Hall of Heroes: Malcolm MacDonald

Image: Evening Standard/Getty

To the wider footballing public, SuperMac was better known as a rampaging centre-forward who achieved near legendary status during his spell at Newcastle United. However, for Fulham fans it was a case of what might have been as regards to his playing career; it was his spell as our Manager that grants him entrance to our Hall of Heroes.

A local of SW6, Malcolm Macdonald would become one of the country’s best strikers over the course of his career but he had the influence of Sir Bobby Robson to thank for giving him a chance during his time at Fulham, as he explained in an interview for the Club’s website. “I was born in Finlay Street, so my first direct contact with the Club was when, in the depths of winter, my father came home on Saturday lunchtime and said ‘come on son, put your winter woollies on, I’m going to take you to your first football match – Fulham versus Blackburn Rovers in about 1954. We were in the Putney End, quite a way up, and as more and more people came in we ended up down at the bottom and I watched the whole game through the net and the keeper’s legs. I fell in love with the game and I thought that it was what I wanted in my life; from that day on, I strived to make sure that it was a part of my life.

“When I was eight years old, in the school holidays, I used to put my autograph book in my pocket and walk up Finlay Street, turn left and would wait at the bus stop for the footballers,” he said. “There was only one player at the Club then who had a car at the time, and this was before the maximum wage was got rid of. One day, off the bus came Bobby Robson and I said ‘Mr Robson, can I have your autograph please?’ He took my book and I took his bag, so he could write. But then he asked me to walk along with him.

“We walked along Fulham Palace Road and along Finlay Street, and we continued walking; all the way he kept talking football. He was full of questions about me: ‘Do you play football?’ he asked. I said: ‘Yes, I do, I play for my school.’ Then came: ‘Are you right or left footed?’ I replied: ‘Left’. ‘Oh, you’re a rare one,’ he said. ‘Left footers have always got a chance of making it in the game because they’re so rare.’

“He just kept asking me questions: what position did I play; what kind of a player was I? He got me to describe myself as a footballer and, for the first time, somebody really made me think about me and my game together. By then we reached the gates of Craven Cottage and he took his bag off me, patted me on the head and gave back my autograph book – duly signed – before heading into training.”

The fact Robson was so thoughtful and kind would come as no surprise to anyone with knowledge of his humble character and it was this experience that would stand MacDonald in good stead some ten years later. MacDonald had started his football career as a fullback with non-league Tonbridge and was attracting the attention of professional club scouts. Crystal Palace looked set to clinch his signing but another encounter with Robson altered the outcome as MacDonald explained.

“I was at Tonbridge and Crystal Palace wanted to take me on,” he said. “Everything was agreed, but Bobby Robson stepped in and, after meeting him, he was one of my boyhood heroes; Fulham was the Club of my heart so I turned Palace down. “I arrived with my former manager Harry Haslam. He had been my manager at Tonbridge, but he left and became the Chief Scout under Bobby at Fulham. I went upstairs to the reception area at the Cottage and the lass told me to go along the corridor and knock on Bobby’s office door.

“I went in and there was Bobby sat at his desk, looking at a sheet of paper. I walked up to him and, after a few seconds, he looked up at me. Then he looked again, narrowed his eyes and said: ‘I know you. You’re that eight-year-old who used to meet me at the bus stop to carry my bag down to Craven Cottage and you never kept quiet the whole time!”

Macdonald was delighted to be given a chance to fulfil his Fulham dream and while Robson was Manager he made rapid progress. “Bobby bought me as a full-back and played me in the Reserves, but there were a lot of injuries to the forwards and the team was having a nightmare after being relegated from the First Division. So he put me up front and I started scoring goals in the Reserves. Then there were more injuries and Fulham were left with one fit centre-forward, which was Frank Large, and myself.

“So I got a chance in the First Team and we played our first match against Oxford United. I scored two, but they were both disallowed for offside. The following game was Crystal Palace and I scored the only goal of the game – then, after two more games, I scored for the next four consecutive. And after that Bobby was sacked and I was dropped. I was the leading scorer, but I was dropped by the Caretaker-Manager which was Johnny Haynes, who happened to be my boyhood hero. After that, I just kept my head down and stayed in the wilderness until pretty much the end of the season when we were already relegated.

