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Fulham FC: The Saga

last updated Saturday 06th January 2001, 9:46 AM
Let me take you down to the riverside for a tale of greed and goodness, of house prices and French kissing, above all of people chasing upward mobility. This is the saga of Fulham Football Club.

The story starts on the fifth floor of Harrods, home to Fulham's owner, Mohamed Fayed. The showpiece of his sports department is a raised platform of Fulham FC products. It is Thursday morning and a sales assistant patiently explains to an American lover of football that Fulham are not Chelsea despite Chelsea residing on the Fulham Road, that Fulham are in a lower division than Chelsea but are actually a better team.

Only mildly perplexed, the Amex Man wanders off to the non-Fulham area of the department but soon returns, wanting to pay for some glossily-branded Manchester United merchandise. The assistant sighs inwardly, smiles outwardly, takes the money and waits even more impatiently for tomorrow's dawn. For this is the day when Fayed's desire for Fulham to become "the Manchester United of the South" faces its examination by the original, when aspiring hosts entertain Premiership royalty.

Walk along Stevenage Road, London SW6, and the sign on the noble, listed facade of Fulham's stadium, Craven Cottage, reads: Next home game - Manchester United. It has extra white space at the end as if begging for someone to scrawl an exclamation mark. Fulham feel half-awed, half-electrified. Fayed reckons every one of the 19,500 tickets available could have been sold 10 times; even his star striker, the Frenchman Louis Saha, has had to buy eight tickets for his family.

An upwardly-mobile man with an upwardly-mobile club, Fayed knows that tomorrow will reveal whether Fulham are prepared for Premiership pressures and whether the area is ready for the fortnightly invasion of even more fans, thronging attractive avenues in one of London's most desirable locations. In a smart building at the intersection where the Fulham Road meets Fulham Palace Road lies the club shop, displaying garments, gadgets and, most importantly, a model of Fayed's planned redevelopment. The beloved Cottage will be bulldozed but Fulham will remain on the banks of the Thames, dwelling in what the club's well-heeled PR lady extols as "a state-of-the-art, 30,000-seat stadium reminiscent of Lord's cricket ground".

Hammersmith and Fulham Council deliver their verdict late next month, leaving fans waiting anxiously. "If we don't get permission then Fulham Football Club will not be Fulham any more because there's nowhere else in Fulham for us to play," believes Tom Greatrex, a season-ticket holder who has organised a demonstration tomorrow to highlight the widespread support for Fayed's plans.

"Some residents are against it and I suspect house prices are behind it," says Greatrex. Some of the terraced houses leading down from Fulham Palace Road sell for more than £700,000, which would rise if occasionally noisy neighbours were forced out. "But these people knew when they moved into the area that the club was here," says Greatrex. "The ground has been on that site for 104 years. It's been there longer than the surrounding streets."

Land once used for Anne Boleyn's hunting sorties gradually became built up and then gentrified. The first cottage was erected, in which Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote The Last Days of Pompeii. But as the club expanded, this was demolished and rebuilt in a corner of the ground.

Fulham's fortunes have certainly fluctuated. Craven Cottage thrilled to the post-war skills of Johnny Haynes and George Cohen, then the Seventies side of Bobby Moore and Alan Mullery and the Malcolm Macdonald-managed Eighties class of Ray Houghton, Paul Parker and Tony Gale before the money ran out.

Wilderness years followed. Property speculators prowled around. But, faced with a merger with Queens Park Rangers, the `Fulham Park Rangers' suggestion, Fulham's fans formed an effective resistance movement, most notably in calling on other clubs' supporters to come to the Cottage for a peaceful pitch protest in 1987.

Standing on the Hammersmith end until the signal came at half-time to slip through a gate opened by a sympathetic steward, I joined hundreds of others on the pitch before an orderly dispersal. Fulham were losing 1-0 but scored four in the second half. The joke afterwards was that the club had become keen on weekly demos.

But it was no laughing matter. Fulham were dropping like a lead weight off Putney Bridge, plumbing the professional depths to 91st in the League by 1996. "It got worse and worse until Micky Adams came in, we won at Exeter and began the revival," reflects Greatrex.

Fayed's arrival, installing Kevin Keegan, then Paul Bracewell and now Jean Tigana, accelerated Fulham's upward mobility. Stories surrounding Fayed at the Cottage are legion. Saha recalls looking around the stadium with his father and bumping into Fayed, who inquired: "Is he your boyfriend?".

When Fulham drew Margate in the FA Cup three years ago, the non-Leaguers received a request of, "have you got a helicopter pad?" And the issue of Fayed's passport-seeking will never fade; when the Indian national side played Fulham at the Cottage pre-season, hundreds of India supporters waved their British passports at Fayed.

