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

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Ayite 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.”

Mitrovic 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 Mitrovic-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,” Mitrovic 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.

Mitrovic’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 Mitrovic. “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.”

Mitrovic 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 Mitrovic 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, Mitrovic 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, Mitrovic 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.”

Mitrovic 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,” Mitrovic 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 Mitrovic’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 Mitrovic, 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,” Mitrovic 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 Mitrovic 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 Mitrovic 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 Mitrovic 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, Mitrovic 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 Mitrovic 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. Mitrovic, 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, Mitrovic 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

 

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

 

Riders muffle Lions’ roar

As show time drew nearer, I had no idea what to expect from my first experience of watching professional basketball. In the UK, the sport is a long way down the pecking order. Its top domestic league, the British Basketball League, receives fairly sparse coverage and draws in small crowds compared to its football and rugby equivalents.

Despite having some games streamed on the BBC Sport website, the division still has massive steps to take if it wants to be a major name in the sporting landscape of this country.

My own exposure to the game had come through fleeting snatches of Olympic competition on TV and the less salubrious surroundings of City of London School’s sports hall, where my coordination and speed was certainly found wanting in PE lessons.

The game I had come to see was London Lions v Leicester Riders. Much like their city’s football team last year, the Riders were top of the tree at the conclusion of the regular season. However, unlike their counterparts, they still had play-offs to negotiate (similarly to rugby union’s Aviva Premiership) if they were to be crowned champions. This encounter was the first of two legs which would determine who would make the final to face either the Newcastle Eagles or Worcester Wolves at the O2.

The Copper Box Arena stands in the shadow of the London Stadium, where West Ham and Tottenham were doing battle in the lucrative Premier League. The former venue and the British Basketball League make up a far more modest package, but comparing the two franchises is hardly fair.

London Stadium

It was fairly obvious as I meandered my way to Stratford that the vast majority of those heading in my direction were going to watch the Hammers, but thankfully there were still a few thousand who had decided that the basketball was the better option.

Once inside, those with media passes could make their way down courtside. However, the lack of media seating presented a problem, so I decided to place myself in a section of seating that was not occupied by the crowd, in line with one of the baskets.

It soon became clear that the environment was far less hostile than during the build-up to a football match. Even though there was a lot at stake, there was no chance of anyone kicking off or lobbing coins at the visiting contingent, which was probably the case at the other big sporting event going on in E20 at that time.

There was applause for visiting coach Rob Paternostro as he was announced as the league’s best coach for the season. However, the ovation was certainly more muted when his charges entered the court, with attention turning to the task in hand.

The PA announcer, who also happened to be the club’s chief executive, Vince Macaulay, succeeded in geeing up the crowd during the warm-up. The cheerleaders for the Lions were already assembled on court, with the players snaking their way through to loud cheers, the substitutes receiving just as big a roar as those starting.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

Then, out of the blue, a gospel rendition of the national anthem was belted out. Craven Cottage this was not.

After the all the hubbub, the tip-off was almost upon us, with the Lions mascot (a lion, funnily enough) patrolling the perimeter of the court to engage the team’s younger fans.

As the match began, it was clear that Macaulay was much more than the club’s figurehead and his charisma greatly endeared himself to the crowd. The opening stages were incredibly to-and-fro, with both teams taking their chances. Slam dunks drew the biggest gasps and the first of those was put away by the Lions to level the scores at 5-5. At 10-10 Macaulay growled “have some of that!” as the hosts netted their second three-pointer of the contest. It was clear that he would not remain impartial.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

One of the Lions substitutes did his best to try and involve the crowd, stamping his feet and throwing sweets in their direction. However, things were threatening to turn sour for his team-mate, with the Riders flying into a 19-12 lead and demonstrating why they were such a fearsome force during the campaign.

Whenever a free-throw attempt was converted, there was a gameshow-style noise which could have been plucked from Pointless, while other interesting references include Woody Woodpecker, the “puppy power!” rallying call from Scooby-Doo and an alien-like zap which could have the beginning of “I’m Blue (Da Ba Dee)”. Macaulay was also back at it, booming “hand in the cookie jar from Conner Washington …. Digestive” as the Leicester man was unable to put away his free-throw.

Basketball clearly appeals to a younger demographic, with groups of teenagers and twenty-somethings standing out in the arena. At a time when people lament the cost of a football ticket, attending a basketball match seems a viable alternative, with tickets as cheap as £7 in advance for kids and just £10 on the door, with the most expensive adult ticket being £22. Family tickets ranged from £35 to £60. The relaxed atmosphere was also a strong point, with spectators allowed to bring food and drink to their seat, although there was not too much of the latter. The engagement with the crowd and the regular use of tunes during breaks in play mirrored Davis Cup tennis and T20 cricket.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

Leicester seemed to be pulling away, but this did not dampen Macaulay’s sprits, as he responded to one of the Leicester being penalised with “if you’re going to travel, you’re going to need an Oyster card”. Tempers began to fray for the first time midway through the second quarter and it became clear why there were three match officials.

The refs rotated anti-clockwise seamlessly and although I initially thought that having three seemed excessive, the thicket of long limbs meant that the ball was often obscured, so it was advantageous to have more than one view of a specific incident.

