Today would have been Johnny Haynes’ birthday. The Edmonton boy joined Fulham at fifteen in 1950, largely to play with his best mate Tosh Chamberlain. Having rejected overtures from Arsenal and Tottenham, Fulham’s greatest ever footballer stayed at Craven Cottage despite the Whites slipping down the divisions immediately after being relegated from the old First Division in 1968. He remains the man with the most Fulham appearances in the club’s history – playing an incredible 658 matches over two decades – as well as the Whites’ top goalscorer, with 158.

But mere numbers just don’t do justice to how good Haynes was. When I nervously interviewed Pele in front of an audience of hundreds of national newspaper journalists as a teenager, he sought to calm my jitters before the broadcast by asking who I supported. When I sheepishly said Fulham, the Brazilian legend waxed lyrical about both Craven Cottage and Haynes. ‘The best passer of a ball ever,’ he told me, flashing that megawatt smile. Alan Mullery, no mean distributor himself, didn’t know anyone who could pass it as accurately. No lesser an observer than Bobby Moore enthused: “John was always available, always hungry for the ball, always wanting to play. I loved watching the player. Later I learnt to love the man.”

Haynes quickly established himself in the first team as a talented teenager, scoring eighteen goals in his first full season and hitting nineteen in 1955-56. His best goalscoring campaign saw him find the net an astonishing 26 times in 38 games in 1958-59 as Bedford Jezzard’s stylish side won promotion from the Second Division. His peerless passing and reading of the game made him a player people came from miles away to watch. He wasn’t able to win the honours his individual ability merited with Fulham – never reaching Wembley with the Whites, who were beaten in two FA Cup semi-finals by the ‘Busby babes’ post-Munich in 1958 and Burnley four years later.

Haynes’ influence stretched far beyond SW6. One of the early ‘Brylcreem boys,’ he was the first footballer to break the £100-a-week barrier after the campaigning of his team-mate Jimmy Hill and was an admired England captain, who played in two World Cup tournaments in 1958 and 1962. He surely would have been in Alf Ramsey’s 1966 squad that memorably won the trophy on home soil, with Fulham’s George Cohen at full back, but for a car crash suffered in Blackpool at the start of the 1962 season. It was remarkable that Haynes returned to play first-team football, but he had understandably lost some of his sharpness and pace after coming back from a serious injury.

The pose that Haynes is often captured in – with his hands on his hips – was the way he greeted one of his passes being miscontrolled or wasted by a lesser talented team-mate, which was most of them when he was representing a Fulham side that had slumped into Division Three by the time of his final appearance in 1970. He had a brief spell as the club’s caretaker player-manager after Fulham harshly sacked Bobby Robson in 1968, but had no interest in becoming a manager himself. He officially retired following four years in South Africa and, after returning in the UK, he lived happily in Edinburgh with his wife Avril until his sad passing after a road traffic, the day after his 71st birthday in 2005.

Haynes was an enthusiastic supporter of his club from afar and rolled up his sleeves to save both Fulham and Craven Cottage during the dark days. He was a steadfast support of the ‘Back to the Cottage’ campaign to ensure the Whites returned to their historic home, declining the chance to become a patron, and signing letters that accompanied his membership cheques to the Fulham Supporters’ Trust simply as ‘John’. The words of Trust chairman, Tom Greatrex, in his tribute after Johnny’s death are as true today as they were seventeen years ago:

His dedication, skill, professionalism, grace and charm – both in his playing days and in retirement – serve as a poignant reminder to many of today’s footballers about what true greatness really means.”

I was never fortunate enough to see Johnny play for Fulham. I did meet him on a couple of occasions, where he was happy to talk about his career with an excitable young fan. It is only right that Haynes, one of English’s most brilliant footballers, is immortalised in a superb statue on Stevenage Road outside the Archibald Leitch that now bears his name. It is also right that we should remember Johnny the gentleman. We’ll never see his like again.