Whatever the public perception of Fayed, Fulham fans sing the praises of the man turning their dreams into reality. An ad-hoc band, Colin and The Cottagers, have released a CD featuring `Chairman Mo' which includes one of the world's rarer rhymes: "We are not Barcelona; Fayed is the owner."

And a much-loved one. "I think the chairman has a genuine affection for the club," adds Greatrex. "Past owners have been more interested in property speculation. Fayed does not want to rip the stadium down and build housing. I think he wants to build up the club as a business, get it into the Premiership, and that's when you start making money."

Fayed says simply: "I'm loving every minute of it. I'm very proud at what's happening here at Fulham. Anyone who saw us against Liverpool at Anfield in the Worthington Cup will testify we're a good side."

Liverpool won comfortably in extra time but have nothing but respect for Fulham. "They're a good, skilful side who won't look out of place in the Premiership," argues Steven Gerrard.

Tigana's philosophy has always been that football's "a simple game", that "when you have the ball you're strong and when you don't, you're weak". So Fulham work hard to retrieve the ball and do not waste it. Down at the training ground at Motspur Park on Thursday afternoon, Tigana could be found coaching and coaxing his players in the art of using the ball properly.

Fayed would win few football quizzes but he appreciates the "good football" that has carried Fulham seven points clear in the First Division. "We have the potential, over the next few years, to get alongside the great teams like United, Liverpool and Arsenal," says Fayed.

"We have the man to take us there in Jean Tigana. There's a lot of magic about Jean Tigana. Any player at Fulham - or in France - will tell you that he has a wonderful talent for making good players great. I talked to Michel Platini two weeks ago and he said, `You have a great coach'."

Tigana's formidable application may stem from his late arrival in football; he walked the streets of Marseilles as a postman before his professional career took off, carrying him to 1984 European Championship glory. He works all the daylight hours, and many of the darkness ones, watching videos and preparing the team for what he calls "the great adventure". Blending loan signings, homegrown players and intelligent buys into a cohesive force, Tigana will attack United with a side costing only £6.5 million.

Although missing important players such as Chris Coleman - lucky to be alive after that horrific car crash on Tuesday night - John Collins, Lee Clark and Sean Davis, Fulham will not lack self-belief.

"Tigana's a very good manager at psychology," explains Saha, an appealing, smiling figure as he holds court at Motspur Park. "He gave me more confidence, got me to work harder in front of goal and that is why I am scoring more." Twenty-one and rising.

All the players laud Tigana's "relaxed" approach with one caveat - they have to deliver. "Once or twice this season we've felt the full force of his unhappiness," says goalkeeper Maik Taylor, almost wincing at the memory of Tigana's anger.

The Frenchman's approach is more scientific than Keegan's off-the-cuff style. "There's much more emphasis now on playing out from the back and keeping possession," adds Taylor. "To be honest, we never really did a lot of teamwork before. Kevin Keegan just had us feeling we were the best players in the world and we just went out and managed to get results."

Unlike at Chelsea, where the Italian Claudio Ranieri avoids press conferences because of his poor English, Tigana quickly learnt the new language. He encourages his foreign players to converse in their adopted tongue at all times; Saha speaks only English with his French girlfriend, Aurelie, at home in Oxshott, Surrey.

Yet Fulham's French contingent do fall about whenever they hear Les Rosbifs call Tigana `gaffer' - gaffeur means blunderer in French. Far from blundering in his debut season in England, Tigana has his priorities right and he sees the Cup as just a glorious distraction.

His stance is simple: "We have not had top-level football at Fulham for 32 years. If we want to play against the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool all the time next season, we need to be promoted this season."

A manager immune from Cup fever "hasn't let us get carried away", according to Taylor. But the thrill remains. "There's a massive buzz about playing United," adds Taylor. "They're almost the perfect team. Nothing tactically can stop them. But we're the underdogs with nothing to lose."

Saha will be disappointed that Fabien Barthez is out with flu. He had played against him while leading Metz's attack against Monaco last season. "I had five or six chances but Fabien stopped me every time. He's a great keeper, a legend, and better than Schmeichel," he said.

If Barthez had played Saha would have refrained from kissing the keeper's bald head. "I don't know him like Laurent Blanc," laughs Saha at a famous tradition among French footballers.

The Cup is not all romance. "The last time we played United in the Cup, we lost our manager [Keegan] shortly afterwards to England," concludes Greatrex. "I hope the French job doesn't come up in the next couple of days." Upward mobility surrounds Fulham.
Source sport telegraph by Henry Winter

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