They have the loveliest ground in the Premier League. Their one-time chairman, Tommy Trinder, was a comedian. ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton – ask your mum or dad – is the stadium announcer. George Best and Rodney Marsh played for them – at the same time. And now they have Damien Duff. Really, what’s not to like about Fulham FC? There was always something dreamy, a touch eccentric but entirely admirable about the club whose comfy home in west London is tucked into a bend on the Thames, like a hand in a glove.
In his celebrated account of English football in the 60s, ‘Soccer Syndrome’, John Moynihan captured the essence of the team who wore classic black and white in those increasingly technicolour days: “a Saturday afternoon team, offering a feeling of animated recreation rather than solid professionalism… a side of happy, sometimes comic tries watched by garrulous actors, serious actors, pantomime players, band-leaders, stuntmen, starlets; tweeds, black leather, green leather, pink ankle-length knickers, baggy overcoats over armour-plated suede, cheroots between thumb and first finger.”
And they were just the players.
But there was always a smattering of certifiable greats strutting their stuff at Craven Cottage too. Later, another splendid sportswriter, Frank Keating, would recall perhaps the greatest of them all, the England captain Johnny Haynes in whose memory the ground’s main stand is named and which, owing to its listed building status, still retains the well-worn wooden seats of yesteryear. According to Keating, the man they called ‘Maestro’ was far too good for his humble surroundings, suffering “18 glorious, exasperated years for Fulham, carpeting out the world’s most sumptuous passes to a motley crew of single-jointed unappreciative nuts.”
Yet, the faithful couldn’t help loving the latter almost as much, Keating paying special tribute to one Maurice Cook, “a loping trier who could never quite fathom what Johnny was at – every resigned dismissive shrug by Haynes made Maurice simper with inferiority… And could it have been Maurice who ran out one afternoon with that high-stepping, dressage, I’ll-show-‘em swank – and promptly doubled up with a hamstring and was stretchered off even before kick off?”
A necklace of luminous names links Fulham through the ages since Haynes: Jimmy Hill, Alan Mullery, Malcolm MacDonald, Bobby Moore, and the gloriously entertaining double act of Best and Marsh among them. While the professional cynics might have frowned at the latter’s antics, the faithful swooned, but all the fun of the fair couldn’t prevent the club going on a slide before hitting the depths of the old Fourth Division in 1994 and almost losing Craven Cottage in the process.
Enter Harrods owner Mohamed al-Fayed in 1997, one of the first of football’s celebrity sugar daddies but a man with the good of the club at heart. (His presence also meant that Fulham retained its showbiz credentials, a bemused-looking Michael Jackson even appearing at the Cottage for a bizarre walkabout before a League 1 game against Wigan in April 1999. Still, I suppose it could have been worse – Jacko might have turned up at Upton Park and then the West Ham club anthem would have taken on a whole new meaning).
Eyebrows were raised when Al-Fayed promised to have Fulham in the Premier League within five years but, having beaten their self-imposed deadline by a full 12 months, the Cottagers have been there ever since, albeit that it took a Roy Hodgson fire-fighting job to narrowly secure 17th place in 2008. But last year, the astute Hodgson had Fulham purring, the team not simply punching above its weight but playing eye-catching football en route to its highest ever finish, seventh. Still, their goals against record (34) was altogether more impressive than their goals for (39), meaning that Damien Duff will be expected to weigh in with plenty of assists and goals, as Fulham look to make continued progress in the Premier League and now also in Europe.
Encouragingly, the Irishman made an instant impact when coming off the bench in Fulham’s Europa League first leg game against the Russian side Amkar Perm on Thursday, his cross within 30 seconds of taking the pitch helping to set up a Bobby Zamora goal in a 3-1 win. However, worryingly for a side which needs to increase its goal haul this term, Andrew ‘The Striker Formerly Known As Andy’ Johnson sustained a dislocated collarbone in the same game and could now be out for up to two months.
Next up for Fulham is the visit of Chelsea tomorrow, a chance for Damien Duff to shine against his old club should Hodgson give his new signing the green light to start. As ever, Fulham will go into this one as underdogs but, in the overall scheme of things, there would seem to be no obvious downside to Duff’s latest move – he’s away from English football’s most dysfunctional club, he’s back in the top-flight and in a part of London he knows well and, in Roy Hodgson, you’d like to think he has a manager who will get the best out of a player who always gives the impression that he needs to be happy in himself to give of his best.
ALL of which ought to be good news for Giovanni Trapattoni and Ireland’s World Cup dream. If there’s been a growing consensus in the game that Duff’s best days are behind him, then his return to SW6 is a perfect opportunity to prove there’s life in the old dog yet. “I am just looking to get rocking again,” said Duff last week. From homely Craven Cottage to soaring Croke Park, they’ll he hoping for exactly the same thing.