“At the end of the season, when I had finished the Club’s second top scorer (two behind Brian Dear) despite hardly getting a game, I just wanted to go somewhere and play. I didn’t know what to expect next season so I went to see Bill Dodgin who had become Robson’s permanent replacement, then I demanded to see the Chairman. It was a real nervous time for me but times were changing and if scoring goals weren’t making an impact for them then I wanted to go. After a heated discussion, he let me. Thankfully Harry Haslam was at Luton and he said that if I didn’t want to stay at Fulham I could move there – and Fulham got a nice profit of £17,500 for me too.”

The story is symbolic of the way the club was run at the time and the dreadful short-sightedness in letting young talent go. Rodney Marsh had slipped through our net some years earlier before embarking on an excellent career and MacDonald was to follow suit. He was an immediate success at Luton helping them to promotion in his first season there whilst we finished 5th just 5 points behind the Hatters. One suspects if he’d remained at Fulham the positions may well have been reversed. He had another stellar goal scoring season the following year as Luton finished a creditable 6th in the Second division which further stirred bigger clubs interest. Newcastle stepped in that summer and paid £180,000 for the young centre-forward, over 10 times the price we had let him go for just two years before.

He was an instant success there scoring a hat-trick on his debut against Liverpool before regularly becoming the top scorer in a steady First Division side that never set the world alight. The Geordies love a Centre forward and termed their new hero ‘SuperMac’, a nickname that stuck with him for the remainder of his playing career. He played in two losing finals in his time there and earned a call-up to the England squad where his most memorable achievement was scoring all 5 goals in a 5-0 win over Cyprus at Wembley in 1975. His consistency led to Arsenal paying a big money fee of £333,333 in the summer of 1976 but although he still scored regularly there a winners medal eluded him again when ironically Bobby Robson’s Ipswich beat the Gunners in the 1978 FA Cup Final. He then suffered a bad knee injury at the start of the following season which ultimately brought a premature end to his playing career at the tender age of 29. Although he became as well known for his forthright opinions as his performances during his career, over 200 goals in just over 400 games tell you all you need to know about his ability. The fact he never played for a really successful club adds lustre to this achievement.

After he quit playing MacDonald arrived at Fulham in 1980 as a commercial director. Bobby Campbell had managed us to relegation from the second division in 1979-80 despite having what on paper looked a decent squad. Certainly, there were high hopes that we could make an immediate promotion challenge but in mid-October, a run of six consecutive defeats ended the Board’s patience with him. Ted Drake briefly took over as caretaker but for a permanent replacement in the Board decided that the ideal replacement was already in the building in their young commercial director. Fans were suspicious that a man with no managerial experience could be the answer and there was certainly no immediate or dramatic improvement in results. To be fair losses were at least turning into draws and MacDonald swiftly took on board a host of experienced coaches. Roger Thompson, ex-Arsenal teammate George Armstrong and Ray Harford were to do most of the work on the training pitch. MacDonald realised his limitations in that department. His strong suits were his confidence and enthusiasm which when transmitted remotivated what had been a dispirited squad. The second half of the season brought a marked upturn in form and we finished comfortably mid-table.

