Although we started the decade in the second tier, we made it back to the top division in 2001 after 33 long years, thereby achieving Mohammed Al Fayed’s 5 year goal 12 months ahead of schedule.
Despite not quite developing into the ‘Manchester United of the South’ (whatever that was supposed to mean) under his tenure, we did spend the remainder of the decade at the game’s top table. We consolidated pretty well and even won a European trophy in 2002. The end of the decade got tense as we had two serious flirtations with relegation, before Roy Hodgson built on the ‘Great Escape’ of 2008 by achieving our highest ever league position in 2009 and qualification for the newly branded Europa League. Throughout the decade we were privileged to see some stellar names wearing our colours.
For example the signing of Edwin Van der Sar had fans pinching themselves: incidentally I’ll apologise here that he’s not on my list. A personal choice on my part rather than a slight on a world class goalkeeper. Reassuringly there was still an Ahmad Elrich or two to help keep our feet on the ground.
For the record, there are a couple of notable absentees from this list but since something special was achieved in the 2010s, I figured I’d include them in that decade instead…
Steve was one of the less heralded arrivals when the big money was starting to be flashed by Mohammed Al Fayed. Kevin Keegan paid Notts County £600,000 for the fullback in November 1998 and he fitted that season’s template perfectly. Coleman, Symons and Morgan were our three at the back and Finnan made the right wing back spot his own with Rufus Brevett on the other flank. I loved Rufus for his whole hearted approach but without disrespecting him, it felt like Finnan was in a different class and destined for the very top. His engine was incredible as he not only did his defensive duties but was also a major asset in attack. I lost count of the number of opposing full backs who showed him inside only for Steve to hit an inch perfect cross with his ‘wrong’ foot. He was that good I found it hard to believe that he’d spent his early career in non league and lower division football. He adjusted seamlessly to each promotion and stepped up in class. A model of consistency followed in the Premier League, as he was voted into the PFA team of the season in 2001/02 and ending that season by appearing for Ireland in the World Cup. He remains the only Fulham player to make it into the Premier League team of the year which demonstrates just how good he was and that he had caught the eye of his fellow peers.
Bigger fish were circling and nobody could blame him for leaving for Liverpool in 2003. Finnan left in a calm, dignified and classy way, which pretty much summed up how he was as a player. He performed well for his new club and was part of the side that won a famous Champions League final in Istanbul in 2005, becoming possibly the only player to have won the Champions League and the Intertoto Cup. Bearing in mind he was sacrificed with Liverpool 3-0 down at half time, I wonder which medal he treasures more..?
Saha was at French club Metz (having earlier had an unspectacular loan spell at Newcastle) when he became one of Jean Tigana’s first signings on taking over. His arrival was relatively unlauded but like the mercurial French manager, he made an instant impact on our fortunes. A goal on his debut against Crewe was a prelude to a tremendous first season with the club. King Louis was the spearhead of our attacking triumvirate with Barry Hayles and Luis Boa Morte, netting 32 goals as we romped to the title. Louis had everything; pace, power, at ease with either foot and had the ability to leap like a salmon.
When he scored twice at Old Trafford on our Premier League debut it seemed to take the football world by surprise. It came as no shock to us though as it was clear the ability he’d shown in his first season would translate easily to the higher level. Our initial season in the top flight turned into something of a struggle though with Saha bagging just 9 goals. The next season was also disappointing as a hamstring injury derailed his bright start to the campaign. By the end of the season Tigana was gone as again we spent too much time near the foot of the table. Rookie manager Chris Coleman was given the reins for 2003/04 after impressing in his brief spell as caretaker, but like many Fulham fans I expected another season of struggle. However, with Louis back to full fitness we started the season in fine form. Early season wins at Spurs and Blackburn might have been seen as flashes in the pan, but a 3-1 win at Manchester United in October made everyone sit up and take notice, and on Boxing Day we stood 4th in the table!
Saha’s goals and performances were a big ingredient of our success and although Coleman tried to shrug off transfer rumours, once Manchester United’s interest was clear, our star strikers head was turned. The inevitable came to pass and he left for Old Trafford in January 2004 for £12 million. Much of this money was put to good use in refurbishing Craven Cottage for our return there that summer. He wasn’t quite the success at United that I expected, mainly due to a succession of niggling injuries. He followed his time there with a decent spell at Everton and short stays elsewhere but never quite fulfilled the potential he displayed in his glorious spell at Fulham. We were privileged to see King Louis at the peak of his powers in his time with us; it was a magnificent sight to behold.