One of the features of the sport was the way that points were scored extremely regularly, with no time to draw breath, aided by the use of rolling subs. It was no less true in this encounter and while the Lions were seven points down at the halfway mark, the first leg was by no means beyond them.

The interval saw the crowd entertained, as several kids had to make a free throw as part of a competition to get tickets for the BBL Final. These children were, on the whole, extremely diminutive in stature, so I arrogantly assumed they had no chance. After many wayward attempts, Summer made me eat my words with a perfectly-executed effort. No-one managed to replicate her feat, so she scooped the prize.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

“All The Way Up” was blaring out of the speakers, but unfortunately the same could not be said for the Lions, as the Riders still had their noses in front and underlined their championship-winning credentials. Tempers did flare at one stage – the three officials were useful once more – and there was a bit of ‘rutting stags’. Macaulay’s one-liners continued to amuse, as he gently mocked Brandon Clarke with the line by saying, “Hand in the cookie jar, Oreos for you.”

Despite the Lions being thwarted in their attempts to get ahead, they were chipping away at the Riders’ advantage. Having been down 47-40 coming into the quarter, an emphatic three-pointer for the home side meant that they were just two points away from drawing level. Cries of “defense!” reverberated around the arena as the Lions looked to ride the wave of positivity. The importance of the rest of the game was now ramped up – the encounter could go either way. This significance was reflected in the angry reactions of the players following a decision that they felt should have gone their way.

Going into the final quarter, it seemed that the Lions were going to be frustrated, and so it proved. This did nothing to dampen Macauley’s spirits as he admonished Brandon Clarke once more, comparing his footwork to that seen on Strictly Come Dancing. The Lions were six points adrift of their opponents and while they followed this with another shot from outside the three-point arc, their Achilles’ heel in this fixture was being able to capitalise on that conversion. Cries of “Lions” rained down from the stands, as the home support desperately tried to rally the troops. Their partisan backing extended to booing Leicester’s Eric Robertson as he stepped up to take a free-throw.

As the pressure increased, it was the Riders who stood up to the task. The game had become very stretched and there were definitely some tired bodies out there, but it was only the visitors who were able to take their chances in an end-to-end denouement. The final score was 90-71 to the Riders, a healthy lead to take into the second leg.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

The Lions were understandably dejected, but they showed their professionalism by posing with fans at the end of the game, while also shaking hands with those who had hospitality seats. Children flooded onto the court, revelling in the opportunity to occupy the space recently vacated by their heroes.

In the end, it was not be for London’s only professional basketball team, as they were defeated in the return leg 72-55 in the East Midlands. Nevertheless, their season was a successful one, as they made an improvement on their quarter-final finish in 2015/16. Coming away from the match, I got the impression that this was a club very much in touch with its fans and had aspirations to pick up silverware in the not-too-distant future. Watch this space.

A Foot In Both Camps: Fred Callaghan

This interview with Fred Callaghan was published in the Fulham matchday programme against Brentford on Saturday 29 April 2017.

Fred Callaghan made 336 appearances for Fulham, later spending just under four years as manager at Brentford from March 1980 to February 1984. It’s the Whites he’ll be supporting today, however…

What memories do you have of your time at Fulham?

The highlight was playing and training every day there. Fulham had a good atmosphere and we were always known as a homely club. I still go as a supporter. I started off as a 15-year-old and for the last 50 years, I’ve been following Fulham. It’s part of my life.

Craven Cottage is still fantastic. The pitch is great, it’s a terrific setting and it has a great atmosphere because the crowd are so near the pitch. The fans have seen the good times and the bad. Hopefully the good times are on their way back.

Of all the players you played alongside during your time at the Club, who stands out for you?

I played with a few world-class players over the years. Obviously, the likes of Johnny Haynes, George Cohen and Alan Mullery stand out, as well as some good up-and-coming youngsters at the time like Rodney Marsh, Steve Earle, Les Barrett and John Dempsey. All these lads went on to have good careers and we all came through together.

You also spent four years as manager at Brentford. What were the highlights of your time at Griffin Park?

I’ve got some fond memories of my spell there. The only problem at the time was that there was no money to spend on players or staff. Myself and Ron Harris, who was my assistant, used to paint the dressing rooms and the crash barriers, fork the pitch, roll the pitch – we had to do everything. The team were in the old Division Three, but I brought in some decent players – Terry Hurlock, Gary Roberts, David Crown, Chris Kamara and Stan Bowles all played for me.

What do you make of the current Fulham side?

When Tom Cairney is on song, the whole team plays well. We’ve also got a few up-and-coming youngsters like Ryan Sessegnon, who grew up in the same area as me, Roehampton. He’s improved and has come a long way for a 16-year-old. We look to have a really well-balanced team and hopefully we can carry on our good form right until the end of the season and get promotion. We struggle against sides that try to hit the ball long, but if team play us on the deck, we’ll outplay them.

As for Brentford, what have you made of them this season?

Brentford have done very well and that’s all down to their chairman. He’s put his money in and employed a very good manager. Hopefully there’s a bright future for them; I’m sure there will be. They’re a useful team and it will be a hard game for us. We’ve already beaten them this season, though, so I reckon we can do that again.

Finally, are you confident Fulham will get promoted via the Play-Offs?

I think we’ll go up. We’re top scorers this season and I think the players have really entertained the crowd this term, which is all down to the style that the boss has put in place.

Image: Getty Images

“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