It is more of a question of what to omit as I pay tribute to a very special man on the 12TH anniversary of his death? His philosophy and deeply held conviction were that his support for this great club was never about him; it was about us as supporters and the players who inspired support and made dreams happen. Alex Ferguson was somebody who has justifiable legendary status amongst his football peers that grew up at Fulham supporters from the 1960s onwards and later by England football fans and others.
He would remonstrate with me today for using the often overused and abused description of legendary or any of its derivatives. Nevertheless, occasionally in life, you meet someone who has a profound effect on you and the generation around you, so I will risk his heavenly wrath by using legendary and few that knew him would argue… so no apologies mate.
For me, he along with Johnny Haynes represented what Fulham was about through the 1960s to his death. He set a standard of support that is difficult to see surpassed with his close friend Graham Blackman and various other likeminded folks not far behind. A very modest man but also one of the strongest, fearless and bravest people I have ever met.
I don’t know much about his early life as a youngster but, somewhere along the way, he and Fulham FC came together and the fusion became an uninterrupted lifetime love affair from about the late 1950s. He stood near the green pole at the Hammersmith End and people knew where to find him. Either way, you could hear him, as he led much of the verbal support at great volume.
He started The Thamesbank Travellers (TBT) which was a group of like-minded Fulham fans who wanted a more liberal style of away travel than offered by the club in those days. Many of us felt that the Fulham Supporters Club at the time was a bit too regimented in what you could and couldn’t do and young lads like to be free of those shackles. Indeed, my friend Nick and I were asked to smarten up our appearance for meetings if we wanted to attend the next meeting. It was made clear that we would be refused admission if we didn’t conform. Whilst frowned upon today, it was not unusual to see TBT members sitting on their coaches alongside a crate of beer to ease the passing of the journey from Putney to locations far and wide! Time was always allowed for pilgrimages to various liquid hostelries en route. It also became a test of mettle and your stomach lining if you could survive a journey having sampled Graham Duke’s assortment of homemade wines.
TBT was born in 1971 and Alex ran it as a properly audited non-profit making travel group for about 5 years before passing it to his great friend Graham Blackman who continued the excellent work in the same inimitable style. Prices were smoothed out to a set away game amount over the course of a season to avoid heavy costs for the long distance games.
The True Cost of Support
Alex’s support of Fulham cost him his marriage, as he was rarely around at home having caught the Fulham bug. He held a record of not missing a Fulham game home or away, league, cups and that included friendly games anywhere in the world for 25 years, which is an incredible feat by anyone’s standards. He was well known amongst England supporters and he also followed them at Wembley and around the world at world cups and friendly games. It was a clash of Fulham playing and an England fixture on the same day that broke his Fulham supporting continuity.
He was affectionately nicknamed ‘Uncle Albert’ (from Only Fools and Horses) by England fans as he often adapted Albert’s TV catchphrase from During the War… using the alternative of During the trip to… when relating a story or experience. His Union Jack flag for England games, acquired from Baden Powell House, was instantly recognizable until it was stolen from him after an international game in Athens. Not to be outdone, a cross of St George flag was hastily purchased resplendent with the words Fulham and Feltham emblazoned across it. I asked him why he did not have ‘Alex’ written on it but he reiterated that his support was not about him but the flag represented his team and where he resided. Proper old school! It was retired from use after his death as a sign of respect.
His Fulham support saw him sleep on park benches on overnight away trips if accommodation was not available. He simply would not be deterred by anything or anyone in his quest to support Fulham, despite any hurdle either personal or physical. He wore his support like a badge of honour. On one Fulham pre-season friendly trip to Scandinavia (from memory), several Fulham players were laid low due to a bug doing the rounds. Alex was in attendance and was asked by the club whether he could fill in for the stricken goalkeeper. He politely refused, arguing that although he was flattered, he had come to watch them – not play for them – and enjoy the local brews and culture.
The late 60s onwards saw the rise of hooliganism and many clubs had fans that looked to be seen as the hardest characters around. The old Den at Millwall was one place where Fulham supporters did not wear club colours for reasons of self-preservation. They were different from most hooligans in that they had a reputation for attacking opposition fans by the shortest route from A to B. If that meant over the pitch during the game, then so be it. Alex arrived in full Fulham colours. I saw him and asked him to take special care and suggested that he take off his scarf etc. on this one occasion; he fixed me with a steely stare uttering the words ‘I take my colours off for nobody’. It was not false bravado; it was not intentionally confrontational; it was his strong belief that he would not be bullied or intimidated by anyone, even if it meant paying a personal price.
In those days it was hard to keep away from some opposition fans at away games who wanted to make you run away or beat you into submission. There are many Fulham fans who owe a lot to Alex for defusing these situations or putting an end to it to ensure the safety of others. I never once saw him start any fighting but he was renowned for finishing it when all other avenues of reason failed, having been stupidly mistaken for his weakness.
He featured in the film Goal released after England’s 1966 World Cup victory. He can be seen in his MOD style Fulham adorned parka jacket post final dancing in the Trafalgar Square fountain to celebrate the victory.
Fulham did not have owners who invested much in the club in the pre-Clay era. Much basic repair and maintenance work was voluntarily carried out by fans to ease commercial costs. When games were threatened by the weather, supporters were asked to volunteer to clear snow or make terracing safe, Alex was readily there with some of his TBT colleagues and others.
