The 1990’s was a decade of extremes for the club. We started it struggling in the depths of the third division and in 1994 fell through the trapdoor into the league’s basement. The nadir was still yet to be reached though. In February 1996 we travelled to Torquay, to face the rock bottom Devonians and were beaten 2-1, to leave us 23rd in the table with only our conquerors that day between us and the abyss.
Fortunately it was a watershed moment. Micky Adams took over shortly afterwards and, after stabilising the situation, steered us to an unlikely promotion, the following season, on a shoestring budget. It was the catalyst for Mohammed al Fayed to take over that summer. His financial backing would transform us from a club merely struggling to survive, to one with its sights set on the Premier League. By the end of the decade we were up to the Championship and no expense was being spared in the effort to take the last step to the top.
My five players of the decade are primarily those that were with us in the tougher early years of the 90’s with my last pick one of the first major signings of the new monied era. My number one selection though is a player who straddled both poor and rich Fulham, and is a selection I think will be universally popular…
Simon was signed from Leicester in October 1990 and essentially became ‘Mr Fulham’ over the remainder of the decade. Morgs was a talented youngster and had won under 21 caps for England. He’d lost his way a bit at Leicester but it was still something of a coup for a struggling third division club like us to sign him. He must’ve wondered what he’d let himself in for though as we only just stayed up that season. Two reasonable campaigns followed but in 1993-4 he was devastated as we were relegated on the last day of the season at Swansea, with Simon feeling special responsibility as club captain. Further depths were plumbed before Morgs got redemption, skippering Mick Adams team to promotion in 1997. Simon’s book, ’On song for promotion’, is a fabulous tale of that wonderful season and echoed the humour regularly seen in his programme columns. When the cash was splashed the following year Adams and most of the team were jettisoned but Morgan kept his place, demonstrating the quality that proved he should have been playing his career at a much higher level. In 1998/99 he formed a defensive triumvirate with Chris Coleman and Kit Symons that was the bedrock of a side that took the Second Division by storm. The icing on the cake for Morgan was the giant killing of Aston Villa, on their own patch, in the FA Cup. As a boyhood Birmingham fan Morgs took great delight that day, especially as he notched the opening goal. Simon remained a regular in the Championship and had a richly deserved testimonial in August 2000 against Spurs. However a long term injury meant he missed virtually the whole of his last season at the club; the triumphant march to the Premier league under Jean Tigana. The Frenchman rewarded Morgs with a cameo substitute appearance in the last home game with Wolves and he was awarded man of the match for his few minutes on the park. A fitting finale for a player who epitomised the club for the entire decade.
Jeff started his career at his hometown club Sheffield United. When Ray Lewington had his season at the Blades in 1985-6 he was that impressed with Eckhardt that he told him he would sign him if he became a manager. Ray tried to get him when he got the Fulham job but had to wait until November 1987 to bag his man after Jeff had lost his first team place at Bramall Lane. Eckhardt was a centre half by trade but such was his versatility and work ethic that over his time at Fulham he performed a number of roles, including spells in midfield and the occasional outing up front. His seven year spell at the club was exclusively in the Third Division and for much of that time we were struggling at the wrong end of the table. No matter how the team was performing though, you could always rely on Eckhardt to put in a whole hearted consistent performance. In a period of drudgery, he was one of the few shining lights and is still fondly remembered by fans from that era.
Gary was at Crystal Palace as a youth player but had to travel north to find first team football, initially at Sheffield United, before a successful spell at Preston preceded a less auspicious stay at Newcastle. With first team outings there few and far between, Brazil came to Fulham in September 1990 for £110,000 – a very sizeable fee for us at the time. I don’t know if the price put false expectations in the minds of some fans but he was not universally popular with our support. He scored five goals in his first season with us which very nearly ended in relegation so perhaps this poor goals return put some fans off him. For me though he was one of the few genuinely skilful players we had at the time. He wasn’t so obviously exhibiting the blood, sweat and tears of an Eckhardt type, but in my opinion was a ‘pearl amongst swine’ in a struggling team. Gary’s goals return improved over the remainder of his time at the club and he was top scorer in 1991/92 and 1993/94, although his 14 goals in that campaign couldn’t save us from the drop. Video of many of his goals have surfaced on Twitter and are evidence of what a good player he was and backs up my view that he was the best footballer we had at that time.
Conroy or Super Mick as he’s more commonly remembered was by no means the greatest centre forward the club has had. Indeed his first season at the club was an uninspiring one as he weighed in with a single figures goal return in a team that plumbed the very depths of the Football League, before a minor late season revival under Micky Adams. It was the following year that Conroy put his name into Fulham folklore, along with a host of other unsung heroes and journeymen. His winning goal in the opening game against Hereford set the tone for a campaign in which confidence and belief snowballed in a tight knit unit, galvanised by novice boss Adams. Several players from that squad could arguably make it into my 5 of the 90’s but I’ve plumped for the Scotsman as he became the elusive 20 goals a season forward we’d been searching for. Like a lot of his team mates, Mick became a victim of his own success the following year, when our promotion and Fayed’s money triggered the arrival of more expensive and better players. Conroy still had time to cement his name into legend, with an amazing goal at Wycombe in the League Cup that earned its own song; ‘Conroy…from the halfway line’.
Swansea born Chris was at Manchester City as a youth but returned to his hometown club to get first team football. After impressing there, he was signed by Premier League Crystal Palace, where he performed outstandingly even though they yo-yoed during his 4 year spell. When they were relegated again in 1995 he was signed by Premier League Champions Blackburn, but his time there was afflicted by injuries. It was still a major surprise though when we signed him in November 1997. Mohammed Al Fayed had already been making his ambitions clear with big money signings like Paul Peschisolido, but it was still a shock that an established International like Coleman was prepared to drop two divisions. That first season didn’t go to plan as we fell at the play off stage but in 1998/99, with Kevin Keegan now in charge, Cookie skippered us to 101 points and a cruise to the title and promotion. The next season under Paul Bracewell never quite caught light, so 2000/01 started with mercurial Frenchman Jean Tigana at the helm. Cookie was still a regular as we played football from the Gods winning our first 11 games straight. Tragedy was to strike Chris on 2 January 2001 though, when he had an awful car crash that he was lucky to survive. The terrible leg injuries he suffered meant he never played first team football again, despite a brave effort to recover his fitness. His team mates went on to achieve promotion but it remains a regret we didn’t see him in the Premier League in a Fulham shirt where his talents belonged. He remained at the club in a coaching role and in 2003 stepped up to manage the first team, initially as caretaker and then permanently until 2007 where he did well to generally keep us away from the relegation trapdoor. He further cemented himself into our hearts when he piloted us to our only PL era victory over Chelsea in 2006 and latterly managed his country with some distinction. The Welshman is a worthy entry into this Focus Five.