Whither Fulham?

FULHAM Football Club's is a story I have been following for a long time. This popular, attractive though never hugely successful West London Club used till this season to play at perhaps the most picturesque and delightful stadium in London.


Jean Tigana, the manager of Fulham Football Club, has been asked to go at the end of the season. — Pic. REUTERS-

FULHAM Football Club's is a story I have been following for a long time. This popular, attractive though never hugely successful West London Club used till this season to play at perhaps the most picturesque and delightful stadium in London. Craven Cottage, where the so called Cottagers have — or had — been based for the best part of a century, is situated right on the bank of the Thames, just where the celebrated Oxford and Cambridge boat race takes place every year. Until they put up a grand stand in front of that bank you could actually, during a game, watch the yachts sailing down the Thames.

But now Fulham are playing some miles north of their famed stadium in Shepherd's Bush, on the ground of Queens Park Rangers. And they will be there again next season, though at long last there has been a little light, a little hope, that they may return in time to Craven Cottage. In the meanwhile, they hope to share for a season at least the celebrated Stamford Bridge ground of their neighbours, Chelsea. It would make sense, even though in years gone by the famous London comedian, Tommy Trinder, when the Chairman of Fulham, used to say, "I don't want to move in with my mother in law!"

But let us go back a little way and try to explain what has so confusingly happened. Why Fulham are no longer playing at The Cottage, how they were for long in danger of losing it completely, and how they were eventually saved by the highly controversial millionaire Egyptian businessman, Mohamed Fayed.

The Craven Cottage stadium originally belonged to the Church (of England) Commissioners. Fulham were able to use it, provided they abided by a clause which prevented the Cottage being used for anything but football. Somehow or other when the late Ernie Clay, a voluble Yorkshire businessman who acquired the majority of shares in the club and became its Chairman, had that clause abrogated. In all my investigations I've never been able to find out how he managed this, though the decision as so often seems to happen in such cases, came down to just one man in the Church Commissioners' offices. Just how and why he was persuaded to give Clay what he wanted we can only speculate. But Clay, once an almost heroic figure in the early 1960s when he back rolled the Newcastle and England player George Eastham in his ultimately successful attempt to break the contractual stranglehold of the Football League Clubs on their players (the Wilberforce High Court decision) tried to run down the club, off load players in the hope of selling the ground to developers. And how very close he came to succeeding.

It probably would have happened with housing going up on that hallowed turf, where such stars as the England captain Johnny Haynes, the future England manager Bobby Robson, and the 1966 World Cup winning right back George Cohen, had played. The same thing could have happened to Stamford Bridge, but luckily the property market collapsed and both grounds escaped.

Enter the former Fulham player, TV star and the man who led the players in their battle to abolish the iniquitous Maximum Wage (in 1960-61) Jimmy Hill. He became the Chairman and did all he and his colleagues could to keep the ground, though there were times when it seemed a wholly lost cause. It would be saved when Fayed took over as owner and Chairman. Never, outside the Cottage, a popular figure in Britain, where his demands to be naturalised were constantly turned down, father of Dodi, who perished in the horrific Parisia car crash with Princess Diana — which he still bizarrely insists was a plot by the British Secret Service — Fayed pumped �100 million into the club, enabling the French manager and former international star Jean Tigana to spend �43 million on new players, numerous of them French themselves. He succeeded as manager another famous former international in Kevin Keegan, who left to become, albeit briefly, the manager of the English international team.

Fulham duly emerged from the Nationwide 1st Division to achieve at long last the Premiership having for decades functioned in the shadows. They played attractive football, distinguished themselves in the F.A. Cup and seemed to be doing the ever ambitious Fayed proud. But Craven Cottage had to be rebuilt; it did not remotely conform to the standards demanded by the Premiership, much of its accommodation being on the terraces, when all seater grounds were compulsory. So Fayed and Fulham began a bitter battle to get permission to rebuild the ground.

They were opposed by a group of local residents which one found rather ironic. In bygone years crowd of over 40,000 were common place at the Cottage but then the area was essentially working class and no one complained. Now, as has been the trend in so many parts of London, these once working class terraces have been taken over by upwardly mobile "yuppies," who didn't want to be disturbed by larger and larger crowds coming down to the games.

They appealed against the decision of the local Hammersmith and Fulham Council to permit redevelopment, lost in the High Court, went all the way to the House of Lords on appeal, lost again: whereupon it became known that Fulham and Fayed no longer had the financial capacity to rebuild the Cottage as they'd wished. Suddenly and somewhat surprisingly we were told that it was too expensive. But where else in West London could a stadium be built.

Loyal Fulham fans devised a scheme whereby the rebuilding could be done more economically in a less grandiose way and it now at last seems the scheme could be implemented. Yet you wonder how long Fayed would want to stay. He has spent so much, and with the Cottage accommodating only some 17,000 fans maximum, Fulham would always be a losing proposition. Just at the time when Harrods store, the apple of his eye, is going through a bad patch and he himself has decided to emigrate to Switzerland, having previously said he'd never leave London. This, because the Inland Revenue have cancelled a deal whereby for years he paid an agreed rate of tax.

At the same time Fulham have told Tigana he must go at the end of the season, making you wonder how many of his French stars will go with him. If Fayed leaves, the future is at best modest. And even if he wanted to sell the cottage for building, would the local Council, having accommodated him with their original permission, be disposed to let him do it?