Twenty years on, it still seems like a dream. Fulham, so pedestrian under Paul Bracewell the previous season, stormed to the Division One title at a canter. Plenty of sides have done that in the past but there was something different about this one. Fulham played a type of football that nobody had seen down by the banks of the Thames before. The fact that they were able to keep it going, in the depths of winter as well as the heat of summer and spring, and beat their nearest challengers – with adversity against them – in the closing of weeks of the season only underlined the magnificence of the achievement. Although he was modest and shied away from interviews, one man was responsible – Jean Tigana.
Just luring Tigana to Craven Cottage was a coup in itself. The French maestro, well known to football obsessives for his role in that brilliant 1982 national side, fancied a crack at English football following his success with Monaco but it was the project of reviving Fulham’s fortunes from outside the top flight that really appealed. His early visits to the Cottage reinforced the idea that this would be something different to what he was used to – and, assured of the unstinting supporting of Fulham chairman Mohamed Al Fayed, Tigana threw himself into the role.
Initially, it was a culture shock – even for the more successful members of Fulham’s already expensively-assembled squad. Tigana took encouragement from an early dinner with Arsene Wenger and revolutionised the way Fulham did things. The players returned earlier from their summer break than anyone else and were submitted to a series of baffling tests – medicals, blood tests, x-rays and trips to the dentist. Their diets were handed over to a dietician that Tigana trusted and alcohol was out. Peak performance was the aim and the club’s fitness programme was overhauled under the stewardship of Roger Propos.
That began with three training sessions a day in the hot summer months, including during what some players thought would be a relaxing pre-season trip to Devon. Many of them were without a ball. It paid off when Fulham proved to be far fitter than their competitors. In the longer term, it also extended the careers of some Fulham stalwarts who feared they would be on the way out under the new regime – the likes of Andy Melville, Rufus Brevett and Barry Hayles flourished when given their opportunity in the first team.
Tigana didn’t tweak his squad – he immediately reshaped it in accordance with the way he wanted to play football. One of the first arrivals was John Collins, an important cog in the Fulham midfield for sure, but also an experienced player who had thrived under Tigana at Monaco and, at least initially, acted as a conduit for the manager’s ideas on the field as well as a translator. He describes the radical surgery he carried out on Fulham’s forward line as a risk. Out went crowd favourite Geoff Horsfield, who had scored 31 goals in 74 games. In came Louis Saha, best known to British audiences for a forgettable spell at Newcastle. The French forward’s touch, class and mobility would soon terrorise English defences.
Saha was joined in an enterprising attack by Luis Boa Morte, who had struggled at Southampton after getting his start under Wenger at Arsenal. Eyebrows were raised at the decision to loan him in from the south coast, but the Portuguese winger – who often operated up front in the First Division – scored 21 goals in 46 appearances scaring Division One defences with his pace, direct running and desire to win. Then there was Fabrice Fernandes, a mercurial winger from Rennes, whose loan spell might have fizzled out but he provided plenty of moments of magic. All of them together was a truly frightening prospect.
Tigana’s footballing methods seem old hat now, but he insisted on goalkeeper Maik Taylor playing the ball out from the back rather than thumping it downfield. The players recall the manager erupting in fury after a pre-season win over Brentford when the Northern Ireland keeper launched the ball forward once the opposition latched onto the tactic. Early in the season, Melville feared the drop when one poor ball cost Fulham a goal. Instead, Tigana encouraged him in the dressing afterwards – insistent that the rewards would come.
And they did. Fulham’s football was spellbinding. Collins and the evergreen Lee Clark formed a telepathic triumvirate with the academy graduate Sean Davis in central midfield. Davis has spoken previously about wondering where his career was going as he struggled to nail down a position in the side under Bracewell and Kevin Keegan having been handed his senior debut by Micky Adams. Tigana tried him in a deeper role and it proved a masterstroke, with the youngster blossoming into the archetypal holding midfielder, whose energetic bursts forward delivered vital goals.
The memories from that unforgettable season are bountiful. Saha’s sensational first half hat-trick against Barnsley, Barry Hayles’ brilliant treble that blew Watford away on Boxing Day and the ease of a derby win over QPR at Craven Cottage. The matches that bring back all the nostalgia are of course those at the close of the campaign when promotion was within touching distance. Tigana fondly remembers the way Fulham fought back at Blackburn, a man down, after Graeme Souness had insisted his side were the best in the division:
“If I was to choose one memory from my time at Fulham, though, it would be a game at Blackburn towards the end of my first season. We played half the match with 10 men, but Sean Davis scored a 90th-minute winner – it was the moment when promotion was all but assured. It was the first and only time that I jumped off the bench to hug my players. The only time in my whole career.”
Promotion was clinched at Huddersfield three days later and it was somehow fitting that Davis, who had netted that improbable winner at Ewood Park, secured the title with a last-gasp strike against Sheffield Wednesday. The scenes on the Hammersmith End terrace that afternoon will remain with me for a lifetime.
So successful was Tigana’s first season in charge that Fulham even put Al-Fayed’s five year target to reach the top flight. A summer of spending, including the purchase of Edwin van der Sar, showed they weren’t intending to make the numbers – as Saha’s brace at Old Trafford that twice put Fulham in front emphasised. Their excellent start to the season hit a road bump before Christmas, but the Whites still reached an FA Cup semi final and winning the InterToto Cup took them into the UEFA Cup. Tigana’s time at Fulham might have ended in recriminations and disappointment, but there’s no doubt he totally transformed London’s oldest professional club.
He also built the most stylish Fulham side I’ve ever seen. Today is his 66th birthday. I hope he’s celebrating at one of his vineyards in Cassis. He certainly deserves to.