MacDonald tinkered very little with the squad that summer. Experienced midfielder Peter O’Sullivan arrived on a free transfer but the team remained pretty familiar apart from the addition of a few youngsters from the youth ranks. Perhaps his own bitter experience as a player at Fulham shaped his attitude but MacDonald wasn’t afraid to give youth its chance if he thought they were good enough. Jeff Hopkins slotted in as the regular right back but it was the regular appearances of ‘Dixie’ Dean Coney at centre-forward that did most to transform our fortunes. He proved the perfect foil up front for Gordon Davies as Ivor bashed in 24 goals in our promotion challenge. We had hovered around the top three all season but finally, it all came down to the very last game at the Cottage against Lincoln. The match had been scheduled for January when Lincoln were a lowly 18th in the table but was called off by a frozen pitch. The Imps embarked on an amazing run after that and by the time they arrived in London that spring evening they knew a win would be enough to steal the last promotion place from us. Over 20,000 packed into the ground that night and the tension was palpable as we struggled to find the free-flowing football we’d displayed all season. Captain Les Strong hobbled off and young forward Dale Tempest had to replace him at left back. An edgy first half finished goalless but early in the second half Lincoln were reduced to 10 men and Roger Brown powered us ahead with a trademark header. Surely we could relax now. Lincoln hadn’t read the script though and soon equalised. Knowing only a win would do they made light of being a man short and continued to press for the goal that would break our hearts. After what seemed an eternity the ref finally blew his whistle and sparked delirious scenes of celebration at the Cottage. It was the first promotion I’d seen in the flesh and remains a vivid memory to this day. As a Fulhamish aside if we had won that evening we’d have finished Champions instead of 3rd but on the night that didn’t seem to matter.

MacDonald tinkered very little again in the transfer market that summer. Young Ray Houghton arrived on a free from West Ham to replace O’Sullivan and has to be one of the best free transfer signings ever made. He slotted seamlessly into a Fulham XI that rarely changed; a line up I still recall fondly. Gerry Peyton in goal, Jeff Hopkins and Kevin Lock at fullback, Roger Brown and ‘Stroller’ Gale at centre back, a midfield four of Sean O’Driscoll, Robert Wilson, Ray Lewington and Houghton with Dixie and Ivor up front. We started the season like a train and scored goals for fun. MacDonald must have been particularly proud of our performance at his old stomping ground when we thrashed Newcastle ( Keegan and all ) 4-1 at St James’s Park. Wolves and QPR were in the box seat for promotion but we were looking hot favourites to go up in 3rd for much of the season. Andy Thomas arrived on loan after Coney was injured in December and scored a couple of vital goals. However, the Board were too tight to sanction his permanent signing and Coney’s goals and confidence dried up as he returned to the lineup. As we started to falter Leicester clicked into gear and they arrived at the Cottage in late April hot on our tail. Ivor had an onside goal wrongly disallowed and after Leicester went ahead Coney headed a sitter wide at the Hammersmith End, a miss that has haunted me ever since. A draw would have kept us 5 points clear but the switch in momentum left us going into our last game at Derby needing to better Leicester’s result to go up. That game at Derby was a travesty as the home fans encroached on the pitch for the last 15 minutes and were actually kicking our players as they went down the wing. The ref finally blew 2 minutes early with Fulham 1-0 down. Leicester had been held at home so a win would have put us up. We appealed for the game to be replayed but the F.A. shamefully turned us down. It almost seemed like they were actively condoning hooliganism. The Heysel disaster happened two years afterwards which to me wasn’t a coincidence. The F.A. could have sent out a clear message in 1983 that the cancer of hooliganism was no longer being tolerated and replayed our game in an empty stadium. Instead, they bottled it and the hooligans won. What sort of message did that send?

Unsurprisingly there was a reaction to the disappointment the following season. We were still very good on our day- we took Liverpool to three enthralling games in the League Cup- but lacked the consistency to make a promotion challenge. In spring 1984 with the season meandering to its conclusion, a story about MacDonald’s private life hit the tabloids and the Board used that as an opportunity to terminate his time as Manager. It was a bizarre and sad way to finish MacDonald’s time at the helm. He had pulled us out of a downward spiral with a brand of stylish, attacking football that was probably only surpassed by Jean Tigana’s promotion team. It was a tragedy that we so cruelly missed out in 1983 as I feel certain that the team could have graced the top flight and MacDonald could have firmly established himself as a great Manager. Instead, within 3 short years, we had been relegated, sold to Marler Estates and were in a fight for our very existence. It took us many years to recover and although MacDonald had a brief spell in charge at Huddersfield his career in management was effectively extinguished by that day in Derby. Having said all that my abiding memories of him are positive. The football his team played was a breath of fresh air and the fact he took a team hurtling towards the Fourth Division to the brink of the First in 2 and a half years make him a hero for me.