Micky Adams might have lifted Fulham from the foot of the pyramid, Roy Hodgson oversaw the Great Escape and took the Whites to a scarcely believable European final, whilst Slavisa Jokanovic mastermined a return to the top flight culminating in that magical day at Wembley thirteen months ago, but ask any Hammersmith End regular who brought the best football to Craven Cottage and the answer will probably be almost unanimous – Jean Tigana.
The diminutive midfielder, forever immortalised in the Carré Magique alongside Platini, Giresse, Fernández of 1984, might have been a classy operator on the field but he proved something of a surprise appointment by the banks of the Thames in the summer of 2000. Despite guiding Lyon to second place in Ligue 1 and helping Monaco going one better before reaching the last four of the Champions’ League – surprising the mighty Manchester United along the way – in 1998, he was largely unknown on these shores when a chance recommendation from Eric Cantona prompted an approach from former chairman Bill Muddyman, on the orders of Mohamed Al Fayed.
Tigana, who had never considered venturing overseas during his illustrious playing career, had not come across Fulham before. Why should he? The club’s glory days, such as they were, belonged mostly to the era of black and white television and the amateur footballer, with Johnny Haynes to the fore. Despite Al-Fayed’s ambition and a couple of promotions, the conventional wisdom was that the momentum of the club’s surge up the English footballing pyramid had left with the departure of the charismatic Kevin Keegan for the national team. He was attracted by the challenge of bringing top flight football back to the white half of SW6 and the unique nature of the Cottage.
He sprung surprises straightaway. The players’ summer holidays were cut short by two weeks and Tigana took the squad off to French for an intensive fitness work under the watchful eye of Roger Propos, with three sessions a day mapped up from 6.30am. Seasoned professionals were astonished that they waited more than a week to do any kind of ball work – in Tigana’s own words, the first week was full of tests, both scientific and physical. In came dietitians, doctors and dentists as Tigana mapped a plan to revolutionise his side’s nutrition and fitness. Alcohol was outlawed immediately.
There were a raft of technical tweaks as Tigana, working in tandem with his trusted assistant Christian Damiano, started imparting a blueprint designed to take his charges to the Premier League. Key to the new approach was an insistence on possession and keeping the playing the ball to feet, something that diametrically opposed to the way most First Division sides operated. It took a while to school his new charges in this philosophy, but the results quickly quelled any doubts about the effectiveness of these methods.
Supporters were perturbed by the almost instantaneous departure of cult hero Geoff Horsfield, revered on the terraces for his impact since swapping his part-time bricklayer’s job at Halifax for west London. Tigana reasoned that Horsfield, whose goals had spearheaded Fulham’s push to the Second Division and knocked Tottenham out of the League Cup, lacked both the mobility and pace to suit his system – selling him to Birmingham for £2.25m. His replacement was Louis Saha, known only in England for an underwhelming loan spell at Newcastle. The young Frenchman scored twice on his debut at Tiverton Town and never looked back, rattling in 32 goals in 48 appearances as the Whites left everyone else trailing in their wake.
The other notable summer arrivals had more of a pedigree in English football. Many were surprised when John Collins dropped down a division to sign from Everton, but the Scottish international was delighted to work again under Tigana, who had been astonished by the way Collins had moved to Monaco and picked up French within a matter of weeks. Collins’ initial job was that of translator, but he soon became Fulham’s vision of Tigana on the field, capable of touches of class and unlocking defences from almost anywhere whilst seeming to having eons of time on the ball. Luis Boa Morte was on his way out at Southampton, but became part of a potent front three alongside Saha and Barry Hayles, scoring 21 goals in a supremely successful loan spell at the start of a seven-year love affair with the club.
Aside from the acquisitions, Tigana’s transformation of his existing resources raised eyebrows. Chris Coleman was always a classy presence at the back, but the transformation in Andy Melville, previously jeered by his own fans for what they felt were error-strewn performances, was startling. Melville and Kit Symons impressively coped with the trauma of Coleman’s career-ending car accident at the turn of the year as Fulham surged to the Division One title, whilst Rufus Brevett, who believed he would one of the first players Tigana was going to release, produced the best football of his career, despite having just turned 30. Steve Finnan, a converted full back brought in Keegan from Notts County, became one of the country’s leading right backs, who went on to the World Cup with Ireland and Champions’ League glory with Liverpool.
At the other end of the field, Tigana came to rely heavily on Hayles, a veteran of the English lower leagues, even though the forward didn’t test well during those early days in the south of France. By the end of his time in charge, Tigana felt Hayles could easily have fitted in to a number of the leading Ligue 1 sides.
He took a particular pride in promoting young players. Sean Davis had been a promising teenager when Micky Adams handed him a surprise senior debut but he had found regular first-team opportunities tough to come by under Keegan and Paul Bracewell. Tigana converted him into a deep-lying defensive midfielder, who enjoyed a tackle and retained an eye for goal. It was fitting that Davis scored the two most memorable goals of the season, an injury-time winner at Blackburn that capped a comeback from a goal and a man down against Fulham’s closest rivals and sparked a joyous dash down the touchline from the typically guided and private, Tigana and a similarly late equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday that sealed the championship. For much of his first season in charge, Tigana also insisted that the gangly centre back Zat Knight played in midfield for the reserves, preparing him for a promotion to the senior side that arrived the following year.
