Football clubs are atavistic. We all swear blind that we deserve better, but, in the end, our teams revert to type. Players, managers, and chairmen come and go, but there’s a thread through a club’s history that can’t easily be cut.
When Fulham fired Felix Magath last month after a disastrous seven months that saw the club drop out of the Premier League and fall to the bottom of the second tier, this thought was oddly comforting to me.
Comforting because, after the anger subsided, I began to realise that, no matter what I thought at the time, the last 17 years or so were just a gorgeous anomaly that I was lucky enough to see first hand. And now it’s time to embrace reality.
When I went to my first game in 1996, not yet 7 years old, I was blissfully unaware of the crises the club were only just emerging from. We were in the fourth tier of English football and had, only weeks before, sat second bottom of the entire professional league system. Years of perilous finances and dreadful leadership had left us within a hair’s breadth of a merger with bitter local rivals QPR.
I was told to stand on the corner of Stevenage Road before home games collecting small change in a bucket that said “Fulham 2000” on it, part of an on-going attempt to save the club from oblivion by a supporters club that had bravely persisted through the dark years. When the cottage in the corner of the stadium looked in bad shape, my uncle and aunt joined other supporters and volunteered their time to paint it.
And then, after an unlikely promotion back to the third tier that year, Egyptian millionaire Mohamed Al Fayed purchased the club and the darkness lifted. He promised Premier League football within five years and we made it in four, spending £40m on the way and setting record points totals.
Thirteen years later, on May 12, 2010, I found myself standing in Hamburg’s Nordbank Arena watching Fulham play Atletico Madrid in the Europa League Final.
A world away from the uncertainty of the early 90s, we’d found ourselves comfortably in the middle of the Premier League table every year, barring the odd flirtation with relegation. Al Fayed’s money couldn’t compete with the monster that it had created and we were never going to be the “Man United of the South” as he so boldly claimed in 1997. It was a billionaire’s game now, not a millionaire’s. But at least we were there, comfortably in the same division with those big boys.
Manager Roy Hodgson had assembled a well-organized and well-drilled team of under-achievers and rejects and turned them into giant-killers. We had come back from a four-goal deficit to knock out Italian giants Juventus—including that famous chipped goal from Clint Dempsey, above, beaten holders Shakhtar Donetsk, waltzed past Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals and then, when it seemed so unlikely, we had come back from behind to beat Hamburg, the team hosting the final.
We’d spoiled their party. A few years beforehand, we couldn’t pay people to paint the ground.
A last-minute extra-time Diego Forlan goal in the final condemned Hodgson’s team to a 2-1 defeat, denying us the first piece of major silverware in our history. But it was tough to feel low. After a few hours, maybe a couple of days, there was little left but pride, a realisation that we’d seen things other fans could only dream of, that the club had done something bordering on the impossible given its size and stature. For a few months, printed on tickets and written in chalk outside bars in European cities, we were Fulham FC (or, sometimes, charmingly, “FC Fulham”) genuine contenders for a European football trophy.
The space between then and now feels like an Andy Kaufman joke. It’s absurd and relentless and, if the punchline ever comes, it’s probably on the audience for turning up at all.
The Europa League Final team was slowly pulled apart. Roy Hodgson took the Liverpool job, Mark Hughes came in for a year but left, citing the club’s lack of ambition. Fulham responded by hiring Martin Jol.
Before long, club captain and midfield anchor Danny Murphy was released and Clint Dempsey followed Moussa Dembele to Spurs, leaving a gaping hole in the centre of the park. Suddenly, the team lacked the guile, energy, and youth that had taken us to Hamburg.
The club’s answer to this problem, this dearth of urgency and heart, was to sign Dimitar Berbatov.
Dimitar Berbatov was and still is brilliant. He also knows that he is brilliant. He smokes a pack a day, but he does not sweat because he does not run enough to sweat. He also does not care what you think.
