5 November 2000
The Harrods owner has put the Premiership in Fulham’s sights thanks to the expert guidance of French coach Jean Tigana
With 10 minutes to go at Craven Cottage on Wednesday night, Louis Saha missed a clear chance in front of goal. “That is six times,” muttered Mohammed Fayed up in the chairman’s box. “Cut his balls off.”
Despite the 70-odd million pounds that he has already poured into his five-year plan to transform sleepy Fulham into one of the superclubs of Europe, there did not appear to be any hidden microphones on the chairman’s brooding, be-scarfed person. But the message got through. Two minutes later a cross came over from the right and with a sublime jink and shot the dreadlocked Saha made it 3-1 to Fulham. The chairman beamed. His shoulders shook with mirth. “There you are,” he said.
The world, and presumably Her Majesty’s passport office, knows that the Fayed fantasies have not always been happy ones. But, for Fulham supporters, this latest fantasy, which continued yesterday with a 3-0 defeat of Huddersfield, is a dream come true. To visit Craven Cottage now is the promise of what we thought was “Never Never Land”. This is football back as “The Beautiful Game”.
No kidding. Ask around. Go and have a look. Before I first returned two weeks ago, our esteemed correspondent Patrick Barclay rang from some life-and-death, blood-and-thunder European tie and said: “I wish I was with you. Fulham are playing the most enjoyable football I have seen all season.”
Needless to say my visit to the game against Preston coincided with their first defeat since April. But Fulham still shone and the evidence of that night, and also of the 3-2 win over Wolves in the Worthington Cup four days ago still made me pinch myself. Can football really be like this? All skill and commitment and athleticism on the pitch, no thuggery, foul-mouthing and racism off it?
Time for a good slug of scepticism. It’s all very lovely but hardly 7,000 turned out last week. Fulham have never been big enough to be hated by anyone. Some of us go back all the way to the Brylcreem, big-toecap days of Johnny Haynes, Bedford Jezzard and Bobby Robson (whatever happened to him?) Some of those trudging down leafy Doneraile and Ellerby Streets last week looked as if they might have been among the 40,000 who watched Manchester United in the FA Cup in 1908. It’s Fulham and the river and where The Boat Race begins. But believe me, it’s happening.
And whatever you think of him, it’s happening because of the extraordinary, self-mocking 67-year-old “Mr Toad” figure now standing arms aloft in victory, a cup run continued, promotion to Premiership glory still on the cards. On his feet are black patent leather boots, on his chest the most opulent of Turnbull & Asser shirts, but it is the absurdly schoolboyish Fulham cap on the head that is the ticket.
“Hello young man,” says a silver-haired supporter as he follows a steely eyed bodyguard on to the pitch. “Look it’s Fayed,” says an eight-year-old as we step on to the turf. Mohammed beams again. “I do it for love,” he says.
Before and after every game he gets his pound of flesh. He paces round the pitch lapping up the cheers and greeting all and sundry on the terraces where he himself stood when he first came to London as a young Egyptian on the make. “In Alexandria, when I was 14, I had my own team,” he says, chuckling at his favourite joke. “My position? I played captain.”
We have now got to the cottage itself. The little Victorian building which, for a hundred years, has been the homely hub of Fulham FC. In a moment, Mohammed will have the ultimate chairman’s ego trip of joshing with his triumphant players as their patron saint. But, before he gets there, you remember the journey the club has made since Harrods’ owner swooped in May 1997 just before Micky Adams had won promotion from the depths of Division Three.
Eighteen months ago the march was already under way. Kevin Keegan was in the dressing room, his hair still black, his dreams still unbroken. “I know it’s hard to believe,” he said in that gravity-defying way of his. “We are still in the Second Division, but the vision the chairman and all of us have, is of the very top. We are getting a new training ground, we have a huge commitment to the community and a brilliant new 30,000-seat stand is planned on this site. This really could go all the way.”
Two seasons on, poor Kevin’s international ambitions might be a busted flush, but his Fulham promises are rapidly becoming reality. The Motspur Park training centre is state of the art and next month Hammersmith Council must rule on plans for a new stadium and riverside walk which, if refused and Fulham are promoted, could result in mind-boggling chaos in SW6.
In charge of this project is Peter Randles who masterminded the much-praised Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. In charge of the club operations is the livewire legal-beaver Michael Fiddy. And now the best bit. In charge of the team is Jean Tigana. Jean stands in the dressing room, a cool, dark-skinned, blue-suited figure in front of the team he is moulding not just for promotion but for greatness. Tigana is the man who was picked in front of Sven-Goran Eriksson for the Fulham job. At 46 he is a leaner, younger graduate of France’s Wenger and Houllier school. Saha is but the first of the Gallic talents that he will recruit.
Keegan was the Messiah. Tigana is the transformer. With his team of coaches, he has brought a 24-hour training lifestyle to the players, and a 90-minute, no-protest accomplishment to the play. Fayed greets him, then jovially slaps a player on the shoulder.
So does Fayed know what he is doing? Does it matter? As Mohammed sweeps away into the night, Paul Thorpe is in no doubt. Five years ago he was a tattoo artist in Sussex with an unfulfilled Fulham fervour stretching back to a grandfather who laid tiles on the roof when the Hammersmith stand was built. A Christmas conversion to computers saw him first create his own on-line fanzine and now become Internet manager for the official Fulham website, a service unmatched in the Nationwide League. Paul is staying behind to interview any player with breath left in his body. “Ask any Fulham fan,” he says, “and they’ll tell you where they were when the news came through that Fayed had bought us. Five years ago we were finished. Now the sky’s the limit.”