By Cameron Dickinson of The National Game
Wednesday May 12 will mark the highlight of one of football’s most phenomenal rags to riches stories, when Fulham line up against Athletico Madrid in the Europa League final.
Under the guidance of Roy Hodgson they have beaten European powerhouses like the competition’s defending champions Shakhtar Donetsk, German champions Wolfsburg and Italian giants Juventus, overcoming almost insurmountable odds in each tie.
It is a truly meteoric rise for the London side and one that could be capped with the club’s first major piece of silverware in its history. Rewind 14 years and it wasn’t European silverware on the agenda but merely survival in the Football League as the club toiled in England’s bottom tier under the tutelage of Ian Branfoot. With average gates of just 4000, only seven full time staff members and spiralling debts the club looked to heading towards oblivion.
Many Fulham fans point to one particular day in January 1996 as the blackest in the club’s history. The Cottagers, who were second bottom of the league, travelled to bottom club Torquay United and lost convincingly. They needed a saviour and luckily they got one. But it wasn’t Mohamed Al Fayed who first wrestled the club from its knees, it was Micky Adams. Appointed towards the end of the 1995/96 season the future Leicester boss guided the club to safety, before embarking on a superb first full season in charge, leading the club to its first promotion for 15 years with a second place finish, only missing out on the championship on goals scored.
The following summer saw the arrival of the Al Fayed who pledged, to much amusement amongst football fans, to take the club to the Premier League within five years. His reward to Micky Adams was to sack him after a poor start to the season, installing a ‘managerial dream team’ of Ray Wilkins and Kevin Keegan. The club’s first season in Division Two (League One to newer football fans) was learning curve and both managers struggled in their roles as co-leaders prompting Wilkins to leave at the end of the 1998 season, allowing Keegan to take charge of first team affairs on his own.
Al Fayed then began to show his financial clout allowing Keegan to spend over £1 million on Paul Peschisolido and making Chris Coleman one of the most expensive defenders in the Football League, but the results were more than worth it. 101 points and 79 goals later Fulham were back in the Second Tier of English football in emphatic style, beating off the likes of Manchester City to the title. However, as always, things did not run smoothly as Keegan left to take over the England job, meaning that Paul Bracewell was promoted from within to take charge of the club’s first Division One campaign in 13 years, not the ideal preparation.
A bright start saw them in with a real chance of automatic promotion or at least the playoffs but mediocre mid season form saw them slip to mid table obscurity and Al Fayed, not known for his patience, fired Bracewell in March 2000, replacing him with Frenchman Jean Tigana, who salvaged some pride with a 9th place finish before plotting the club’s route to promotion.
Promising youngsters like Louis Saha were signed and fired the club to another 101 point haul, banging in 90 goals in the process, sealing top flight football for the first time in 33 years. Al Fayed’s much scorned five year Premier League plan had been drastically wrong, they had done it in four.
Fulham were tipped by some to challenge for a European place in their first season back in the Premier League, such was their dominance the previous season, and the fans went in to the season hopeful of another spectacular performance. They were disappointed in that respect but a more than credible 13th place finish, eight points clear of relegation, was a triumph for their previously stricken club. The following season Tigana paid the price of raised expectations as the club struggled to break in to mid table resulting in his sacking following a 4-0 home defeat by Blackburn, with the club deep in a relegation battle. Perhaps the biggest flop of Tigana’s reign was the signing of Steve Marlet for over £11 million. The Frenchman played only 54 games in three years and scored just 11 goals in that spell.
It was left to former defender Chris Coleman to try and steer the club to safety and he did superbly taking 10 points from the last five games to lift the club to a 14th place finish. Coleman was given the job on a permanent basis after his heroics the previous season and he embarked on four years of defying the odds to keep the club in the Premier League. Al Fayed had tightened the purse strings to keep the club operating in the black and, as such, Coleman was left searching for bargain signings, whilst being forced to sell his star players, one example being Louis Saha’s sale to Manchester United.
The highlight of Coleman’s time in charge was undoubtedly his first full season. Many believed his inexperience would result in relegation but his side defied the odds and finished in a club record 9th place. Mid-table obscurity followed for the next two seasons as the club became a fully established Premier League side, but the 2006/07 season spelled the end of the Welshman’s tenure.
Years of battling the odds finally caught up with him between December 2006 and May the following year as the club won just one game in that time to slip dangerously close to the relegation zone, resulting in Coleman’s dismissal. Northern Ireland boss Lawrie Sanchez took control on a temporary basis and managed to guide the club to safety but struggled to build on that the following season and he was replaced by current manager Roy Hodgson in December 2007 with the club in the relegation zone.
The 2007/08 season was a poor one for the club and even with Hodgson’s vast experience they appeared to be slipping towards relegation with five games to go. Indeed the club were mathematically relegated at half-time of their game with Man City as they trailed 2-0. Incredibly they recovered to win the game 3-2 and preserve their status for another game. Their battle continued to the final day, where they needed a win at FA Cup finalists Portsmouth to guarantee their survival. Again they were mathematically down at half-time but a late Danny Murphy winner sent the travelling contingent in to raptures and sealed survival.
The club broke records in their final push for safety, winning three league games on the trot for the first time in the Premier League and winning three consecutive away games for the first time as well. Hodgson had cemented his status as a club legend already but the best was still yet to come.
The following season began with hope rather than expectation but their start had them dreaming of another record breaking season. Home wins over Arsenal and Bolton lifted them in to a European place early on, though a blip saw them lose four games in a row and slide back down the table.
A 2-0 win at home against league leaders Man United ignited their season and they eventually ended the season in 7th place, a record high, securing European football for the first time in the club’s history. The last 14 years have been the best in the history of Fulham Football Club. The club’s rise from near extinction to European finalists has been a Roy of the Rovers story. The only way to cap off what has been a remarkable period would be to secure silverware and guarantee another season travelling across Europe.
But even if they fail in Hamburg in two weeks it should not take away from their fairy tale. A tale full of heroes and only a few villains and it is important to remember those who were there at the beginning as well as those who are making history now. The question is can Fulham take the next step and join the likes of Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham in battling for Champions League places? It will be tough but as we have already seen with Fulham absolutely anything is possible.
Cameron Dickinson write for The National Game and his column appears on The Soccer Guys via The National Game.