Above all, he was a superstar; a fistful of magic sprinkles to give the illusion of ambition and glamour. Berbatov’s 15 goals in his first season papered over the cracks in a team now severely lacking in ideas and, as time went by, his on-field demeanour predictably turned from nonplussed to arrogant to poisonous. The fans began to turn on him, and he responded by steadfastly refusing to make any effort. We were no longer Fulham F.C., European trophy contenders, and the Bulgarian decided he was too good for us.
But Berbatov was a symptom of the club’s demise rather than a cause. Asking Dimitar Berbatov to run around, defend from the front, cut down on smoking, or even pretend to care for the sake of the fans, is like asking a cat to perform tricks. They are not interested and they will pretend not to understand. If the club spent £4m and unspeakable wages to sign him in the hope that he would do any of these things, they can only have themselves to blame.
The problem ran deeper than that. The squad was decaying as Al Fayed’s financial backing dried up. Free transfers and older players with no resale value played an increasingly important role in the starting XI each week and their frailties were being exposed all too often.
So, when Al Fayed sold the club to Shahid Khan in the summer of 2013, there was a hint of apprehension along with the outpouring of gratitude, but it was generally accepted that Al Fayed had taken the club as far as he could. Khan, conversely, was a billionaire.
Understandably reluctant to come across as a trigger-happy megalomaniac — their presence is too often felt in English football — Khan stuck with Martin Jol as manager, despite the hard work and organization of the Hodgson era being replaced with various combinations of Berbatov, Bryan Ruiz and Adel Taarabt—three talented players attempting to win a laziest footballer contest.
Jol also made a habit of saying all the wrong things in press conferences, defending his most inept players and, after a 3-1 defeat to United, declaring, “we won the second half.” Somehow, Mark Hughes’ prophecy was coming true.
By the fall of 2013, we were staring into the abyss. Jol had been sacked and replaced by his assistant Rene Meulensteen, a man with roughly four months managerial experience. The comedy didn’t kick in properly until the New Year, though. Berbatov, Ruiz, and Taarabt, each responsible in their own way for the team’s dismal run of form, were snapped up by Monaco, PSV, and AC Milan respectively. Even Philipe Senderos went to Valencia. Big name players heading to the big name clubs they felt they belonged at. As we felt the trapdoor creak beneath our feet, our most recognizable players boarded jets to Europe’s top clubs.
And then, in the midst of all this, there was Felix Magath, the man tasked with staving off relegation, hired a few days after the transfer window closed and Meulensteen had been shown the door.
Magath was the Last Dictator In Europe, a man nicknamed “Saddam” by the players beneath him at Bayern Munich. He’d call players to his office and stare at them for three minutes whilst sipping tea, not saying a word, before telling them they could leave. He made substitutions after half an hour of a game if he didn’t like a player’s touch.
The day after his dismissal from Fulham, a story leaked about his overruling the team doctor. Brede Hangeland’s thigh injury, he said, could be cured by taping a block of cheese soaked in alcohol to his leg. Hangeland’s injury, curiously, never quite went away, but he still played that Saturday.
But Magath was merely the final insult. His tenure turned the club into a laughing stock for a few months, but we’d been setting the joke up for a few years already. Whatever stories and myths might have emerged, the fact remains that, under Magath’s tenure, Fulham’s 13-years as a top-flight team ended with a whimper.
With Magath now gone, there’s some cause for optimism. There are some thrilling young players starting to break through, and experienced players like Hugo Rodallega, Ross McCormack and Scott Parker rediscovering some form. Much-loved inside man Kit Symons has been given the manager’s job on a full-time basis having steered the club out of the Championship relegation zone as caretaker.
But that is our reality now. We sit around and plot how to avoid successive relegations. As a kid during Fulham’s rapid ascent in the late ‘90s, I was warned by the people standing around me on the terraces to enjoy the good times while they lasted before it all came crashing down.
Whatever happens now, I can say that I did.