Our recent clashes in the Championship and in particular the 2018 Play Off final have provoked a little extra edge to our rivalry with Aston Villa. They followed our route to the Premier League a year later and almost met a similar fate as us in suffering immediate relegation before surviving on the last day.
They’ve fared far better this time around so it would be very acceptable if we can now follow in their footsteps. We have not only shared these experiences but in the last 20 years or so have also shared some key personnel. I’ve picked out 5 players that certainly made a significant impact at the Cottage, the last of whom is now a regular in the Villa line up…
Zat was spotted by Fulham in 1999 playing for non-league Rushall Oympic in his native Midlands. As a non-contract player we weren’t obliged to pay a fee but it’s commonly believed that Mohamed Al Fayed sent them 30 tracksuits as a gesture of thanks. He didn’t play a part in Jean Tigana’s swashbuckling promotion winning side and had to wait until September 2001 to make his bow in a 0-0 Premier League draw at Leicester. Alain Goma was injured at the time so Knight was given his chance and acquitted himself well alongside Andy Melville. Knight’s appearances were intermittent in his first two seasons but from 2003-4 onwards he was a regular in the side especially when Goma’s fitness issues further diminished his reliability.
Zat was a decent professional but was not universally popular with the Fulham faithful. He was prone to the odd lapse in concentration and his distribution wasn’t always the most accurate. He had to be doing something right though with 150 League games for the club. He also was part of the unsung outfit that beat Chelsea in March 2006 which remains a Red Letter Day in my memory and was also the first Fulham player to get a full England Cap since George Cohen when he played in a couple of friendlies on an American tour in the summer of 2005. Lawrie Sanchez allowed Knight to leave Fulham for Aston Villa in August 2007 and although Zat had a reasonable impact at Villa Park it was a move to Bolton in 2009 that re-established him as a regular Premier League defender.
Northern Irishman Hughes started his career at Newcastle and quickly made his mark making his debut as an 18 year old in a Champions League game in Barcelona in 1997. He established himself in the team in 1999 under Bobby Robson’s tutelage and scored the first goal of Robson’s reign in a 8-0 thrashing of Sheffield Wednesday. Aaron was a regular for the Geordies over the next few seasons but after Robson’s departure Souness allowed him to leave for Aston Villa for a bargain £1 million in 2005. It was a decision that baffles Newcastle fans to this day as he was just approaching his prime years as a defender. Hughes had two solid seasons at Villa Park but when Lawrie Sanchez got the Fulham job following his successful stint with the Northern Ireland team he went about acquiring some of his tried and trusted charges. David Healy, Chris Baird and Steven Davis all arrived, and Hughes was allowed to leave Villa for a similar fee to the one they’d paid. Sanchez didn’t last long at the Cottage and neither did Davis or Healy. Chris Baird eventually became a great success, but Hughes was a pretty regular and reliable pick from the start.
The making of his Fulham career though was the appointment of Roy Hodgson as boss and his signing of the giant Norwegian Brede Hangeland. Roy paired Aaron with him at the heart of our defence and within a short time they looked like they’d played together for years. They helped us pull off the narrowest of escapes and were then the bedrock of a defence that conceded just 34 goals the following season in our record 7th place finish. This was just the prelude though to what was the club’s finest ever hour with our remarkable run to the Europa League final. Hodgson had put together a team of supremely well drilled individuals and Hangeland and Hughes telepathic understanding at the back was indicative of our organisation. Our Thames Barrier remained in place for a while after Sir Roy’s departure, but Hughes appearances started to dwindle after Phillipe Senderos was signed and Martin Jol split Hangeland and Hughes up. Sadly Aaron was allowed to leave halfway through the 2013-14 season in which Hangeland was also often absent or hindered by injury. It was no coincidence that our defence evaporated as a result and the club were relegated. Hughes continued to serve a number of clubs well after leaving us and it was fine reward for his magnificent career that he got the opportunity to play in a major finals for his country at Euro 2016.
Steve was part of a successful Arsenal side that won the FA Youth Cup twice but with routes to the senior side blocked had to take the loan option to get first team experience. Steve did well at Brentford and Brighton before signing permanently for Championship side Reading in 2003. In his 4 ½ years there his consistent performances caught the eye. In 2006 he helped them romp to promotion which they followed with an excellent 8th place finish in their first year up. With bigger clubs now circling Steve decided to join Chelsea but struggled for games in his only season there. He moved on again in July 2008 to Aston Villa but again the transfer didn’t really work out. He spent 2½ years in the Midlands but a succession of niggling injuries restricted both his appearances and impact.
