Micky Adams might have lifted Fulham from the foot of the pyramid, Roy Hodgson oversaw the Great Escape and took the Whites to a scarcely believable European final, whilst Slavisa Jokanovic mastermined a return to the top flight culminating in that magical day at Wembley thirteen months ago, but ask any Hammersmith End regular who brought the best football to Craven Cottage and the answer will probably be almost unanimous – Jean Tigana.
The diminutive midfielder, forever immortalised in the Carré Magique alongside Platini, Giresse, Fernández of 1984, might have been a classy operator on the field but he proved something of a surprise appointment by the banks of the Thames in the summer of 2000. Despite guiding Lyon to second place in Ligue 1 and helping Monaco going one better before reaching the last four of the Champions’ League – surprising the mighty Manchester United along the way – in 1998, he was largely unknown on these shores when a chance recommendation from Eric Cantona prompted an approach from former chairman Bill Muddyman, on the orders of Mohamed Al Fayed.
Tigana, who had never considered venturing overseas during his illustrious playing career, had not come across Fulham before. Why should he? The club’s glory days, such as they were, belonged mostly to the era of black and white television and the amateur footballer, with Johnny Haynes to the fore. Despite Al-Fayed’s ambition and a couple of promotions, the conventional wisdom was that the momentum of the club’s surge up the English footballing pyramid had left with the departure of the charismatic Kevin Keegan for the national team. He was attracted by the challenge of bringing top flight football back to the white half of SW6 and the unique nature of the Cottage.
He sprung surprises straightaway. The players’ summer holidays were cut short by two weeks and Tigana took the squad off to French for an intensive fitness work under the watchful eye of Roger Propos, with three sessions a day mapped up from 6.30am. Seasoned professionals were astonished that they waited more than a week to do any kind of ball work – in Tigana’s own words, the first week was full of tests, both scientific and physical. In came dietitians, doctors and dentists as Tigana mapped a plan to revolutionise his side’s nutrition and fitness. Alcohol was outlawed immediately.
There were a raft of technical tweaks as Tigana, working in tandem with his trusted assistant Christian Damiano, started imparting a blueprint designed to take his charges to the Premier League. Key to the new approach was an insistence on possession and keeping the playing the ball to feet, something that diametrically opposed to the way most First Division sides operated. It took a while to school his new charges in this philosophy, but the results quickly quelled any doubts about the effectiveness of these methods.
Supporters were perturbed by the almost instantaneous departure of cult hero Geoff Horsfield, revered on the terraces for his impact since swapping his part-time bricklayer’s job at Halifax for west London. Tigana reasoned that Horsfield, whose goals had spearheaded Fulham’s push to the Second Division and knocked Tottenham out of the League Cup, lacked both the mobility and pace to suit his system – selling him to Birmingham for £2.25m. His replacement was Louis Saha, known only in England for an underwhelming loan spell at Newcastle. The young Frenchman scored twice on his debut at Tiverton Town and never looked back, rattling in 32 goals in 48 appearances as the Whites left everyone else trailing in their wake.
The other notable summer arrivals had more of a pedigree in English football. Many were surprised when John Collins dropped down a division to sign from Everton, but the Scottish international was delighted to work again under Tigana, who had been astonished by the way Collins had moved to Monaco and picked up French within a matter of weeks. Collins’ initial job was that of translator, but he soon became Fulham’s vision of Tigana on the field, capable of touches of class and unlocking defences from almost anywhere whilst seeming to having eons of time on the ball. Luis Boa Morte was on his way out at Southampton, but became part of a potent front three alongside Saha and Barry Hayles, scoring 21 goals in a supremely successful loan spell at the start of a seven-year love affair with the club.
Aside from the acquisitions, Tigana’s transformation of his existing resources raised eyebrows. Chris Coleman was always a classy presence at the back, but the transformation in Andy Melville, previously jeered by his own fans for what they felt were error-strewn performances, was startling. Melville and Kit Symons impressively coped with the trauma of Coleman’s career-ending car accident at the turn of the year as Fulham surged to the Division One title, whilst Rufus Brevett, who believed he would one of the first players Tigana was going to release, produced the best football of his career, despite having just turned 30. Steve Finnan, a converted full back brought in Keegan from Notts County, became one of the country’s leading right backs, who went on to the World Cup with Ireland and Champions’ League glory with Liverpool.
At the other end of the field, Tigana came to rely heavily on Hayles, a veteran of the English lower leagues, even though the forward didn’t test well during those early days in the south of France. By the end of his time in charge, Tigana felt Hayles could easily have fitted in to a number of the leading Ligue 1 sides.
He took a particular pride in promoting young players. Sean Davis had been a promising teenager when Micky Adams handed him a surprise senior debut but he had found regular first-team opportunities tough to come by under Keegan and Paul Bracewell. Tigana converted him into a deep-lying defensive midfielder, who enjoyed a tackle and retained an eye for goal. It was fitting that Davis scored the two most memorable goals of the season, an injury-time winner at Blackburn that capped a comeback from a goal and a man down against Fulham’s closest rivals and sparked a joyous dash down the touchline from the typically guided and private, Tigana and a similarly late equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday that sealed the championship. For much of his first season in charge, Tigana also insisted that the gangly centre back Zat Knight played in midfield for the reserves, preparing him for a promotion to the senior side that arrived the following year.
Mere numbers don’t do justice to the breathtaking way in which Tigana’s side blew away the competition. Fulham won their first eleven games in a row, finishing the year with a record 101 points and scoring ninety goals. Tipped to struggle with the step up to the top flight, Fulham not only survived, but reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, which led to an InterToto Cup adventure the following year and a first taste of European football in the UEFA Cup. Tigana reset the ambitions of London’s oldest professional club, signing Edwin van der Sar from Juventus and bringing in another classy midfielder in Steed Malbranque. The end of the ride might have been acrimonious – a parting of the ways after a loss of trust between Tigana and Al Fayed left a homeless football club in danger of relegation at Loftus Road – but the journey was majestic.
Tigana looks back fondly on his days by the River Thames, saying that he never found the fellowship he felt from the fans at Fulham anywhere else in his career. The feeling is mutual, because his football and impact on the football club, was arguably unparalleled. Happy birthday, Jean.