It was fitting that Robert Wilson was at Pride Park yesterday to watch Slavisa Jokanovic’s side secure another vital win in their push for promotion back to the top flight. The former Republic of Ireland under-21 international follows the Whites around the country with his family these days and he could be forgiven for smiling to himself after the final whistle as Fulham finally put to rest the ghost of a horrible day in 1983, which must rank as one of Wilson’s most painful memories in the game.
That year Malcolm Macdonald’s eye-catching side went to the Baseball Ground on the final day of the season needing to better Leicester’s result against Burnley to win promotion from the old Second Division. Set aside for a moment the fact that Fulham’s woeful run of form in February and March had handed the Foxes the imitative, the scenes that followed Bobby Davison’s late volley were disgraceful. There might have been plenty riding on the match for the Rams, who only eight years after winning the league title, needed a point to stay up – but even the infamously intimidating atmosphere of the Baseball Ground was surpassed that afternoon. LWT’s highlights for the ‘Saturday Match‘ capture some of the chaos.
Play was halted for several minutes after Davison’s goal after the home fans spilled on onto the pitch in premature celebration – and police officers with dogs had to restore order. For some reason, the pens were opened before the end of the game, allowing fans to crowd around the side of the pitch again. This resulted in the game finishing in farce, with Wilson being kicked by Derby supporters and another pitch invasion with two minutes to play after the home fans thought the referee had sounded the final whistle rather than merely blowing for a free kick.
Those who were there tell of an atmosphere of animosity long before Davison scored what controversially turned out to be the winner. Coins reined down on the Fulham fans from the home supporters above, a pig’s head was launched into the area of the ground housing the away fans, whilst Macdonald’s side never looked like securing the advantage they desperately needed. In the last season before live television coverage began to totally transform the game, the fact that the football authorities declined Fulham’s appeal to have the game replayed – and that the final two minutes of the contest never took play – still rankles.
The fact that Macdonald’s team was systemically dismantled afterwards by the asset-stripping Ernie Clay, sparking Fulham’s dramatic spiral down the divisions and several battles for the very future of the club, makes it even more of a travesty. Fulham might have fallen short of the high standards they’d set up that season well before the final day in the Midlands, but the way it ended at the Baseball Ground left a deep mark on everyone involved.
Yesterday it was Jokanovic’s side clinging on for a precious victory. Fulham’s previous win at Pride Park back in 2002, when the weather was similarly atrocious, seemed devoid of much feeling – and it is important to stress that there’s a totally different atmosphere around Derby’s new ground, as well as a new generation following the Rams these days. This weekend’s win won’t avenge the anger of thirty five years ago, but it may offer a fonder memory for Fulham followers of a certain generation. I don’t know what Wilson did to celebrate following the final whistle yesterday. The travelling Fulham faithful have regularly bumped into the modest midfielder and his family sharing memories over pre and post-match pints over the years. I’m sure Saturday’s would have tasted very sweet indeed.