This weekend, England take on South Africa in the Rugby World Cup Final. An event that has very little significance to our beloved Fulham but nevertheless has been a successful tournament hosted by the Japanese.
In the new millennium, it has been evident that the Asian continent has shown ambition, trying to close the gap between Europe and the rest of the world with regards to the beautiful game. With serious investment coming in from the likes of China in recent years. The 2002 World Cup being hosted in Japan/South Korea with both countries making it to the knockout phases three times and twice respectively in the new millennium. Most impressive of all, South Korea going as far as the semi’s in 2002! Not to mention that the next World Cup is to be played in Qatar… It’s no surprise that practically every Premier League club has had a pre-season tour to the continent at some stage because of the added interest.
Yet, even in the present day, it will be a common theme amongst the majority of English clubs that they haven’t had many Asian players on their books over the years, simply because the availability for players of the right quality hasn’t been established with the same infrastructure as other parts of the world. And whilst the gap is still large compared to Europe, I think it’s all but guaranteed that Fulham will have a lot more Asian players in the next 140 years than they have from 1879-present.
We will be focusing on 5 players that have represented the club but a mention must be given to a few others. Fulham’s U23 midfielder Ben Davies who made his first-team debut in August against Southampton in the League Cup. Ben was born in Thailand and has represented Singapore at youth level. Hopefully, we see a lot more of him in the future. Andranik Teymourian is another to get a mention. The Iranian International made two appearances between 2008-10. Thirdly Seol Ki Hyeon who was signed by Lawrie Sanchez in a player swap deal for Liam Rosenior. The South Korean International made 26 appearances, scoring twice for the club including one at the start of our Europa League adventure against FK Vetra.
NEIL ETHERIDGE (2008-14)
Etheridge was born in Enfield, North London to an English father and Filipina mother. He has represented the Philippines first team since 2008 and has 63 caps to his name. Neil joined Fulham in 2006 as a teenager leaving the Chelsea academy to sign professional terms with FFC. He spent time out on loan with several clubs before injuries provided him with a rare opportunity at 21 years of age in the Europa League against Odense at the Cottage in 2010. Sadly, it was to be a night to forget for Martin Jol’s side as we crashed out with a 2-2 draw courtesy of a late equaliser for the Danish side (when we needed to win).
That was to be Neil’s only appearance for the club and his career has taken off since leaving. First with Walsall in League One which was his first long spell as a regular between the sticks, followed by a move to Cardiff City where he achieved promotion and played a full season in the Premier League as the Bluebirds were relegated alongside us.
ZESH REHMAN (2003-06)
Zesh is the other player to feature on our list that was born in the UK. Born in Birmingham, he joined Fulham in 1995 as a 12-year-old and broke into the first team in 2003. He made his Premier League debut at Anfield towards the end of the 2003/04 season and in doing so, became the first British born Asian to play in the Premier League. An opportunity/achievement that I’m proud Zesh made with our club
He went onto make 30 appearances for the club, the majority coming in our ‘back home’ season in 2004/05 as he formed a centre back partnership with Zat Knight. This spell in the first team was rewarded with his first cap for the Pakistan National Team. Since leaving SW6 in 2006, he has gone on to play 25 times for Pakistan and became the first Asian to play in all four divisions in England.
ASHKAN DEJAGAH (2012-14)
Ashkan Dejagah’s transfer to Fulham on deadline day in the summer of 2012 went somewhat under the radar as the headlines all focused on the high profile signing of Dimitar Berbatov. The Iranian spent two seasons in South-West London but unfortunate luck with injuries resulted in a stop-start first season for the midfielder. In total, he scored six goals for the club and they all came the following season as he finally established himself in the first team during the latter stages of our failed fight against relegation in 2013/14. Dejagah was a talented wide man, successful at cutting in from either wing and scoring goals from the edge of the box. This description fits the majority of his 6 goals for the club as he proved to be one of the few shining lights in a disastrous season for the club.
