Hall of Heroes: Mohamed Al Fayed

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Mohamed Al Fayed will forever provoke controversy in British Society not only for his business dealings but more particularly for his reaction to the tragic deaths of Princess Diana and his son Dodi. However, for Fulham fans he will only be remembered fondly for having a special connection with supporters and overseeing the greatest period in our club’s history. As we mourn his passing at the age of 94, we pay tribute to his Fulham legacy and induct him into our Hall of Heroes.

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The decade between the mid 80’s and mid 90’s had been a particularly bleak period for Fulham. After narrowly missing out on promotion to the First Division in 1983, owner Ernie Clay abruptly turned the financial tap off. All our best players were sold and, after relegation in 1986, he sold the club to an asset stripping property company having removed the Church Commissioners provision that Craven Cottage had to be used as a sports facility. In early 1987 the plan became clear when Marler Estates publicised their intention to merge us with QPR and develop the Cottage site into luxury real estate.

Fortunately, Jimmy Hill got a consortium together to keep the club alive and, with the property market nosediving, the Cottage got a stay of execution. However, with a lack of funds we found ourselves in the bottom division until an unlikely promotion on a shoestring budget under Micky Adams in 1997 changed the course of Fulham’s history and future as we know it. It was to this backdrop that Al Fayed became the new owner of the club that summer. He not only purchased the club but also bought back the freehold of the ground with a further promise of Premier League status within 5 years.

Fulham fans of longstanding couldn’t quite believe what was happening. Even in the 1960’s when we had spent most of the decade in the top flight we never had any money to spend. We were used to star players like Alan Mullery and Allan Clarke being sold to balance the books so weren’t quite ready to believe that we were now going to be big spenders. Al Fayed was as good as his word though, even after dismaying fans very early in his reign with the brutal sacking of the heroic Adams. 

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The installation of a new ‘big name’ management team of Ray Wilkins and Kevin Keegan sweetened the pill as did the avalanche of signings that followed. Paul Peschisolido arrived for a £1 million fee and soon afterwards that amount was doubled when Chris Coleman was snapped up from Blackburn.

It all seemed too good to be true and, in fairness, with all the upheaval the team never really clicked that season although we did just scrape into the playoffs on the final day. Al Fayed showed his ruthless nature by sacking Wilkins and putting Keegan in sole charge of the side, but it made no impact as Grimsby beat us in the Playoff Semi-final.

However, the 1998/99 season was a different story as with Keegan in charge from the start and some more excellent arrivals like Barry Hayles, Geoff Horsfield and Steve Finnan as we cruised to the league title. We also had a brilliant cup run that was only halted in the Fifth Round by a single goal from a Manchester United side that went on to win the treble that season. The only downside to our success was that Keegan left at the season’s end for the England job.

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Al Fayed then surprised everyone by appointing Keegan’s replacement from within and although Paul Bracewell initially did well, when our Championship playoff challenge petered out in the spring, he fell victim in the same way Adams and Wilkins had before. We saw that season out under the caretaker stewardship of Karl-Heinz Riedle and Roy Evans before learning that our owner had gone abroad to find a new permanent manager.

Jean Tigana had been familiar to us as a mercurial midfielder in the successful French team of the 80’s but we weren’t sure about his pedigree as a manager. We needn’t have worried though. With the additions of the prolific Louis Saha and the maverick qualities of Luis Boa Morte we tore the Championship apart with a blend of attacking football the likes of which we’d never seen before. He transformed not only our playing style but also the careers of several of the existing squad who all readily bought into the Frenchman’s methods. We finished the season as runaway Champions and so had fulfilled Al Fayed’s promise of Premier League status in 4 years, not 5.

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Success on the pitch was far outpacing progress off it and although we got dispensation to play at the Cottage in our first top flight season for 33 years, it was clear we needed an all seater stadium for the long term. More big names arrived that summer including the astonishing arrival of Dutch goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar. Although so surreal had been our rise that by then nothing really surprised us.

Our first Premier League season was steady rather than spectacular with a 13th place finish and a run to the FA Cup Semi-Final but curiously it was enough to reward us with a place in the Intertoto Cup. We had arranged to share QPR’s ground to satisfy Premier League regulations but with Loftus Road not ready we had a couple of last hurrahs at the Cottage in the opening rounds of the Intertoto. We saw off Finnish and Greek opponents before beating Sochaux of France in the semi-finals. A draw in Bologna in the first leg of the Final was the prelude to a glorious night at our new temporary home. Junichi Inamoto was the hero as his hat-trick led us to a 3-1 win and a European trophy. Yes folks ‘The Intertoto, we won it one time’.

Initially things went well that season, but trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Rumours circulated that Al Fayed was looking for an alternative site to the Cottage to develop a new ground. It immediately led to resistance from fans and the Back to the Cottage campaign group quickly got traction with the Take Me Home chant emanating on match days. A refrain that has certainly lasted the test of time. There was also talk of a breakdown in relations between Al Fayed and Tigana with the owner allegedly concerned about some of the agent’s fees paid for the Frenchman’s signings. Therefore, when we had a run of poor results towards the season’s end Al Fayed once again showed his ruthless nature in dispensing with Tigana’s services. Chris Coleman, who’d been coaching at the club after a car crash had finished his playing career, was the unlikely caretaker appointment but 10 points in his 5 games in charge saw us to safety and gave him the permanent position for the following season.

