Eleven years ago this evening, I was in a fairly important meeting. It was in the days before I possessed a smart phone and I was sat with my colleagues in a semi-circle listening to a sober external speaker going the importance of auditing. My role wasn’t a financial one – but my boss had given clear instructions that everyone was to attend.
Fifteen minutes into the presentation and my phone started beeping like crazy. I apologised profusely and put it on silent – whereupon it continued to vibrate. My boss sidled over to me and whispered into my ear, ‘It seems important. Why don’t you deal with it and then come back and join us?’
I stepped outside onto Tottenham Court Road and saw that I had seven missed calls, all emanating from people who I knew from Saturdays spent at the Hammersmith. I returned Ron’s call – as he was someone who had been going down the Cottage for decades. He was also never the most positive of souls (‘the bloody Whites knocked the positivity out of me in the 80s,’ he’d forever tell me and many others).
Ron answered almost instantly, which was unheard of – and he was uncharacteristically cheerful. ‘Have you heard?’ he asked. ‘They’ve done it. They’ve finally sacked the clown’. The jester to whom he was referring was Lawrie Sanchez, who had apparently just been relieved of his duties. It turned out all those phone calls – and several subsequent messages were to inform me that Fulham had got rid of the former Northern Ireland manager.
Looking back now, you could construct quite a compelling case to say that Sanchez was unlucky. Several of his signings – Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Danny Murphy – went on to become Fulham legends. Another who didn’t, David Healy, had the clearest of goals ruled out after Mark Schwarzer pulled his shot back from behind the Putney End goal-line in stoppage time after Brian McBride had badly injured himself in the act of scoring. The Whites had a clear penalty appeal waved away at Villa Park that would have put them 2-0 up. It seemed as if Sanchez never got the breaks.
By the end of his reign, the football was dire and Sanchez’s direct approach totally bypassed the midfield technicians like Murphy and Steve Davis in search of Healy, who was never likely to win much in the air. We never saw much of Lee Cook and Shefqi Kuqi looked so our of place leading the line it was laughable. What wasn’t as funny was Fulham being cut adrift in the drop zone after six winless weeks.
Indeed, Sanchez had only mustered two league wins all season and a backs-to-wall effort against Newcastle by the River Thames ended with Joey Barton stroking in a late penalty. That left him with a league win percentage of 14% – the worst of any permanent Fulham manager in the modern era. Hope was in short supply that evening as we walked away from the Cottage – but now good old Ron was almost buoyant. And with good reason, in retrospect, when you think what Roy Hodgson did next.
The euphoria amongst my mates was widespread, but even they would have called for the men in white coats had I suggested that Fulham would contest a European final three and a half years later. Sanchez’s reign was blissfully short but the mess he left behind should be remembered when you read some of the online comment of late advocating the axing of Slavisa Jokanovic.
I walked back into my meeting after about ten minutes. My concerned boss asked, ‘How are you doing? Everything okay?’ I thought for a moment about how to sum up the emergency that had required me to leave. ‘Never been better,’ I replied – and left it at that.