I remember exactly where I was when I heard that the owner of Harrods, Mohamed Al-Fayed, had completed a deal to buy my beloved Fulham because my Dad almost wrapped the car around a lamppost in King Street. I just assumed the announcement on the radio was a prank because the very idea of little old Fulham, who had just scrapped their way out of the Football League basement on a shoestring thanks to the magnificent Micky Adams, being taken over by an eccentric Egyptian tycoon felt pretty preposterous.
But it was true. Al-Fayed had been engaged in negotiations with the Muddyman family and Jimmy Hill for weeks after the Cottagers had surprised everyone outside of SW6 by earning promotion from Division Three in Adams’ first season as a manager. Our cult hero, who quipped he was more accustomed to shopping at Woolworths himself, didn’t last long: sacked four months later in favour of Ray Wilkins and Kevin Keegan. Wilkins’ appointment was puzzling, his ponderous football proved pedestrian, and Keegan was installed for a frustrating play-off defeat at the hands of Grimsby Town.
Keegan sprinkled his stardust upon Craven Cottage and spent the Al-Fayed millions wisely as the Whites romped to the Second Division title as well as reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup, where they narrowly beaten at Manchester United with John Salako missing an absolute sitter. Al-Fayed, with his eye on that elusive British passport, allowed Keegan to link up with England but his promotion of Paul Bracewell proved disastrous. It needed the genius of Jean Tigana to guide the Whites back to the promised land – two seasons ahead of Al-Fayed’s ambitious schedule.
The Egyptian’s tenure at Craven Cottage was memorable – with Fulham firmly establishing themselves as a top flight out, firstly thanks to the acquisition of Edwin van der Sar and a number of outstanding away displays. But there were lowlights too. A grubby deal to turn Fulham’s historic home into flats found its way into the pages of the Guardian and the Cottage looked lost until Al-Fayed bowed to the persistent pressure of the ‘Back to the Cottage’ campaign and took the fans home.
There was the weird visit of Michael Jackson and an even stranger statue, but Al-Fayed’s eccentricities were well known. I never dreamed of following my little club down by the River in the Premiership but the Whites stayed at English football’s top table for thirteen years. There were question marks over whether Al-Fayed’s long-term interest, but those where piqued again by the achievements of Roy Hodgson, who guided Fulham fabulously to the Europa League final after miraculously avoiding relegation.
Hodgson’s exit for Anfield and his subsequent replacement by Mark Hughes, who always seemed an odd fit, ushered in a period of paralysis where Al-Fayed appeared ready to sell. He eventually did but not before he gave us nights beyond compare. It was never dull with Mo at the helm. He propelled a farcically run football club back up the pyramid and, he did, eventually take us home.