Let this be a warning to you youngsters. Life passes by in a flash. Twenty years ago, I was a teenager with a dream of conquering the world of sports journalism. I’d done some work experience with national newspapers, television and, in addition to editing my own Saturday sports paper, was writing a regular column on Fulham for a bloke called Nick Bylund on Svenska Fans, the Swedish equivalent of rivals.net – an English fans’ portal that once hosted a brilliant TOOFIF website – but shone brightly briefly before hitting the dust. My journalism career never really hit the heights I hoped for, but writing for Nick did bring about this website – so there are silver linings to every cloud, I guess.

Fulham were in the midst of some serious shenanigans. Jean Tigana’s side had comfortably avoided relegation from the top flight, despite an alarming drop in form around the turn of the year that had turned an exhilarating return to English football’s elite in a long hard slog to get to forty points, and also reached the FA Cup semi-finals. A local derby against Chelsea, bizarrely scheduled for Villa Park on an early Sunday evening, proved a thoroughly frustrating affair – settled by a John Terry header diverted home by Louis Saha’s despairing attempt to clear. Fulham dominated the second half but couldn’t score, even after John Collins did a passable impression of Ricky Villa in running at a retreating Blues’ back line, and the Whites were knocked out.

The Cup finalists had qualified for Europe through their league exploits which meant Fulham were invited to contest the Intertoto Cup for England’s final UEFA Cup place. Tigana was keen to accept, arguing that an early-season start would provide the club with competitive games that would surpass the level of regular pre-season friendlies ahead of the new Premier League season. But the Frenchman was already in a battle with Mohamed Al-Fayed, who suspected his manager of pulling a fast one with the signing of Steve Marlet during the previous season. That fight would end up being settled in the French courts. Fulham’s chairman had persuaded Franco Baresi to become Fulham’s director of football – something which didn’t sit well with Tigana – and also secretly concluded a deal to sell Craven Cottage to Fulham River Projects, a front company for the eccentric Egyptian and his business partners, for property development.

Fulham decamped for Loftus Road, with the official reason being that the club needed time to satisfy the Premier League’s ground requirements following the Fulham Alliance’s derailing of Al-Fayed’s previous plans to redevelop the club’s old home. The truth, as revealed at the turn of the year by Paul Kelso in the Guardian and an insurgent ‘Back to the Cottage’ campaign, was somewhat different. The Whites were able to play another ‘last ever’ game at the Cottage in early July in the second qualifying round of the Intertoto Cup against Finnish amateurs FC Haka. A drab goalless draw attracted 8,000 fans to SW6 but was the sleepy football was only really memorable for the first appearance in a Fulham shirt of Facundo Sava, a Baresi buy over the head of Tigana. The Whites relied on a 1-1 draw in Valkeakoski the following week, where Steve Marlet’s goal finish early in the second half was cancelled out by Sami Ristila and Tigana’s men hung on to progress on away goals.

That slightly lucky escape did afford another visit to Craven Cottage with Greek outfit Eigaelo pulled out of the hat as Fulham’s next opponents. Again, the Whites looked alarmingly toothless in attack but they did grab a narrow lead to take to Athens Saha steered in a winner with thirteen minutes remaining. The second leg saw the Greeks level matters on aggregate, before Marlet equalised to set up a meeting with Sochaux. This game took place at QPR, where another late goal – this time in stoppage time from Sean Davis – secured a slender lead for the trip to the south of France. This time there was no nervy away league. Tigana’s side delivered a professional performance that won plenty of plaudits from his compatriots in the press pack, with an emphatic header from Sylvain Legwinski followed by a powerful run and finish from Barry Hayles putting Fulham through to one of three ‘ finals’ against Serie A side Bologna.

Plenty of Fulham fans were lapping up our European adventure by now. A glamour tie against one of the stellar sides in Italian football was definitely worth travelling for. A cagey first half offered little action, with the visitors barely testing the legendary Giuseppe Pagliuca in the home goal after Tigana dropped Saha. The game burst into life after the interval with the clever movement of little Beppe Signori winning and converting a penalty. Tigana turned to his bench not to bring on Saha but to introduce Junichi Inamoto, whose goalscoring exploits for Japan were a highlight of the World Cup a month earlier. The midfielder, acquired from Arsenal, immediately demonstrated his eye for goal scoring within two minutes of replacing Steed Malbranque, who had endured a rare off night.

Signori won and scored another spot-kick with fifteen minutes to go but Fulham weren’t about to lie down. They found an equaliser with five minutes left after Luis Boa Morte’s cross eluded Saha, only just off the bench himself, but was fired home by Legwinski. The two away goals made Fulham favourites for the second leg in Shepherd’s Bush. It was this balmy August night in west London when little Inamoto, whose presence in the Whites’ squad was initially derided as a marketing move to attract an Asian audience, wrote his name into Fulham folklore. The Japanese midfielder fired Fulham in front for the first time in the tie on thirteen minutes after playing a lovely one-two with Sava, although there was a scare when Tomas Locatelli capitalised on an error from our hero to fire in an equaliser that had deflected past Edwin van der Sar via Zat Knight.

Fulham were exceptionally lucky to survive strong Bologna penalty shouts when Carlo Nervo went down under a Knight challenge in the area, but the referee theatrically waved play on to incense the Italians. Fulham, fired up by one of Tigana’s feistier team talks, were different class in the second half. Inamoto restored their advantage with a superb volley 75 second after the restart and he removed any nerves just three minutes later by following up after his initial effort from a Marlet cross had come back off the crossbar.

Fulham were through to the UEFA Cup, where they progressed to the third round. By the following spring, Tigana was out – having taken to reading Proust at half time rather than engage in team talks, feeling so undermined by Al-Fayed, who had announced he would be leaving come the end of the season anyway. Fulham were rescued from relegation by Chris Coleman, who then reversed his position on being merely a caretaker manager to take the full-time job. It took another year for the ‘Back to the Cottage’ campaign to persuade Al-Fayed and Fulham of the merits of returning home, by which time Cookie had guided the Whites to seventh in the Premier League – surviving the mid-season sale of Saha, which our eccentric Egyptian owner later hailed for financing Fulham’s path back to our historic home.

That night, though, was magnificent. Inamoto looked absolutely world class and the players gleefully celebrated with the world’s smallest football trophy, which was paraded around the pitch by a jubilant Al-Fayed. Fulham were in Europe – and, after some brilliant bluffing from the much-missed Danny Fullbrook, I was given a byline in Gazetta dello Sport. Life doesn’t get much better than that.