Many guessed that his appointment might be akin to the Bracewell one and that his lack of experience would make it a short-lived experiment. Instead, the popular Welshman went on to become the longest serving manager of Al Fayed’s entire tenure. His first full season saw us finish an impressive 9th even despite losing Louis Saha halfway through the season. His second season was trickier but by then we had been buoyed by a return to a Cottage resplendent with new stands at either end. It was never quite clear if Al Fayed had yielded to fan pressure in returning us home or whether it was just that finances dictated alternative plans wouldn’t work. Either way we were delighted to be home to see a workmanlike Coleman side keep us comfortably in the Division.

The 2005/06 season saw more of the same with our home form making sure we were never in serious danger of going down. It also saw the red letter day of the Coleman years with victory over champions Chelsea triggering scenes of absolute delight at our treasured home.

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For much of the following season we were again in a relatively safe if lower half position until a run of poor results saw Al Fayed press the panic button with 5 games left. It was tough on Coleman who had not received the backing in the transfer market that we had seen in Al Fayed’s earlier years. Lawrie Sanchez was made caretaker on the back of his success as Northern Ireland manager, and we stumbled to safety courtesy of a win against a Liverpool team resting players for the Champions League.

It meant Sanchez got the permanent job in the same way to Coleman but there is where the similarities ended. Cookie was already loved by the Fulham fans whereas Sanchez’s style of football had already gone down like a lead balloon at the Cottage. To be fair to Sanchez he did make some good signings and we were often unlucky in games, but Al Fayed’s famed lack of patience saw a P45 issued to the Northern Irishman as an early Christmas present.

Roy Hodgson was soon appointed as his replacement to little fanfare. Although he’d had a successful career coaching around the globe he’d been seen to have failed in the parochial world of English football after being sacked by Blackburn some years before. Straightaway though the style of football improved and although results were slow to follow there was some hope the Hodgson approach might save us from the drop. However, after a home defeat to Liverpool and with just three games left, we looked doomed. What followed will go down in legend as ‘The Great Escape’. Victory from two goals down at Manchester City and a home win in a six pointer against Birmingham City saw us go to Portsmouth on the last day of the season knowing a win would keep us up. With time running out and other results going against us the unlikely figure of Danny Murphy rose highest to head home a winner that secured safety. In a strange way and even though we’d had a top half finish under Coleman and finished in the club’s highest ever position the very next season, that day at Portsmouth was for me the highlight of our time in the Premier League in the Al Fayed era.

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The 7th place finish under Hodgson in 2008/09 was an astonishing achievement. Shrewd recruitment and a superbly coached and organised team saw us to a record 53 points and a place in Europe. If we thought European competition might be a bridge too far with Premier League status a necessity, we were slowly but surely proved wrong. Hodgson prioritised league points in the first half of the campaign while still making us strong enough to negotiate qualifying rounds and the Group stage of the Europa League thanks to winning an epic final group game in Basel.

Even then many thought that would be it when we drew holders Shakhtar Donetsk in the first knockout round. Somehow, we got past one of the best ever sides I’d seen at the Cottage only to draw Juventus in the last 16. All hope seemed lost early in the second leg at home but then we saw the most astonishing comeback crowned by Clint Dempsey’s delightful late winner. A quarter final victory over Wolfsburg seemed almost routine before another epic night at the Cottage saw us ‘still believe’ and come from behind to beat Hamburg to secure a place in a major European Final. It was a surreal achievement for a club that had been 91st in the football league as recently as 1996.

It was to prove the high-water mark of Al Fayed’s reign and in hindsight proved a watershed for the club. Narrow defeat to an excellent Atletico Madrid in the final was no disgrace and is still a treasured memory for those of us fortunate enough to be in Hamburg that night. As well as the disappointment of losing a final, a victory would have meant another tilt at Europe and perhaps might have encouraged Hodgson to resist Liverpool’s overtures and motivate Al Fayed to invest further in the squad. Instead, Hodgson left, and it seemed that as a lover spurned Al Fayed went through the motions for the remainder of his Fulham reign. Mark Hughes came and went citing a ‘lack of ambition’ as his reason for departure. We then trod water for two more seasons with Martin Jol at the helm as top players like Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey departed and many of the Europa League heroes were cast aside. It felt like the end of an era, and it soon was…

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In the summer of 2013 it was announced that Al Fayed had sold the club to Shahid Khan and with that his 16 year reign was at an end. There is no doubt that his legacy as Fulham’s greatest ever Chairman is secure though. He presided over an era of unprecedented success as we rose rapidly to the top flight and remained there for 13 seasons. Furthermore, he brought a galaxy of superstars to the club that we could only have dreamt of seeing in Fulham colours and delivered the crowning glory of that European final in 2010. He even tried to convince us that Michael Jackson was a Fulham fan when he brought him to a game in 1999 although he did push his luck by installing a statue of the American at the Hammersmith End. It was typical of his eccentricity and ultimately didn’t make us love him less. An old Fulham Chairman, Tommy Trinder, had a catchphrase ‘You Lucky People’. However, it was Al Fayed’s contribution as Chairman that made Fulham fans feel truly lucky and despite any flaws in his character away from football he will always be revered and respected for all he did for the club.

Although Shahid Khan has been in charge now for 10 years, we are still singing the old Al Fayed songs and I’m sure we’ll be singing them with added gusto at the Luton game in tribute to a proper Fulham legend.

RIP Mohamed Al Fayed.