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Fulham returning flags flying

last updated Thursday 09th November 2000, 8:49 PM
When Fulham were relegated from the top flight in 1968 they had to decide what to do with the 21 First Division flags that flew over Craven Cottage. A concerned fan wrote to the club, asking whether they now intended flying the flags of their 21 Second Division rivals along the terracing that backed onto the River Thames. The reply, in the match programme for their opening game of the season, was no. No new flags were needed as Fulham were intending to stay in the Second Division for one season only. The programme editor was absolutely right. They did. But instead of spending one season in the Second Division and going back up, Fulham dropped like a stone into Division Three.

It was the start of a long exile among English soccer's also-rans which has now lasted 33 seasons. But the long wait for a place back among the elite could soon be over. Former Scottish international John Collins, one of a number of excellent players attracted to West London over the last three years, thinks so. And he believes that Saturday's match against Wimbledon will bring them another three points in their search for glory.

The clash with Wimbledon is a fascinating one. In 1968 when Fulham last played in the top flight, Wimbledon were a semi-professional outfit playing in the regional Southern League at their modest old Plough Lane home just three miles away across the river.

Fulham had their moments after relegation, losing the 1975 FA Cup final to West Ham and missing out on promotion back to Division One by a point in 1983. But Wimbledon were a phenomenon. They were in the top flight by 1988 and beat Liverpool in that year's FA Cup final while Fulham were in the backwaters of the old Third Division. Yet Fulham always had a better ground and a bigger fan-base than Wimbledon. It is only now, since Wimbledon's relegation from the Premier League last season and Fulham's great start to this one that the "natural order" has been restored.

Fulham go to Wimbledon having won 12 of their first 15 league matches of the season and losing just once. They rattled off 11 wins in their first 11 matches and after two draws and a defeat, recovered their momentum with a 3-0 win over Huddersfield last weekend. The money invested in the club by Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed, Fulham's owner since 1997, and the outstanding start they have made under new French coach Jean Tigana looks like paying handsome dividends come May. There would have to be a huge collapse in their playing form if they were to miss out on promotion now.

Collins, who has played at the highest level for Hibs, Celtic, Monaco and Everton, believes Fulham has what it takes to succeed -- and are expected to do so. "I think confidence is back again...we're going to Wimbledon looking to win the game as we always do," he told Reuters in an interview at the club's training ground. "The key was to bounce out of that situation when we were drawing and losing as quickly as possible and we have with the win against Huddersfield".

It is perhaps a measure of Fulham's ambition and quality that so much was made of their dip in form, and it is easy to forget that as recently as 1997 they were in the bottom division. Even during the mini-slump, Fulham picked up two points but as Collins acknowledged: "A draw's a poor result for us."

Coach Tigana can claim the credit for luring Collins, who played under him at Monaco, to Craven Cottage. As France's World-Cup winning coach Aime Jacquet said this week: "I would say that English football has suddenly fallen in love with French football." Fulham is part of that trend.

Collins is full of praise for his manager, for whom he acts as interpreter on the training pitch. He believes the Frenchman's pre-season fitness training has provided a concrete base for the whole season. "With Jean, nothing is left to chance, we're very well prepared....and without a doubt the players really enjoy their football." The creative, free-flowing and attacking football Fulham play reflects Tigana's desire for his players to take risks, free of post-match blame or criticism. "We've been told by the manager to go out and express ourselves, every player right from the goalkeeper and fullbacks... if we lose the ball trying to pass, it's not important," Collins said.

Fine tuning may be needed but Fulham fans have little to complain about so far. Indeed, they could even send the manager or the owener a token of their appreciation -- bought from a new website Collins has helped start which enables loved ones to send gifts to each other. If Fulham are to build another winning streak, Collins thinks they will have to work hard on their first half performances. "We have to start games better than we have been starting. We set ourselves very high standards and we dropped those standards and our concentration levels," Collins said.

But overall things could hardly be better with only Watford a point better off at the top of the table. And who knows, in a few months time someone may even be sent to search the bowels of Craven Cottage for a set of dusty old flags that have not seen the light of day since 1968.

Source Reuters

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