The period of the proposed and deeply despised Fulham Park Rangers merger brought great distress to us all. Cabra Estates said that they would bring the bulldozers to flatten Craven Cottage. When asked, Alex carefully informed people that it would be ‘over my dead body’. A throwaway term in common everyday use but few who knew him doubted for a second that he would ‘front up’ the bulldozers and stop them by whatever means available. Thankfully, we did not need to find out.
When Fulham were in dire financial straits, he once did a sponsored walk with Gary Billing, to an away game at the old Goldstone Ground Brighton to raise funds for the club that he idolized.
The Original Statto?
As his love grew, he kept meticulous records of game statistics and later put that to practical use along with his ability as an outstanding wordsmith. He became a wonderful contributor to the TOOFIF fanzine and this piqued his interest further for writing. The Traveller as he became affectionately known wrote two books entitled Pandora’s Fulhamish Box and A Fulhamish Coming of Age both published by his friends at Ashwater Press. The former publication perfectly summed up his writing style as “Quirky yet witty. Idiosyncratic but passionate; esoteric with the merest touch of whimsy; Fulhamish to the core”. It is true to say that he did not readily embrace computer technology, so all his scripts for publishing were beautifully handwritten. David Lloyd at TOOFIF dedicated Special Issue Issue 99 (April/May 2006) to Alex, such was the respect and reverence in which Alex was held and the tributes poured in.
His politeness and respect for proper behaviour were evidenced when, as a member of Fulham Supporters Trust, he acknowledged an invitation to the AGM with a beautifully handwritten letter expressing his profound apologies for non-attendance, adding that his support was needed elsewhere at Charlton where the Fulham youngsters had a game.
By now, Alex was gaining the same sort of respect from England fans as he was from his peers at Fulham. In a glowing tribute after his death, his personal approach and care for others were recognized, as it was recalled that he could reel off the names of England fans that attended away games and ask after their health and well being if they were absent. He was one of only 30 who made England’s South American tour in 1984 and one of 50 to a tournament in Mexico in 1985. Indeed the only matches that he missed were some of the occasional trips behind the old “Iron Curtain”, as working for the M.O.D. at that time, certain countries were off limits. He was a truly patriotic man and so proud of his country, England, and was saddened at the political correctness ruining the identity of it today.
Alex also followed The Fulham Ladies but, knowing the old dog, there was probably a particular lady of interest, in addition to the desire to follow a Fulham team. During the 2003/2004 season, they got into the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Women’s Cup having beaten Icelandic team Ki Klaksvik in a tournament in Holland. Needless to say, Alex visited Holland in order to watch them play.
The Final Days
No story of Alex would be complete without a tale from his final days, as he lay weak and prostrate in his hospital bed with a full-size oxygen mask covering his face. He was too weak to speak but faced death with the same steely strength and determination in which he faced life. I was not present on that occasion but some friends visited wearing Fulham colours. The patient in the bed directly opposite made a jovial observation about Fulham fans being responsible for him being in hospital. It transpired that he had a heart attack at a Fulham game at Stamford Bridge after Fulham had scored. Now anyone who knew Alex understood that he had a strong passionate dislike for all things Chelsea throughout his Fulham supporting life. Whilst he was weak and unable to speak, he could hear and understand the discussion.
One of those friends present said to Alex – ‘Did you know you have got a Chelsea fan the bed opposite mate?’ The Chelsea patient replied ‘He’s not Fulham, as well, is he?’ He was quickly set straight about Alex’s love of Fulham. Meanwhile, Alex, close to his last days on his earth, raised an arm towards his fellow patient reply and flipped him the bird. Fulham on the outside; Fulham on the inside; Fulham to the core.
Chelsea marched on to the Craven Cottage pitch expecting to walk over Fulham 9 days after his premature death following a long deliberating but stoically fought illness. The lads and, particularly, Luis Boa Morte ensured that they went home empty-handed as the Whites won a momentous 1-0 victory ensuring wild celebrations in the black and white part of Fulham and on the pitch. I glanced upwards and I swear I saw a massive smile on his face from his premium seat in the sky, as a one finger salute was aimed towards the knuckle draggers at the Putney End. The team under Chris Coleman knew Alex and of his death. I like to think that it provided extra ammunition to the motivation needed to send Mourinho into a sulk and send his team home with their tails between their legs.
Saturday 10th March 2018 sees the 12th anniversary of his death and he is still much missed by all his friends. His funeral was held on Thursday 30th March 2006 at 12.15 pm at Hanworth Crematorium. In true Alex style, he wanted it to be a celebration of his life so no dowdy suits or long faces. He wanted people to wear a Fulham shirt or an English football, cricket or rugby shirt. The pallbearers were all friends and Fulham supporters. Some Fulham players attended and Tony Gale gave a beautiful unscripted, unscheduled and heartfelt eulogy to a man who had seen his league debut aged 16 at Leyton Orient. That was also wholly appropriate as Alex always credited Tony for saving his life with quick medical thinking on an aircraft returning from a trip to Mauritius to watch and support football.
His Funeral Order of service in his own words brilliantly summed up his heartfelt reflection of his Fulham life:
“No amount of money, fine words or deeds can move my heart or soul. They remain on the Hammersmith End at Craven Cottage”.
Alex didn’t ask me to keep his memory alive but it is wholly appropriate that I do; so what follows is also in his own words as an epitaph. He simply asked me to simply fill in the last date of his very special life. RIP mate.
Boldly dressed in black and white
He did follow Fulham
The Thames flows on… 10th March 2006.
Content credit: Graham Blackman; TOOFIF and Ashwater Press