As pictures of Mo and Mark dominated the back pages this week, my mind went back to the initial upturn in Fulham FC’s fortunes that paved the way for the eventual arrival of Mo and his money. He wasn’t accompanied by a bright star from the East, but his Coming to the blighted Cravenites in their time of sorrow was indeed a miracle!
But first we must return to that lost tribe and the grimmest of relegation battles in the winter of 1996, with the Whites closing in on the bottom of Division Four.
How different the mood that February when the board’s exasperation with then manager Ian Branfoot reached a tipping point after a 2-1 loss at rock-bottom Torquay United. Relegation to the Conference stared us in the face. Elevated from the playing ranks, and with Branfoot kicked upstairs and out of harms way, Fulham took a massive gamble on the inexperienced, but ferociously ambitious Mickey Adams.
With no money, an out-of-touch chairman battling illness and a threadbare squad whose confidence had been shredded by the club’s relentless downward spiral, Mickey did just enough by May to ensure our survival. Supporters tried to make the best of it with an organized open top London bus for the final away game of the season at Barnet. The booked double-decker did not materialize (a replacement was hastily found after much angst) and a few hundred die-hards saw the Whites comprehensibly humbled 3-0 by Barnet at Underhill.
Little did we know at the time, but a nadir had been reached.
Mickey found just the right man to ride gunshot with him for the monumental scrap he was preparing to fight to get Fulham moving forward in the coming 96/7 season - Wimbledon Cup winning hero Alan Cork. The pair laid the foundations by poaching a couple of Gillingham cast-offs in full-back Paul Watson and winger Darren Freeman. A spirited goal-scoring midfielder in Richard Carpenter was found from the same club, a fan recommended Mark Walton, a goalkeeper on the point of going out of the game. Mickey’s mouthpiece on the park would be veteran Glen Cockerell – like Mickey an ex-Saint who had tasted better things. As captain the irrepressible Mr 100% Simon Morgan came into his own.
By the start of the season a new side had been cobbled together and the squad apparently bonded after a pre-season tour to Ireland, renowned for its high jinks and a fair bit of drinking! A narrow 1-0 home win over a poor Hereford side gave little indication of what was to come. For the next home game a brace from Mick Conroy helped see off Colchester 3-1. Mickey was bullish in the post-match press conference before being reminded by the hacks that Conroy (the latest in a long list of great white hope centre forwards) was still transfer listed after a misfiring and miserable first season since his purchase for £75,000 from Preston. “Is he? Not from Monday he isn’t,” Mickey shot back, jaw jutting and eyes ablaze.
That 96/7 season just rolled on from there. In October promotion contenders Cambridge United were seen off 3-0 at the Cottage, Conroy scoring with a left-footed thunderbolt from distance. At half-time Adams promised a crate of beer to anyone who nobbled United’s nasty midfield spoiler and captain Paul Wanless.
There were two tense games with Wigan, who would go up with us that season, another crucial home win came in the New Year over Swansea after we had our only serious wobble, culminating in a 4-1 home loss to Cardiff in front of the TV cameras. Even Torquay did us home and away would you believe. Paul Watson was masterful with dead ball deliveries, Mick Conroy returned 23 goals, aided by two genuinely quick wingers in Scott and Freeman, Nick Cusack caused mayhem at corners, Danny Cullipp shored up the middle (another inspired Adams pick-up on the cheap from Oxford United).
It all culminated one balmy Spring evening at Mansfield when after an albeit edgy and untypical 0-0 display, Fulham notched the point that guaranteed promotion. The corner had at last been turned. Stories of Mickey in that period to give you the measure of the man.
Team spirit was phenomenal. On away trips 25 fish and chip suppers came aboard the coach before Glen led off the karaoke with his unrivalled Rod Stewart catalogue. A few beers were enjoyed along the way. At Christmas the entire first team could be seen wandering through Kingston in fancy dress – Conroy fittingly dressed as a cowboy with at least two in Village People garb.
That Christmas period also saw us smash six past Darlington, with six different scorers. Mickey invited the three of us hanging back at the end who covered all home games (myself for Sky and the two local paper guys) up to his office for the post-match press conference. This was unusual. We assumed perhaps a seasonal glass of something might be offered. No sooner had we finished congratulating the manager on an outstanding performance and ending 1996 top of the league than he tore into the guy from the Chronicle for something he disagreed with in the previous week’s match report!
That promotion-clinching night at Mansfield it was my turn to be on the end of a tongue lashing. In the lead up to the game I thought it might be a good idea to arrange a celebratory dinner in a London hotel post-season and produce the ‘goals of the season’ video to accompany the champagne. My mistake was in sending the proposal to Branfoot, the general manager after all, and technically Mickey’s superior.
Having been invited into the dressing room by Mickey to join in the celebrations he then rounded on me and stormed, ‘Anything to do with my players and my team goes through ME, not Mr. ******* Branfoot!’ Sheer class that man.
But lest we forget, without that first promotion, the board would never have convinced Mr al-Fayed Fulham was a club with a future and the perfect fit for his investment. We weren’t the first club he looked at by any means. For that we’ve achieved and enjoyed so much since MAF’s arrival in May 1997, it all goes back to Mickey.