LUIS BOA MORTE
Boa started his career at Sporting Lisbon before Arsene Wenger snapped him up for Arsenal in 1997. Although he was a bit part player at Highbury, Luis received a Premier League medal in his first season as the Gunners were crowned Champions, although most of his appearances were from the bench. With opportunities limited he was allowed to leave for Southampton but in his only season in Hampshire, Boa wasn’t given much chance. The Saints were therefore happy to loan him to us in the summer of 2000 and he became a key part of Tigana’s attack as we surged to promotion that year. He contributed 18 goals which was enough to convince Tigana to sign him permanently for our assault on the Premier League. Luis wasn’t able to match his goal return at the higher level and in his first season managed almost as many red cards as he did goals. This was typical of his character as he could be hot headed at times or even go into a sulk and disappear to the periphery of the game. On the other hand, when he was in the mood and in full flight he could be virtually unplayable. If the good Boa had come out on a more regular basis then it’s unlikely we would have hung on to him as long as we did. I recall a game against Villa in our stay at Loftus Road when we came from behind to win with that wonder strike from Jon Harley. It was Boa who single handedly wrested us the initiative that day and I remember Villa boss Graham Taylor being fulsome in his praise of him afterwards.
The likes of Newcastle were rumoured to be interested but he was a key component of Chris Coleman’s side and indeed the Welshman made Boa his captain for the 2005/06 season. I’m not sure if this was a carrot to make him stay but I never felt he was true captain material and his form tended to decline once given the armband. There was still time for a red letter day that term though when he got the winner against Champions elect Chelsea; still the only time we’ve beaten them in the Premier League era. With his contract in its final year we cashed in on him in January 2007 when West Ham came in with a £5 million bid. It was probably the right time as with his powers waning he never hit the heights he reached with us at Upton Park. It was still sad to see him go as we had taken him to our hearts, not just for his ability but for his character and maverick genius.
The summer of 2001 was one of anticipation as we awaited our return to the top flight for the first time since 1968. We knew that our promotion squad was very capable of making the step up but we were eager to see what reinforcements would arrive. Steed was one of the first additions and came with a very good reputation from Lyon where he’d broken into the first team at 18 and had featured to good effect in the Champions League. Malbranque’s high energy distinctive style made him a favourite from the start and it wasn’t long before the cry of STEEEED was echoing around the Cottage. He scored ten goals in his debut campaign and became a permanent fixture in a side that slowly but surely established itself in the top flight over the next few years. After Tigana’s departure Coleman shaped a more workmanlike side with Steed and Louis Boa Morte providing most of the craft and star quality.
Malbranque’s reputation grew to the extent that Prime Minister Tony Blair identified him as one of his favourite players, although it’s more likely a knowledgeable spin doctor had tipped him the wink. Although the club managed to get him to sign a 4 year contract in 2003, his performances meant that there was constant transfer speculation. We tried valiantly to tie him down further in 2006 but Malbranque made clear his desire to leave and he ended up leaving for Spurs that summer for a rumoured £2 million. Like others before, he found the grass wasn’t much greener at a ‘bigger’ club and although he got a League Cup winners medal for his troubles in 2008, he left for Sunderland with his Spurs ambitions unfulfilled. He spent 3 seasons in the North East before returning to France where he retired from the professional game in 2017. He is still playing Amateur football at the ripe young age of 40.
Brian arrived in January 2004 in the wake of Louis Saha’s departure to Manchester United, although he certainly wasn’t a like for like replacement. The Frenchman was at the peak of his powers while the American was already 31. Brian to his credit had a solid reputation from his career with Columbus Crew and the U.S. National team but he’d never quite cracked Europe in loan spells at Wolfsburg, Preston and Everton. Any reservations we had were quickly calmed by his appearance off the bench to score the winner against Spurs on his debut and he went on to score another 4 that season as we claimed our highest league finish (at the time), with a creditable 9th.
McBride wasn’t always a regular starter early in his Fulham career but was the consummate uncomplaining professional, doing a solid job whenever he was called upon. Brian’s main strengths were his bravery and aerial ability and he was something of a throwback to the traditional target man centre forward. He was a peerless header of the ball and scored the best headed goal I’ve seen by a Fulham player in a 2-0 win over Everton in April 2005. I thoroughly recommend a search online for footage. McBride’s reliability kept earning him contract extensions and double figure goal returns in all competitions in 2005/06 and 2006/07 were crucial, particularly in the latter season where we came far too close for comfort to the drop. Brian was rewarded with the captaincy for the 2007/08 season by new boss Lawrie Sanchez but a horrible knee injury early in the season put McBride on the sidelines for months. By the time he returned Sanchez had gone and Roy Hodgson was trying desperately to steer us from danger. Jimmy Bullard came back from his own long term injury about the same time and the boost of their return gave us hope. We still seemed doomed when we trailed 2-0 at Manchester City in late April. A remarkable comeback victory was followed up with a vital win over fellow strugglers Birmingham, with the opening goal that day a trademark McBride header. It sent us to Portsmouth on the final day with our fate in our own hands and a Danny Murphy header clinched the greatest of great escapes. It turned out to be Brian’s last game for the club; a gloriously fitting way for him to bow out.