In January 2011 Mark Hughes persuaded Steve to return to his hometown of London and the move to Fulham reinvigorated his career. Sidwell became a regular in a line-up that finished 8th which was a great effort considering we were flirting with the relegation positions at Christmas. Steve was again a regular the following season under Martin Jol where we had another creditable finish in 9th spot. Steve’s season had been curtailed by a hernia injury but he was back fit for the 2012-13 campaign. On the face of it 12th position was decent enough for a club like us but the season ended terribly with a run of defeats that weren’t helped by Sidwell being banned following red cards against QPR and Arsenal. Jol didn’t really address the problems as the club changed ownership and paid with his job early in the 2013-14 season.
Rene Meulensteen and then Felix Magath were handed the reins as we lurched from one disaster to the next. One beacon of light in the car crash of a campaign though was Sidwell whose consistent form was sadly unmatched by too many teammates. Relegation was the sad outcome and to add insult to injury Sidwell was shown the door by the unloved Magath at the season’s end. It was a sad way for Sidwell to leave. It felt like Fulham and him were a perfect fit. He was certainly fondly thought of by the fans during his time at the club.
Sidwell was one of a number of experienced departures in the aftermath of relegation as Magath looked to reinvent the team with a lot of youngsters. The only significant outlay that summer was the rumoured £11 million we paid Leeds for Ross McCormack. It seemed a lot of money for a 28 year old who had only plied his trade at Championship level or lower but, on the other hand, it was good to be getting an experienced goal scorer who knew the ropes in that division. McCormack didn’t get much chance to prove his worth under the German though. Firstly Magath criticised the Scot’s fitness and left him out and then lost his job after a disastrous start to the campaign. By now McCormack was back in the side and with Kit Symons restoring more experience to the line-up on his appointment, the ship was steadied. Indeed, after the initial bounce there was even the thought we could propel ourselves towards the play offs. The wheels soon fell off again which was no surprise with an unbalanced team and a wonky defence. Ultimately, we did just enough to keep ourselves clear of relegation in 17th thanks in no small part to McCormack’s 17 League goals. Without his input we easily could have suffered successive relegations in the same way we’d done the last time we dropped out of the top flight in 1968.
There were hopes that Symons could fashion a promotion bid in 2015-6 but, although we had a reasonable start, our porous defence soon cost him his job. There was then an impasse involving two caretaker managers and 7 more winless matches before we appointed Slavisa Jokanovic who ultimately was to transform our fortunes. However, at the time of his arrival we were in the midst of a transfer embargo and a fight against relegation. The only real business he could do was to convince the Board not to sell McCormack or starlet Moussa Dembele. Fortunately the duo remained and it was their combined 36 League goals that ensured we remained clear of relegation, although this time we finished even further down the table in 20th. McCormack was again top scorer with 21 League goals. Many of his goals for Fulham were high calibre strikes from range which demonstrated his individual ability. On the downside I felt his team play and attitude could sometimes be questionable. This drawback to his game certainly explained to me why he’d never got the chance to play at Premier League level. Jokanovic obviously had reservations too and when Aston Villa were looking for a proven Championship striker following relegation we happily took £12 million off them that summer. It was good business for us to turn a profit on a 30 year old who had twice saved us from relegation and been our Player of the Year. After a period of underachievement in the Midlands and a dodgy electronic gate it’s doubtful Villa were quite so happy.
Left back Targett’s stay at the Cottage was a short but extremely sweet one. Matt had joined Southampton as a kid and had made steady progress through the Saints Academy. First team opportunities were limited by the consistent form of Ryan Bertrand so Slavisa Jokanovic snapped him up in January 2018 to bolster Fulham’s Championship campaign. Form was starting to pick up and the shrewd acquisition of Targett freed up our prodigious young talent Ryan Sessegnon to play further forward. Aleksandar Mitrovic arrived on loan at the same time as Targett and their addition provided the last pieces of a jigsaw that fitted perfectly. An amazing 23 game unbeaten run ensued and we were only thwarted on the last day of the season from achieving a remarkable automatic promotion. Undaunted we recovered to beat Derby to set up a Play Off Final with Villa. Targett took his place in the first Fulham team to play at Wembley in 43 years and became one of many heroes that day as our ten men hung on to clinch promotion thanks to Tom Cairney’s first half goal.
Mitrovic did sign permanently that summer and we were all hopeful Matt would come too. However, although we splashed an alleged £100 million around like confetti we apparently weren’t prepared to meet Southampton’s asking price for Targett. It wasn’t a mistake Villa would make a year later when they followed up their Play Off victory by getting the left back on a permanent deal. His consistent performances for them are proof of the wisdom of that decision and a constant reminder of what we missed.