Born in Tehran (Iran), Ashkan moved to Germany when he was one and became a German citizen at 16 years of age. He went on to represent the Germans at youth level winning the 2009 U21 Euros before switching to his country of birth, earning 58 caps and scoring 11 goals for the Iran Senior Team. Whilst still contracted as a Fulham player, he represented Iran at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and played in all three group stage matches. A former Iranian TV show voted Dejagah as the best left-sided midfielder to ever play for their country which highlights his influence when representing his national team.
Frustratingly for Fulham fans, Dejagah parted company with the club shortly after the World Cup ended and moved to Al Arabi in Qatar for a fresh challenge. It’s a shame that what could have been a very popular player for years to come has over time fizzled out to be a Fulham career during a period most fans want to forget. Instead, Dejagah’s claim to fame in a Fulham shirt will probably be scoring the first goal of the Felix Magath era. Don’t worry Ashkan, someone had to!
JUNICHI INAMOTO (2002-04)
A nations sweetheart! Inamoto rose to stardom at the start of the new millennium and was one of a number of well-publicised transfers of Asian players to European clubs signing for Arsenal. It never quite worked out for him with the Gunners and he signed for Japanese outfit Gamba Osaka shortly before stealing the headlines at his home nations 2002 World Cup in Japan/ South Korea. The midfielder scored twice against Belgium and then against Russia to take the hosts through to the last 16. He was described by Japanese media as being “bigger than Beckham” and carried that momentum across to West London the following season. Some may remember the unusual 2-year loan deal for Andre Schurrle last season but back in our ‘Loftus Road’ days, this seemed to be the norm as Inamoto was one of a few 2-year loans at the club during this period.
His legacy with Fulham fans will always be that he scored a hat trick in the Intertoto Cup final, to date our only piece of silverware and at the time, a route that paved the way into our first major European tournament the UEFA Cup. But Junichi did more than just score a hat trick in a Fulham shirt. He scored in the first leg of the final against Bologna to earn us a priceless draw, against Spurs in the famous comeback and of course sealed a famous win with a superbly taken goal at Old Trafford for our first win over Utd on their turf since 1963.
In fact, all 9 of Inamoto’s goals came in wins except for that priceless draw in the Intertoto Final. In a strange, unique career with the club, he also managed 57 appearances meaning that only Martin Djetou has played more games for Fulham without ever appearing for the club at the Cottage. People joke about the Intertoto and Inamoto’s contribution but in all seriousness, compared to a lot of loans we’ve had, and permanent big money transfers for that matter, when putting it into perspective, Inamoto’s loan to Fulham was nothing but a success and he will live forever in the memory with the most incredible of coincidental rhymes. We won the Intertoto with a hat trick from Inamoto…you couldn’t make it up!
CHARLIE MITTEN (1951-55)
Perhaps a name that younger fans won’t recognise, but certainly the greatest on this list with regards to Fulham’s history. Charlie Mitten was born in Burma, Southeast Asia in 1921. He began his career as a junior with Manchester United, scoring 50 goals in 142 league appearances before leaving the Red Devil’s for a spell in South America. Mitten came from Columbian descent and moved there for his next career move to avoid the maximum wage limitations in English Football at that time. He returned to England in 1951, signing for Fulham in the top division. He was a supremely talented footballer who played as a left midfielder or better known in those days as a ‘half-back’. Despite being relegated in his first season with the club, Mitten spent a further 3 seasons with Fulham in the second division where his quality shone down the flank competing at a divisional standard he was clearly too good for. In total, he scored 33 goals in 160 games for the club before signing for Mansfield Town in 1955.
The Times did a countdown of Fulham’s top 50 greatest players in 2009 and Charlie was ranked 13th on their list. A couple of our Europa League heroes may have altered that slightly over the past decade but it gives a very good indication of the service Mitten provided the club during his four seasons. He passed away in 2002, aged 80.