Interview: John Salako

Image: Tom Shaw/Allsport UK

In the infancy of the Al Fayed revolution, player turnover was somewhat of a revolving door. John Salako, a Premier League player at the time, was one of the many names brought in during the late nineties but for one reason or another, it didn’t have the same success story as some others. Daniel Smith spoke to John to get his perspective on his time spent on the banks of the Thames with Fulham…

DS – Which club did you support growing up and who were your football idols?

JS – I wouldn’t say that I support anyone as a ‘football fan’ but the first team I went to watch as a kid was Arsenal at Highbury and I’ve always had a soft spot for The Gunners. Tony Adams was a fantastic captain and the football they have played over the years has been breathtaking at times. Thierry Henry would certainly be my favourite player.

I hold a special place in my heart for Crystal Palace. They were my first club; I joined them at 14 and stayed there for 12 years. So, Palace is home, Palace is like family.

As a kid, my idols were Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking. Even Steve Coppell in that fantastic Man Utd side. I didn’t watch much football live as a kid, it was all through TV and in those days, it was only the big teams who would be on mostly.

DS – How did you get your first opportunity in football?

JS – I was playing for Westerham Reds U14s down in Kent and the U15 manager told me that I was too good for that level, so I stepped up into his team. I continued to do well, and he very kindly wrote to Palace and recommended that they needed to send a scout down to see me play which they did, and the rest is history. So, I’m very grateful to that coach, a man called John Mitchell.

DS – What was it like to play for England?

JS – It’s the pinnacle of your career. I was lucky to play at stadiums like Highbury, Old Trafford, Anfield and in the FA Cup final at Wembley but putting on that shirt is the biggest honour a professional footballer can have. I had also been called up by Wales and Nigeria through parentage, but I chose England. I know I only got 5 caps but you can never look at it as only 5, to play for your country 5 times is special and it’s a shame I suffered with injuries around the time that I was in the England setup and I never got to go to a major tournament but there’s not many that do. I think I was around the 800th player to play for England and I think even now it’s only around the 1200 mark. So that’s a very elite group to be amongst and I’m very proud of that.

DS – You dropped two divisions to join Fulham in the old Division Two. How did the move to Fulham come about and what appealed to you about the move?

JS – I was at Coventry at the time and we were having contract negotiations that kept breaking down. The club were pushing for a more incentive based deal, and this led to tension in my relationship with Gordon Strachan as he thought I wasn’t playing ball. Then I heard about the offer from Fulham and was very keen to play for Kevin Keegan who was a superstar of the game when I was growing up. I almost signed for him when he was the Newcastle manager and to get offered another chance to sign for Kevin was a no brainer.

He explained to me that the club were very ambitious and that they did not intend to hang around in the third tier for very long. Obviously, with the financial backing of Mohammed Al Fayed it was very clear that the club were heading in the right direction, and it was an exciting place to be. Especially seeing all of the big-name signings coming in around the same time. So, a combination of the project and playing for Keegan made it an easy decision to drop down two divisions.

DS – What was the contrast like going from a club in the Premiership to Fulham?

JS – There was a difference but perhaps not as big as you’d think. At the time, the club was training at the Bank of England down in Roehampton and it wasn’t a proper training ground. We were training with the England Rugby team at times. It had a canteen and obviously a restaurant and it was ok. It did the job and to be honest, the facilities at Coventry weren’t much better. Plus, playing at Craven Cottage, which is an iconic, unique stadium was special.

So, the whole razmataz of the setup and characters like Kit Symons, Chris Coleman, Paul Peschisolido, Dirk Lehmann and Barry Hayles made it a special group and fun to be around.

Then Al Fayed would bring Hugh Grant or Michael Jackson along on matchdays which was absolutely incredible. So, I just bought into the dream really and having played for Crystal Palace and Coventry City, I hadn’t come from pristine training grounds and top of the range equipment. In today’s game the gap is much bigger than it was back then.

DS – How long did it take you to realise that we were going to be promoted?

JS – Well, when you look across and you see Kevin Keegan, Peter Beardsley and Paul Bracewell in your dressing room – absolute legends of the game – you know you are in good hands and running around Roehampton in training with a squad like that, you just know it’s going to be a special year. Then you play your first game, we were away to Macclesfield, and I scored a freekick. I remember loads of fans desperately trying to get Kevin’s autograph as we tried to get back on the coach. You just don’t associate that sort of attention with that level of football. So, I knew straight away that the club wouldn’t be in the third tier for very long.

DS – Considering you had dropped down 2 divisions to sign for Keegan, were you disappointed that you only made 16 appearances that season?

JS – What happened was I tore my calf and was sidelined for a while and then Kevin was pushing for me to get back, which I did and then in the first training session it went again. I felt Kevin thought I was taking the piss and putting it on, and we clashed a bit. Then I missed a chance up at Old Trafford which the Fulham fans still bring up even now. I was taken off at half time in the following game and that was it. We never seemed to get on after that.

It was a bit strange and frustrating to be honest and I wish I’d contributed more to that season, but it was great to see the club get promoted regardless.

Being sidelined was tough mentally. Often, you’d find yourself training on your own because you weren’t travelling with the matchday team. I remember the squad being very big and there were 7 or 8 of us not even making it on the bench.

Football is dominated by personalities. Some you’ll get on with and a lot of them you won’t. It’s not as easy as just turning up at a new club, settling in and making it your home. It’s a fierce sport and sometimes you’ve got to be lucky with the personalities around you to avoid clashing.

