Les Strong epitomises what Fulham Football Club stands for. He was a loyal player who spent the overwhelming majority of his career in SW6 and has continued to support the club since retiring. Not only is he a warm hearted gentleman who has all the time in the world for the fans, he is also the ultimate joker with a great sense of humour. It’s this balance of charm and cheeky banter that I grew up on supporting Fulham and here we are in 2020. Fulham have evolved with the times, but having people like Les still around is a reminder to us all, why our football club is so special.
Therefore, it was a no brainer to pick Les as the next person to induct into our Hall of Heroes. Here’s a fantastic write up on Strongy’s Fulham career from Focus’ chief writer on the history of the club, John Clarke.
My first regular season watching Fulham was 1971/72. It was a season of struggle where we stayed up by the skin of our teeth with a goalless draw in the last game with Sunderland. What struck me as curious (even at the tender age of 9) was that despite our poor form the team never seemed to change much. I assumed Bill Dodgin preferred to stick with the tried and trusted players on the basis there wasn’t any up and coming talent in the reserve and youth ranks?
Dodgin paid for the poor season with his job; harsh when he’d been the architect of our promotion just the season before. However, when you see that Jokanovic got just 12 games after promoting us in 2018 then perhaps it wasn’t so unfair. Alec Stock arrived in the summer and quickly put his mark on things by re-signing Alan Mullery on a permanent basis and spending big money on centre half Paul Went. Other than that he stuck pretty much with Dodgin’s side at the start of 1972/73 and quickly promoted free transfer John Cutbush to the right back spot. It was therefore a breath of fresh air when after a fairly uninspiring start to the season he gave youth a chance. John Mitchell, a young centre forward we’d signed from St Albans was given his debut in mid September and went on to net a creditable 11 goals that season before going into Fulham folklore in our 1975 Cup run.
Two weeks later on 30th September 1972 and it was another fledgling’s turn. Regular right winger Jimmy Conway was out with a long term injury. His younger brother John had been playing instead but hadn’t over impressed so Stock turned to a shaggy haired spindly young thing in the shape of 19 year old Les Strong. Les had been on amateur forms at Crystal Palace, until Ken Craggs who was assisting George Cohen with Fulham’s youth team at the time was instrumental in getting Les to sign professional terms with us. Strongie made an impressive debut in a 1-1 draw with Orient (a report on the match was reproduced in his testimonial programme) and he kept his place for the next ten games until the older Conway returned. In that time he netted two goals; his first the opener in a 2-0 win over Blackpool and his second came as we ran riot over Bristol City in a 5-1 mauling. I felt it was no coincidence that with the young legs of Mitchell and Strong on board the team’s form picked up in that period.
Les remained in the first team squad and got another chance on the wing later that season when Conway was injured again. Having ended that season with 20 appearances under his belt, Les must have been disappointed that at the start of 1973/74 he was not getting a sniff of first team action other than one game as sub in a win over Portsmouth in November. At that time Fulham were finding the left back spot a problem one to fill. Club stalwart Fred Callaghan was reaching the end of the road with the club. Alan Slough had started the season in the position but midfield was where Stock was to use him most. John Fraser had tried his luck but in January 1974 the re-invention of a spindly right winger into a solid left back took shape when Les was given the number 3 shirt in a home game with Cardiff City. Even though we lost that day, Les must have impressed as he nailed down the spot for the rest of the season. By the March Les was lining up alongside the peerless Bobby Moore and having such a legend in the back four could only have helped Les’s development.
1974/75 began with Strong firmly established as first choice left back and his first full season as a regular fixture in the team was to prove a remarkable one. Our league form was anything but remarkable though as we established ourselves firmly in mid table after a bright start petered out. However, in January we embarked on an epic and record breaking Cup run. It took us 7 games to negotiate our first two rounds but then we beat First Division leaders Everton away, pinched the quarter final at Carlisle and then triumphed over Birmingham City in the Semi Final courtesy of goals from Strongie’s contemporary John Mitchell. Tragedy was then to strike our brilliant young left back as he got injured in a home League game with Portsmouth just two weeks before the Final at Wembley. Rumours abounded that with treatment he might make the big day but in truth he never had a chance. John Fraser replaced Les and despite our best efforts we succumbed 2-0 on the day to Moore’s old side West Ham. Tommy Trinder got the FA to mint Les a medal but it must have been little consolation after being ever present for the whole season only to miss out on the biggest day of his career. Les has become known for his terrific sense of humour but it must have been truly tested at that time.
He would get to play in a Cup Final the next season though when we made it through to the Anglo-Scottish Final with Middlesbrough. It didn’t have the glamour of Wembley, being a two legged affair and Les marked the occasion by scoring the only goal in the first leg at Ayresome Park. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong net as we ended runners up again for the second time that year. Strongie had recovered well from his injury and was becoming a model of consistency at left back. It was another mid table finish in 1975/76 but the following season was to be sprinkled with a little stardust with the arrival of Rodney Marsh and George Best. Although Les was playing in a mid table second tier line up, he was privileged to play alongside so many legends of the game and larger than life characters to boot.
Things didn’t go too well on the pitch in 1976/77 as we only just avoided the drop but that was followed up with back to mid table consistency in the two seasons after that. Les missed just one game over those three seasons which was testament to his fitness and level of performance. He was to miss just one game in the 1979/80 season but this campaign turned into a disaster as Bobby Campbell piloted what seemed a decent squad on paper to relegation. He paid with his job shortly into the new season which led to Malcolm MacDonald becoming manager.
Les was by now club captain and comfortably our longest serving player. MacDonald confirmed Les as his skipper and then oversaw a transformation in the team’s fortunes. We stopped the rot over the rest of the 1980/81 season before embarking on a promotion winning campaign the following year which culminated in a nerve tingling finale at home to Lincoln in front of over 20,000 fans. Les had been ever present all season but hobbled off early in the game and had to watch nervously on with the rest of us before we emerged with the point we needed. Les celebrated on the Cottage balcony in front of the adoring masses and just a few days later had a richly deserved Testimonial match with an England side preparing for that summer’s World Cup.
Les started the first three games of 1982/83 in his customary position but when Kevin Lock took over the role, the back four of Hopkins, Lock, Brown and Gale started to pick itself as we went within an inch of successive promotions. It turned out that a 1-1 draw with QPR in September 1982 was Les’s last in our colours, just short of ten years on from his debut. I was privileged enough to see virtually every every home game he played over that period and despite humorous references to his abilities, such as MacDonald’s tribute in his Testimonial programme, I rarely saw him have a bad one. With 450 odd games in the Fulham shirt Les is rightly accorded legendary status. Not only a great player but a smashing bloke as well and thoroughly deserving of his place in our Hall of Heroes.