Mere numbers don’t do justice to the breathtaking way in which Tigana’s side blew away the competition. Fulham won their first eleven games in a row, finishing the year with a record 101 points and scoring ninety goals. Tipped to struggle with the step up to the top flight, Fulham not only survived, but reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, which led to an InterToto Cup adventure the following year and a first taste of European football in the UEFA Cup. Tigana reset the ambitions of London’s oldest professional club, signing Edwin van der Sar from Juventus and bringing in another classy midfielder in Steed Malbranque. The end of the ride might have been acrimonious – a parting of the ways after a loss of trust between Tigana and Al Fayed left a homeless football club in danger of relegation at Loftus Road – but the journey was majestic.
Tigana looks back fondly on his days by the River Thames, saying that he never found the fellowship he felt from the fans at Fulham anywhere else in his career. The feeling is mutual, because his football and impact on the football club, was arguably unparalleled. Happy birthday, Jean.
Barry Hayles believes Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham can mount a serious push for promotion back to the Premier League – and succeed in emulating the 2000/01 side of which he was such a pivotal part.
The former Fulham striker, still plying his trade as player-coach at Windsor in the Hellenic League, feels the Whites have really hit their stride since the turn of the year and backs his old club to be amongst the contenders in the Championship’s top six come May. Hayles told today’s Football League Paper:
There is always a team that hits form at the right time and they’ve got a great chance, definitely. I remember watching them play Derby at home in November and they dominated the first half and should have been two or three goals up. Derby then equalised from their first attack. But if Fulham had that clinical cutting edge they would have been out of sight.
Hayles believes the side that stormed to the First Division title under Jean Tigana, with Louis Saha, Luis Boa Morte and himself scoring 63 league goals between them, posed more of a threat in the final third but feels that the loan signing of Aleksandr Mitrovic on deadline day could be crucial.
I felt like we had more of an edge up and top and, if Fulham can get someone in the final third scoring consistently, then they will push on from there. I think he [Mitrovic] is a great signing. He will suit Fulham’s game because he can hold the ball up and will be a good focal point for their attacks.
Hayles, who scored 57 goals in six seasons at Craven Cottage, admitted he has been surprised at how he has taken to coaching as playing career draws to a close. The likeable forward, who scored Fulham’s first Premier League goal at Craven Cottage in a 2-0 win over Sunderland back in August 2001, is currently studying for his UEFA B license.
I didn’t think I would want to get into coaching, which is why I’m 45 and not fully qualified yet. But now I’ve grasped it with both hands and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
He does feel passionately, that despite new FA and EFL initiatives to create more opportunities for BAME coaches in the modern game, more needs to be done to ensure that the managers at the highest level reflect the game’s diversity.
I know a lot of players I’ve played with who have got their full badges and apply for jobs but get bypassed. I speak to them and they say, ‘Well, I’ve got all the credentials, why can I be given the chance?’ But that doesn’t put me off. I thoroughly enjoy it and the different levels, so I will push on.
In amongst the mumbling and grumbling this week, a few people have picked out some of Fulham’s new signings to suggest they just aren’t good enough. Far be it for me to suggest that supporters are supposed to encourage their team’s players rather than to denigrate them – I’ll just suggest that far more respected observers of the game than this correspondent have spilled plenty of ink in outlining just how long it takes to get used to the physicality and unforgiving pace of the English game.
Aboubakar Kamara has come in for plenty of criticism following Tuesday night’s humbling at the hands of Bristol Rovers. It is fair to say that he hardly pulled up any trees but he was totally starved of any service and, as desperation crept in, he seemed to create the game’s two best chances through sheer bloody-mindnessness. Kamara, a barrel-chested physical specimen with plenty of pace, reminds me of Barry Hayles, who took no end of stick as he took seven games to get off the mark having arrived at Craven Cottage at a cost of £2m. Nobody needs me to tell them what a cult hero he became.
There’s even an example of how misleading a new arrival’s start can be from last season. Stefan Johansen’s debut against Birmingham was so far short of the standard Slavisa Jokanovic expected that he was hauled off after just 32 minutes. The Norwegian was slated on social media and the various Fulham forums for several weeks but became the lynchpin of a midfield that powered the Whites into the play-offs. His boundless energy, knack of finding either the net or a killer pass complimented the defensive discipline of Kevin McDonald and the creativity of Tom Cairney. Think where we might be without him.
