Fulham's chance to shine worth the 50-year wait
HELLO, is there anyone else out there?
For years -- OK, half a century, gulp -- I believed I was the only Fulham FC supporter in Ireland. No one was ever brave enough to admit sharing my strange passion for a club that never won anything.
In my nightmares, I would stand up before a meeting of Football Fans Anonymous and declare: "My name is Pat Myler. I am a Fulham fan."
Now, it seems, everyone is a Fulham fan, at least temporarily. There isn't a soul who begrudges the Cottagers their terrific run this season, which has taken them to the brink of European glory.
Can they go the last lap and beat Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final in Hamburg? You betcha!
There's no stopping us now. Even if blinkered officials disallow our perfectly good goal, gift one to the opposition that is blatantly offside, or fail to notice a Thierry Henry-style handball, we'll still come out on top.
OK, maybe I am getting a bit carried away in my enthusiasm, but you have to remember that we have been the whipping boys of English football since Roy Hodgson's great-grandfather was a baby. Maybe longer.
"Fulham?" people would sneer on discovering my allegiance to the perpetual underdogs. "Why, isn't Hartlepool United good enough for you?"
Ah, yes, I grew well accustomed to the jokes, jibes and jeers.
"Fulham? Isn't that where the players do a lap of honour when they get a corner?"
"Fulham? Isn't that the club where you ring up to ask the time of Saturday's match, and you're asked 'What time can you make it?'
Two years ago I went to see Chelsea playing Fulham at Stamford Bridge and heard the home fans chanting "There's only one team in Fulham". (Both clubs are in the same London borough, you see). That was hard to take.
It was way back in the mists of time -- 1959 to be exact -- when I lived in London and a pal persuaded me to go and watch a football match. It was Fulham v Sheffield Wednesday and they were both going for promotion to what was then the First Division, precursor of the Premier League.
It was a Good Friday fixture and Fulham won 6-2, with Jimmy Hill scoring a hat-trick. The club won promotion along with the losers that season. I was hooked from day one.
When I started reporting Fulham games for a local newspaper, I would gladly have handed back the few shillings I earned. I would have paid them for the privilege!
Later, on entering journalism full-time as a news reporter, my presence on the Craven Cottage terraces was contingent on my having the Saturday afternoon free. If I was marked down for a job, tough!
It was my worst luck to miss Fulham's biggest ever win, a 10-1 thrashing of Ipswich on St Stephen's Day 1963. Typically, when the two teams met again four days later at Portman Road, Fulham lost by four goals to two.
Thankfully, I also missed their worst result, away to Wolverhampton Wanderers, who won 9-0. That prompted one national paper to put up the back-page headline: "Wolves 9, Fulham Oh".
In 1961, Fulham made football history by becoming the first English club to pay a player £100 a week. Johnny Haynes showed his gratitude by never playing for another club, despite some attractive offers. It was Haynes's Fulham colleague Hill who, as chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, had led the campaign to have the £20-a-week maximum wage removed.
The decision to pay a Fulham player his true worth encouraged fans to think the club had ambition, but they were forced into a reassessment when Alan Mullery was sold to Spurs for £72,000.
It has to be admitted that the bad times have outnumbered the good, but the Craven Cottage fans have never lost their ability to enjoy a laugh. Well, you'd have to, wouldn't you?
Remember the time in the '70s when George Best joined Fulham and he had Rodney Marsh, another gifted player and great character, as a team-mate?
In one game, Marsh, tired of seeing Best hogging the ball, put in a tackle, robbed him of the ball and took off towards goal. Only at Fulham!
Despite their lack of success down the years, Fulham did produce some good players, none better than Haynes, who, as well as scoring lots of goals, had no peer as a passer of the ball. He could plant a long-range pass right on a colleague's toes, but woe betide the receiver if he didn't make the most of his gift. Then Haynes would stand, hands on hips, glaring daggers at the offender.
Once, he sent a glorious pass to left-winger Trevor 'Tosh' Chamberlain, only to see the ball sent high over the stand. Haynes yelled: "Why did you do that, you stupid clot?" The referee booked Haynes, whereupon Chamberlain ran over to the official asking him to explain his action.
"Offensive language," said the ref. "He called you a stupid clot." "But he's right, I am a stupid clot," said 'Tosh'.
Now the joking is over. It's time to be serious -- and we are. Hopefully, we can, at last, hit back at the 'knockers' and show that we can win things. Come on, Fulham!