When Sir Alex Ferguson’s side last visited Craven Cottage – Fulham’s wonderfully situated and atmospheric stadium on the banks of the Thames in West London – Roy Hodgson’s side took full advantage of an injury ravaged Manchester United defence to record an impressive 3-0 victory. The cherry on top of a remarkable season.
The highlight though was Fulham’s appearance in the UEFA cup final, where Hodgson’s side lost to Diego Forlan’s Atletico Madrid in Hamburg. The new campaign has already undergone a shake-up though, with Hodgson leaving for Anfield and former United stalwart Mark Hughes recruited by owner Mohammed Al Fayed in Woy’s stead.
Fulham is also heavily in debt to its owner having been effectively subsidise by the Egyptian since his 1997 takeover. On the positive side, the long term future at Craven Cottage now seems assured.
Despite the indebtedness and managerial upheaval there is no sense of panic at Chelsea’s close rivals, with an acknowledgement that the club has overachieved for its size and stature in recent years.
“There’s no question we’ve been spoiled of late. Good management and coaching has really paid dividends as a good squad of players has improved before our eyes, individually and collectively,” says David Lloyd, editor of the fanzine There’s Only One F in Fulham.
“That all climaxed in last seasons Euro final – meat and drink to you guys, but a once in a lifetime thing for us. Although I hope not!”
Hughes’ arrival in West London will bring a different playing style to a team that passed its way to the Europa League final, while frequently out-thinking more illustrious rivals. Hard work, pressing and a pragmatic approach illustrate Hughes’ sides. Not a stark contrast perhaps, but a change in tack nonetheless.
The Welshman’s often spiky persona – he is one of the few managers not prepared to offer reverence to Ferguson – also contrasts with the media-friendly Hodgson. Yet, there is a feeling that the side remains in safe hands. After all, Hughes often squeezed the best out of limited players at both Blackburn Rovers and with the Welsh national side.
“The squad’s more than reasonable, so I guess it’ll depend on whether any newcomers enhance or unsettle what’s already there. We’re surely good enough for another mid-table finish,” adds Lloyd.
“We were hardly dancing in the streets when Roy Hodgson was appointed and yet be became pretty much the perfect fit for us. Only time will tell if Mark Hughes was the right choice – but of those supposedly in the frame he’ll do for me!”
While Al Fayed no longer finances the heady spending of the early noughties when Fulham once paid £11.5 million for Frenchman Steve Marlet, it says much for the club’s progress that United, although favourites, can expect a tough fixture this Sunday.
In Sky’s 4pm flagship match this weekend Ferguson will surely be delighted with any kind of victory on a ground where disaster is seemingly only a Wayne Rooney red card or inexperienced defence away. The Scot will at least be able to call upon a far more experienced back four this time around, after the Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Ritchie de Laet horror show last winter.
“Who knows, we might even give you a decent game on Sunday. It shows you how far we’ve come when we can face the likes of United and Liverpool without any fear – at home, especially,” warns Lloyd.
“No one’s denying that you’ve got the better players and overall set-up, but we’re perfectly capable of taking you on and even beating you if it all comes together.”
Not that Fulham supporters will begrudge United the title come may if it means pipping arch rivals Chelsea to the title. While Roman Abramovich has lavished hundreds of millions on the club, Fulham has often been left in the Pensioners’ wake. Indeed, the club’s debt – although owed to the owner – places the club in some jeopardy, with 77-year-old Al Fayed unable to guarantee the club’s future once long-term.
Security at Craven Cottage does at least seem in place though, after the club spent two seasons as refugees at Queens Park Rangers’ Loftus Road stadium across West London. No longer is Fulham set to become the “Manchester United of the south” perhaps – Al Fayed’s bold statement in the late ’90s – but there is a commitment to a gradual increase the ground’s capacity and infrastructure.
Indeed, Fulham supporters are “immensely grateful” to Al Fayed and not ready to instigate a Green & Gold style protest over the club’s financial health, adds Lloyd. Cottagers are happy with what the club has achieved in the last 15 years. So too many United supporters, plenty of whom regard the trip to Craven Cottage as a season highlight.
“We love Craven Cottage and have fought tooth and nail to remain there,” notes Lloyd.
“It’s been far from easy and, after the tough times, it’s brilliant to see the place full to the brim on matchdays. For the foreseeable future we’re safe there. I
“George Best, did his bit to help keep Fulham at the Cottage [in the 1970s]. Bestie enjoyed his fifty-odd games with us and, along with other Fulham heroes lent his support to the various fans-led campaigns. He actually turned up to the launches, too, thereby guaranteeing some much needed press coverage.”
While the relationship with United may end there, the season’s end will see many Fulham supporters disappointed if the Reds do not come out on top and the Premier League title remains a short trip across West London at Stamford Bridge.
“I’d have no problem with you pipping Chelsea to the title and leaving City in your wake, too!”
David Lloyd edits There’s Only One F in Fulham – www.toofif.co.uk