Watching Mohamed Al-Fayed stroll rather gingerly across the Craven Cottage pitch before our latest big European night against Wolfsburg, I was suddenly struck by how things have progressed down by the Thames since he was a surprise investor in the football club in the summer of 1997.
I was initially sceptical of the Egyptian business tycoon, who dubiously claimed to have followed Fulham ever since he listened to a radio broadcast of a game back home in the sixties. Like a few Fulham followers, I wondered whether his decision to buy the club from the Muddymans and Jimmy Hill was motivated by the prime patch of real estate where the Whites played. I also thought that Al-Fayed got his first decision wrong: replacing the popular Micky Adams with Ray Wilkins. I still think Adams was treated rather shabbily, especially after the wonderful way his team of battlers romped to promotion the previous year, and shudder when thinking about the sterile football we had to watch as Wilkins, spending money that was never afforded to his predecessor, only managed to get us in the play-offs.
Al-Fayed’s headline-grabbing desire to make us the Manchester United of the south never materialised but, thanks to his investment, Fulham reached the promised land of the Premier League after 40 years out of the top flight. That we have stayed at the elite level of English football for almost a decade now has been down to his continued, if a little more prudent, spending although there is a rather nagging doubt at the back of my mind that, unless he puts his hand in his pocket again, Hodgson will continue to have to produce miracles on a shoestring budget (when compared to most of our competitors).
That isn’t an unrealistic expectation to green light a spending splurge but just to hand Hodgson a fitting transfer budget in recognition of how he’s transformed the club in barely two-and-a-half years. We wouldn’t be talking about an extraordinary amount but say £10m to see if Hodgson can build on our European exploits. Al-Fayed recognises that Roy’s the best manager he’s worked with and perhaps he might remove the shackles that were imposed post-Marlet a few years ago.
With the club safely back at Craven Cottage now, it’s easy to be a little more forgiving about the one black mark against Al-Fayed: the breathtaking cheek of arranging to sell Fulham’s historic home behind the backs of the fans. Watching club officials scrambling to declare that Fulham had outlived the Cottage and that ‘very expensive consultants’ had told them that our future lay in some soulless 30,000-seater stadium outside of the borough made me wonder if any of these individuals had any real understanding of our football club. Fortunately, thanks to the persistence of ‘the Back to the Cottage’ campaign, we returned home (not before time) in 2004.
I haven’t got a crystal ball so it’s difficult to predict the future. One hopes that Al-Fayed remains in charge for many years to come. He’s been around for a lot longer than many of us expected and clearly isn’t in it for a quick buck. Most of his managerial changes (barring that the first one – and the decision to bring in Sanchez) have been spot on and, aside from the ground issue, you can’t quibble with the way he’s run the club. They have been plenty of great memories – winning the Division Two title and that Championship promotion season plus a few Cup runs – and who’s to say there aren’t be a few more left yet.