bromley’s talisman and top scorer Blair Turgott drawing an instinctive save from Ross Worner.

Then came the breakthrough in the final minute of first-half stoppage time. A foul on Hudson-Odoi led to the award of a free-kick. Deacon expertly whipped the ball into the box and Maxime Biamou rose to plant his header into the corner.

The second half was a far more open affair, perhaps brought to life by a goal that the match sorely needed, as Turgott and the lively Hudson-Odoi both having chances for their respective teams. It was then Eastmond’s turn to take centre stage. The midfielder found himself in space about 25 yards out and cracked a ferocious shot against the inside of the post, before the ball rolled agonisingly across the face of goal. Paul Doswell’s men were firmly in the ascendancy and Deacon was once again giving his opponents a torrid time.

Eventually, their territorial dominance brought its reward. Hudson-Odoi pounced on the loose ball after pinball in the box following a corner and he made no mistake, finishing with aplomb. There were still just under 30 minutes of normal time to play, but Neil Smith’s men had not shown enough to suggest that they could claw themselves back into the match. Biamou headed over from a Deacon corner before newly-introduced Bradley Goldberg won a corner off Nicky Bailey. However, the visitors were not making the most of the few chances that came their way and it was Sutton who were still looking the more threatening, with Deacon once again sending in a devilish cross that was just headed over by Dan Fitchett.

As the match entered its closing stages the play became more fragmented. The Sutton fans became increasingly irate, with one shouting that the ref was “the worst we’ve had down here this season and that’s saying something!” The bitty nature of the last few minutes was summed out by a nasty challenge from a drop-ball; possibly the first instance of its kind in history. 

Sutton saw out the win and underlined their dominance at Gander Green Lane, where they have won nine out of 14 league games and tasted defeat just three times. While their home form has been excellent, the same cannot be said for their away results, with just one win on the road. If they are to mount a play-off challenge, this record must be improved dramatically. For now though,  the team can bask in the glow of a well-deserved win and eagerly look ahead to next weekend’s Derby clash with AFC Wimbledon, as the U’s look to claim another FA Cup scalp in what will undoubtedly be one of the biggest games in the club’s history.

Alex Bowmer

Sutton take Wimbledon to a replay

Sutton United 0-0 AFC Wimbledon

In the build-up to this clash, it was difficult to pinpoint the most interesting sub-plot. Is it the fact that the teams are 49 places apart in the English football pyramid? Or that they feature two of this country’s longest-serving managers? Is it the fact that Sutton have a rich heritage in this competition, knocking out top-flight Coventry City twenty-eight years to the day? Or that AFC Wimbledon played their first match as a ‘new’ club against today’s opponents in a friendly, before six promotions in thirteen seasons saw them rise from the Combined Counties League to their current status as a League One club?

Whatever the ‘correct’ answer, the sense of anticipation made for a febrile atmosphere at Gander Green Lane. While both clubs were disappointed that this fixture was not televised, it probably enticed more fans to the ground, with 5013 expectant fans pouring through the turnstiles, despite there being only 765 seats. The hosts had pulled out all the stops to accommodate the hordes of media representatives, and a certain Alan Pardew was also in attendance.

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The first-half began energetically, even though quality football was at a premium. Of those in Sutton’s starting line-up, the only player never to have played in the English Football League was Maxime Biamou. This level of experience meant that the gap between the two teams was minimal and indeed it was Sutton who enjoyed the better chances over the course of the match. The first of these came after five minutes following an interception from Bedsente Gomis. He slipped in a neat through-ball to Matt Tubbs. Tubbs, who enjoyed a productive spell at the Dons two seasons ago, got the ball out of his feet but hit his shot wide of James Shea’s left-hand post.

Tubbs had made an encouraging start to the match and seemed intent on proving that he still belonged in Football League company. He won a free-kick a few minutes later, which Roarie Deacon took. The former Arsenal and Sunderland trainee floated an inch-perfect delivery into the box for Nicky Bailey to get his head on, but the former Charlton and Middlesbrough midfielder diverted his effort over the bar. The hosts were clearly relishing the opportunity to put one over their local rivals, but Wimbledon soon provided a reminder of their threat, with Lyle Taylor curling the ball over the bar, leaving keeper Ross Worner slightly concerned.

