I had a look on one of those ‘On this day’ websites this morning – and I’m very glad I did. Buried at the bottom of countless interesting factoids was the revelation that it was fourteen years ago today that Fulham concluded a deal to sign Luis Boa Morte from Southampton on a permanent basis. Boa Morte was essentially an enigma; one of those people you couldn’t sum up in a sentence, but one of the greatest Fulham characters of my generation. At his very best, he was simply unplayable, as a legion of befuddled full-backs could attest to, and he always played the game with a smile on his face.
He headed back to London after being unfairly jettisoned by Southampton manager Glenn Hoddle and came with a pedigree after breaking through into the Arsenal first-team during the early years of Arsene Wenger’s tenure. Jean Tigana was encouraged by Boa Morte’s enthusiasm during a trial and figured that pacey Portuguese forward might be able to fire a promotion bid. He wasn’t wrong. Boa Morte’s first season at Craven Cottage was breathtaking. Part of an attacking triumvirate including Louis Saha and Barry Hayles that tore the First Division apart, Boa Morte scored 21 goals in 46 appearances – combining predatory finishing with the burst of acceleration that characterised Tigana’s extraordinary side.
Take a look, for example, at this sweeping move during a deadlocked game at early promotion rivals Norwich, featuring Saha, Sean Davis, and John Collins, which Boa Morte finished with real aplomb:
Boa Morte initially struggled to recapture his Division One form in the top flight, flitting between a centre forward’s role and a position on the left of midfield, although he did star as Fulham took their first steps into Europe, reaching the third round of the UEFA Cup after winning the Intertoto Cup. When Chris Coleman implemented his 4-5-1 system and played Boa Morte as a genuine left-winger, the ‘Dead Snake’ began to rediscover his venom. His contribution to the side couldn’t simply be measured in goals alone, such was his undoubted commitment to the course and unquestionable will-to-win. That desire may have got him on the wrong side of referees, but it certainly endeared him to the Fulham fans almost as much as his uncanny ability to deliver a moment of magic from nowhere.
Boa Morte looked fearsome in full flight down the Fulham left flank. He married a turn of speed with an exceptional football brain, the ability to shift the ball from foot to foot in the blink of an eye and the means to fashion a shot irrespective of the position or pressure around him. Ten goals in 2003-04, including one sensational length of the field run to score a simply stupendous effort against Blackburn Rovers in April, were a key factor in helping Coleman’s charges reach a ten club record of ninth in the top flight and secured a return to the Portuguese national picture. An indication of Boa Morte’s ‘mad as a bunch of frogs’ mentality came on the final day of the season, when he stripped to his underpants in celebration of a win at Bolton, to throw his kit to the celebrating away fans after the final whistle.
That cult hero status was only underlined by his sublime performances in the next two years. He scored nine goals in 2004-05 as Fulham flirted with the relegation zone, before finishing the season with four fine wins over Everton, Newcastle, Blackburn and memorably, Norwich City, in the spring sunshine. That summer saw the likes of Newcastle United and Tottenham chasing his signature, with Fulham fans putting together an internet petition full of messages that ran to fully thirty pages pleading with him to stay. Boa Morte flashed that trademark smile – he is, essentially, a humble and modest man – on receipt of the fans’ pleas and duly signed a new contract.
The following season saw an uncomfortable experiment in central midfield stifle some of Boa Morte’s creativity, upon which the side thrived, but also included the moment he wrote his name into Fulham folklore with that memorable winner against Chelsea at Craven Cottage. An instinctive, somewhat scrappy strike, that meant so much: the game was won with the grit and determination that Boa Morte’s never-say-die attitude encapsulated. His form might have tailed off towards the end of his Fulham career, but the affection for Boa Morte has never dwindled – as evidenced by the disappointment that greeted his decision to return to Portugal to pursue a career in coaching that had begun at Motspur Park.