It is the sort of sobering statistic that automatically ages you. 25 years ago tonight, Chris Coleman made his Fulham debut. The likeable Welsh centre back will freely admit that, 24 hours after signing on the dotted line to drop two divisions from Blackburn Rovers, his first outing at Craven Cottage against Brentford was shorn of the assurance we quickly took for granted from the leader of the back four. The local derby didn’t need any extra spice but, there was plenty, with Micky Adams pitching up as manager of Fulham’s local rivals three months after Mohamed Al-Fayed severed the special bond between the fans and the man who had led the Whites out of the Football League basement. No one was convinced by the contrived spectacle of the eccentric Egyptian presenting Adams, who always implored the fans to ‘keep the faith,’ with a Fulham scarf before kick off.

Coleman’s distribution and defending was patchy that night, but he quickly became the rock around which Fulham’s remarkable rise towards the top flight was built. Once the tedious Ray Wilkins experiment was abandoned, the Swansea boy forged a miserly partnership with his Welsh schoolboys team-mate Kit Symons at the heart of a Fulham defence that remained miserly despite Kevin Keegan’s ultra-attacking approach. Coleman, a classy ball-playing centre half in the mould of the likes of former Fulham favourites like Tony Gale and Bobby Moore, became far more than the barrier between opposition forwards and Maik Taylor; he embraced the leadership role to be the heartbeat both of a lively dressing room but also of a club rooted in its community.

He was quite clearly far too good to be playing Second Division football, having been told by Roy Hodgson – ironically – that his days at Ewood Park were numbered. Moving back to London, where he had played for Crystal Palace, to sign for Fulham was a gamble that surprised several seasoned observers but it paid off in spades. Coleman not only lifted the Second Division title but led a team that surprised Southampton and Aston Villa in the FA Cup. His influence only increased when Keegan jumped ship for his ill-fated tilt at international football and he fully embraced Jean Tigana’s French revolution. The results were so extraordinary that it seemed only a matter of time before Coleman was leading Fulham out in the top flight before a horrific car crash cruelly curtailed his playing career. It speaks volumes about Coleman’s spirit that he recovered from the physical and mental turmoil of an accident that saw paramedics preparing to amputate his legs before learning of his profession to play for his country again, but anyone who met the man himself during his gruelling recovery phase wouldn’t have been surprised.

Coleman’s Fulham story was only just beginning, of course. He had only just accepted an invitation to join Tigana’s coaching staff when he was thrown into the dugout after the Frenchman’s relationship with Al-Fayed collapsed spectacularly, placing the club’s Premier League status in jeopardy. The club legend initially insisted he had no interest in the full-time job, but he won three of five matches – making light of his transition from team-mate to boss – to secure safety and beat the likes of George Burley and Klaus Topmoller to the job.

That was only the beginning of Coleman, installed in the summer of 2003 as the Premier League’s youngest-ever manager, upsetting the odds. He surprised everyone by leading Fulham to a ninth placed finish in his first full season in charge – having been the overwhelming favourite to be the first boss out of work – and certainly would have been more successful had Manchester United not lured Louis Saha north mid-season. The new manager adroitly handled Fulham’s exile at Loftus Road, keeping the fans onside, and navigated plenty of boardroom turmoil to keep the Whites above water despite diminishing investment from Al-Fayed.

The club’s return to Craven Cottage was vital and, whilst Coleman’s first managerial job was eventually to end in disappointment, there were plenty of highs along the way. His swashbuckling side won at Tottenham and Manchester United in style in first campaign and memorably beat Chelsea, who had swept all before them in Jose Mourinho’s golden period, on an unforgettable April afternoon. There was a first win over Arsenal for more than forty years and the Whites remained out of trouble until Coleman’s final campaign in charge despite losing the likes of Saha, Edwin van der Sar, Sean Davis, Steed Malbranque and Luis Boa Morte.

Coleman had built a rapport with the Fulham fans similar to the one savoured by Adams. He was much more than a captain or mere manager, largely because as – a working-class boy himself – he recognised how fortunate he was. When he was recuperating from that awful injury, I encountered him limping down Lysia Street a couple of hours before a home game. You could see the pain etched on his face. Being quite the mouthy teenager, I took my opportunity to say how much we all missed him on the pitch. He smiled and thanked me, before enquiring as to how I got around. I said I’d had years to get used to having cerebral palsy and it didn’t stop me from doing anything. He flashed that cinematic grin and said, ‘If you can keep smiling, Dan, I’ve got nothing to worry about it’. Four years later, he recognised me during a supporters’ trip to Motspur Park and sat with me for two hours talking tactics long after everyone else gone home. I know from speaking to other supporters that is just the kind of man he is.

Coleman’s managerial career went onto even greater highs after he took over from his great mate Gary Speed as Wales manager. His success in guiding his country to the European Championship semi-finals in 2016 owed as much to his infectious personality as his tactical acumen – and I firmly believe that his magnetism played a pivotal role in ensuring Al-Fayed’s five-year plan to take Fulham back to English football’s top table was completed ahead of schedule. Thanks for all the memories, Cookie.