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Despite being on the back foot for much of the opening stages, Neal Ardley’s men had enough quality in their ranks to force the issue as the half wore on. Tom Elliott and Lyle Taylor have formed a strong partnership up front, and the former almost made a connection to the latter’s cross. The Dons had a bit of momentum now, with 37-year-old Dannie Bulman’s snapshot gathered in by Worner, before Andy Barcham almost ran clean through, only to be thwarted as he was bearing down on goal.

Dean Parrett was also growing into the encounter, demonstrating his prowess from free-kicks and giving the Sutton defence a few nervy moments. However, one of those deliveries ironically led to possibly the hosts’ best chance of the first half. Worner’s punch away found Deacon and the winger drifted forward before playing a sumptuous through-ball to Biamou, who sprinted clear. Just when it looked as if he would send the home fans into ecstasy, his effort with the outside of his right foot whistled over the bar. The groans from three sides of the ground and the delirium in the Wimbledon end gave you a sense of just how important that chance was. Minutes later, Deacon knocked the ball down to Gomis, who blazed over.

maxime-biamou

A nagging suspicion in a game of this sort is that an off-colour display from the league side in the opening period would pick up in the second half and this duly happened. At the forefront of this revival was the impressive Parrett. The tricky winger had come through the ranks at Tottenham but never really got the chance to demonstrate his potential at White Hart Lane. Following a three-year stint at Stevenage he moved to Kingsmeadow in the summer of 2016 and his ability was shining through in this match.

In charge of set-pieces, he whipped another free-kick delivery that was punched away, before sending in a cross that was gathered in by Worner. His partner in crime Barcham was also displaying quick feet of his own, evading a few challenges before flashing a shot across the face of the goal with Worner stranded. Wimbledon were now starting to look like the side who would take the game by the scruff of the neck. However, Deacon was always capable of turning the game in his side’s favour and another pinpoint pass set Biamou free. This time the Frenchman got his effort on target, but Shea got down smartly to palm the ball away from danger. Seemingly buoyed by that chance, the non-league outfit began to knock on the door again. However, Tubbs, despite his willingness, does not have the stature to hold the ball up and became an isolated figure, leading to his eventual replacement by Dan Fitchett. Neither team was content to sit back, but the end product was lacking.

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Then, five minutes from the end of normal time, the referee had a big decision to make. Dons captain Barry Fuller made his way into the box only to be taken by substitute Bradley Hudson-Odoi. The massed ranks of Wimbledon fans behind the goal howled for a penalty, but the man in the middle Keith Stroud waved away the protests. After watching the TV replays, it did appear that Hudson-Odoi took the ball although his trailing leg did catch Fuller from behind. Undeterred, Wimbledon kept pressing and after pinball in the box following a corner, Paul Robinson snatched at his shot, which flew just over the bar into the Sutton sky.

Hudson-Odoi aimed to atone for his risky challenge, giving his marker twisted blood before curling in a delicious ball that nobody gambled on. A lack of clinical finishing was both side’s undoing and this was typified when, in the dying embers of the game, Elliott failed to connect cleanly when close to goal, knocking his effort wide, which was quickly followed by another effort by Robinson, valiantly blocked by a member of the Sutton rearguard.

The Vanarama Conference side then had one last chance when they were awarded a free-kick. The anticipation had reached fever pitch, as the home fans dared to dream one last time. The ball was swung by Deacon and after an almighty scramble, Gomis leapt like a salmon, only to direct his acrobatic bicycle kick over the top.

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Given all the fanfare that had preceded the fixture, the outcome was underwhelming. However, there was plenty of endeavour on display, with both sides clearly going for the win. Both clubs would welcome the revenue boost that a cup run would bring (if not the added workload). The replay takes place on Tuesday 17 January and there is the significant carrot of a home tie against Leeds United for the victor. The prospect of a further Cup giant-killing awaits.

Alex Bowmer