Fulham’s Premier League years are full of similar tales. Ask Chris Baird what his first few months at Craven Cottage were like. Booed by a large proportion of his home crowd simply for pulling on the white shirt, Baird’s professionalism and versatility eventually won out – and he even decked Jimmy Bullard long before the rest of us had tired of his cheeky chappy persona. The boy from Ballymena is now immortalised in song, but his early displays were nervy ones far removed from the performances that helped Fulham to their highest ever league finish and a European final. There’s also Bobby Zamora, who took fearful stick before blossoming into Britain’s best striker as Fulham went to Hamburg twice, and another European hero Zoltan Gera suffered at the hands of the boo-boys at the start of his Fulham career as he was keeping Clint Dempsey out of Roy Hodgson’s first choice side.
Nobody would now question Gera’s contributions in a Fulham shirt. His whole-hearted displays were a vital ingredient in that magical European run as he and Zamora struck up an almost telepathic understanding that sent fear shivering through the continent’s defences. He scored crucial goals against CSKA Sofia, Basel, Shakhtar Donetsk and all-too-forgotten brace against Juventus before that magical moment against Hamburg. His renaissance owed much to circumstance – Hodgson had to reshape his side following ‘banjoing’ of Andy Johnson by Amkar Perm – and finding his best position behind a lone striker.
Which brings me back to Kamara. At Amiens last year, he had most of his success as a forward who played in very close proximity to an advanced attacking midfielder, most regularly Charly Charrier, or as a wider forward in a front three. He is now adjusting to a new system where none of Fulham’s central midfielders is station quite as close to the lone striker as they were with Amiens. Indeed, the closest thing Fulham have to a playmaker, Tom Cairney, is deployed in a much deeper role by Jokanovic to dictate possession. Wingers who drift inside don’t provide as much width as the full-backs who tend to bomb on from defensive positions. All of this needs readjustment and Kamara, who still doesn’t speak much beyond basic English, made some intelligent runs against Norwich and Leeds. He might not be the answer but to write him off after three appearances seems exceptionally harsh.
Forwards seem to be judged by very high standards these days. There were even some around me last weekend who didn’t think Rui Fonte’s debut was up to much. I recall how despised Mick Conroy seemed to be the Fulham fanbase towards the end of the 1995/96 season and just how a much younger Gary Brazil divided the fanbase when to my eyes he seemed to be the only real player of quality in a struggling side. Jokanovic did supremely well to reshape his squad into one that sneaked into the top six last year – but it didn’t happen overnight. There were bumps in the road, especially in the first half of the campaign.
Social media and the internet allow everyone to be a critic these days. There’s the instantaneous analysis of matches and the amount of football broadcast across the globe means we can all be scouts as well. To outsiders, Fulham remains a remarkably friendly football club. That might be a source of scorn to some but as supporters the least we can do is to reserve judgement on players who are still getting used to their new club. They might even reward us by following in a few famous footsteps and write the next chapter in Fulham’s unique history.
Barry Hayles was disappointed to see his old team-mate Kit Symons sacked but believes the future is still bright for Fulham.
Hayles and Symons were team-mates at Craven Cottage for three years at the turn of the century, winning two promotions as the Whites returned to the top flight for the first time in more than three decades.
Symons was this week sacked as Fulham boss after a 5-2 home drubbing by Birmingham confirmed the board’s belief that he was not the right man to lead a charge back to the Premier League.
Hayles said: “You could see it coming really. The 5-2 home defeat was the final nail in the coffin, but it wasn’t just that, it had been brewing for a while. They brought him in to do a steady job and that’s what he did, but they need to step up to the next level now, and Kit was struggling to do that.
“They want to go back up to the Premier League, and there is a fantastic squad which is good enough to be up there challenging, but I don’t think Kit was getting the best out of the players. I was disappointed to see him go as we’re old team-mates who go back a long way, and I know he loves the club as much as I do. They could have given him until Christmas to see through his 18-month contract, but the club needed a breath of fresh air.”
Former Fulham striker Barry Hayles has urged Shahid Khan not to sack Martin Jol.
The Craven Cottage cult hero says that the club needs continuity, not change, after a difficult start to the season. Jol is under pressure following a poor start to the season, with just four points from their opening six games leaving them in the bottom three.
Some fans called for Jol to be axed after Saturday’s defeat against Cardiff City extended their dismal run without a Premier League win at Craven Cottage to six months.
But former Fulham favourite Hayles, who scored 57 goals in 214 games during a six-year stint in SW6, believes he needs more time. “They’ve had a horrendous start to the season, but it’s still early days,” said the 41-year-old. “The new players haven’t bedded in yet and need time to gel. Hopefully the new owner realises that and doesn’t give him the chop.
“It hasn’t been great, but I think it’s important there isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. They need some continuity. They let Martin bring in players in the summer, so he deserves time to try and turn things around.”
Dimitar Berbatov and Darren Bent have so far failed to strike up a red-hot partnership after being hampered by injury problems.
The pair have managed just one league goal between them, but Hayles reckons they will come good.
He added: “They are both top players. Berbatov likes dropping deep and Bent likes playing on the shoulder, so it should work. Once they start scoring regularly I’m sure Fulham will be fine.”