It is 25 years ago today that the Mohamed Al-Fayed era at Fulham got underway as the Whites took on Wrexham in the Second Division at Craven Cottage. The purchase of a likeable but sleepy London club by the eccentric Egyptian owner of Harrods had come as a complete surprise in the aftermath of Fulham’s promotion from the professional pyramid’s bottom tier on a shoestring under first-time manager Micky Adams. As the cult hero himself drily observed, he had to adjust from ‘shopping at Woolworths to shopping at Harrods’.
There was a sense of both optimism and curiosity swirling around the Cottage before the first fixture of the new campaign. More than 8,000 fans sweltered in the sunshine to watch, with national newspaper correspondents slumming it in the Second Division, and thousands of snappers crowding around the Cottage as Al-Fayed emerged from the tunnel to greet the Fulham faithful – in what became a traditional pre-match walk across the hallowed turf. Adams had been used to operating on a tight budget, so he spent shrewdly identifying players like Steve Hayward, Neil Smith and Paul Moody who could make his newly-promoted side competitive at this level.
The hosts had the better of proceedings but struggled to make the breakthrough. It arrived courtesy of Scottish striker Micky Conroy, who once suffered the ignominy of being both booed by his own fans and hearing the Hammersmith End chant ‘off, off, off’ when the referee was ready to book him during a spell of wretched form. But a conversation with Adams about how he should concentrate on becoming a penalty box predator and 23 goals as the Whites went up, transformed him into a cult hero. How fickle are football fans?
Conroy sniffed out the winner here, deftly diverting a shot from Hayward home after Wrexham had failed to deal with Paul Watson’s long throw.
Adams and Al-Fayed both spoke excitedly about the future in the aftermath of a victory that looked more inevitable once Wrexham substitute Steve Watkin was sent off six minutes for the end. By mid-September, the honeymoon was over. Adams, four months after signing a new contract and being assured by the board that he would be Fulham’s Sir Alex Ferguson, was out. He was replaced by the high-profile duo of Ray Wilkins (as manager) and Kevin Keegan, acting as ‘chief operating officer’. The appointments delivered the headlines Al-Fayed craved, if not the results. Fulham reached the play-offs but by May, Al-Fayed had realised Wilkins, who was sacked, and Keegan were the wrong way round. Keegan’s side were beaten by Grimsby in a bad-tempered set of semi-finals and had to spent another year in the third tier.