I’ve seen Kevin a few times over the years and we always say hello. It was a long time ago and these things can happen in football.

DS – I’m glad you mentioned the Old Trafford miss because someone had to bring it up!

JS – Of course it was going to come up! It always does when I’m talking to Fulham fans. I’m sure they will still be talking about it in 20, 30 years time but it’s all good banter and in a way, I don’t mind it. It’s better to be remembered for a miss than not remembered at all, at least that’s the theory I’m sticking with!

I have the same thing from my time at Swansea. I was only there for about 3 months and didn’t get to play in the Cardiff derby, but Cardiff fans still remember me playing for The Swans and call me a Jack bastard. Which is great that they remember me! So, it’s the same here. It’s been 22 years and the Fulham fans remember it like it was yesterday. I doubt that’s going to change in the next 22 years. Luckily, I don’t think there’s any footage of the miss to show to future generations!

The main thing is that I don’t take it personally one bit. Fulham is a great club, and the fans are fantastic. I always look out for their results and hope they do well.

DS – What was going through your mind at the time of the famous miss?

JS – I thought we played really well that day and I was full of confidence. I think it was Wayne Collins who had a shot, Schmeichel saves it and the ball falls to me a few yards out. My eyes opened up and it was one of those where I thought I’d scored before I’d even executed the shot. In hindsight, I should have just smashed the bloody thing, but Schmeichel somehow manages to get back up and across his goal to save it. It was a magnificent save but equally a really poor miss. I also didn’t get to score at Old Trafford in my career and this was as close as I was ever going to get.

It’s part and parcel of football. We see great saves and poor misses all the time. If you take your eye off the ball for one second or don’t have the urgency required, it doesn’t take a lot to miss an opportunity like that against a world class goalkeeper.

DS – 11 wins, 3 draws and 2 defeats, one of which was that game against Man Utd. That’s not a bad record! Do you have a favourite match from those?

JS – I think it would have to be that first game away to Macclesfield. To score on your debut is pretty special and the whole vibe going into that game was really exciting. I’d just signed for the club, so I was raring to go with all these fantastic players around me. We had such a great group of lads and the club were getting a lot of attention at the time. Obviously, that first game of the season always has a buzz around it, but it was such an exciting time to be a Fulham player and to get off to a winning start with a goal was the perfect debut.

Other than that, I would have to say the game against Man Utd. Playing at Old Trafford is always a special experience and I remember Al Fayed coming down to our hotel the night before the game to wish us luck. It’s a shame about the miss but we played really well that day and losing 1-0 at Old Trafford as a third-tier side is not something to be ashamed of.

DS – You remained at the club for a few months after Keegan had left but went out on loan to Charlton and didn’t play for us again. Was there potential for you to have a future at the club under Paul Bracewell?

JS – Of course that’s what I was hoping for. We came back after the summer break for pre-season, and I was hoping for a fresh start. But it was very clear after a chat with Paul that I wasn’t in his plans, and he told me that it would be best for me to find a new club. Shortly after that conversation, I moved to Charlton.

I ended up winning the league with Charlton that season and remember beating Fulham at The Valley with Brace still in the dugout. I have to confess that it was very satisfying to win that day and that is nothing against Fulham or the supporters at all. I was really disappointed to leave the club and it’s always nice to win in those situations and prove former managers wrong.

Obviously, the following year Tigana takes over and Fulham absolutely smashed it by winning the league, which was great to see.

DS – Who were your closest mates at the club?

JS – I’d have to say Gus Uhlenbeek. But I also got on really well with Rufus Brevett, Dirk Lehmann, Barry Hayles and Pesch as well. They were all great lads and so easy to get on with. If I was going down the pub it was most likely with Gus, Rufus and Barry.

DS – Who was the best player at Fulham at the time?

JS – You know what, I played with so many great players at Fulham. Shout out to Gus at fullback!

Peter Beardsley was obviously a world class player, Pesch was capable of producing moments of magic and Steve Finnan was a top player. Then you’ve got Bracewell, Coleman and Symons who deserve a mention. So, so many!

DS – When you think of Fulham, what comes to mind?

JS – I think of the iconic players that have played there. The likes of Bobby Moore, George Best and Johnny Haynes. Fulham is an iconic club and the Cottage itself is very unique.

I also think of the evening games under the lights, they were very special. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in, and you felt so close to the fans.

I think of Michael Jackson! Meeting him was one of the most surreal moments of my career.

Fulham itself is just a wonderful throwback into what football should be about. I remember on matchdays parking my car in the school across the road and then walking amongst the fans to get through the Cottage gates. Fans wanting autographs or just saying hello to you. It made you feel part of the club. I played in many stadiums where you park in a car park and don’t have any interaction with the fans at all.

It’s a shame that my time at the club was so short but that’s football. Sometimes you get on with a manager and sometimes you don’t. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out how I hoped it would at Fulham, but I still loved my time there and I’m pleased that I got to play for the club.

DS – What are you up to now?

JS – I worked for Sky for a long time and I do other bits of media. Plus, I’ve got a couple of other interests, I’m involved in a company called Pitch D&M – Pitch Sport Football which is a football fans app. I’m also trying to get our new show off the ground called Pubcast.

But predominantly my day-to-day stuff is property and business finance. I’m just waiting for the phone to ring for a bit more TV work.

DS – Finally John, pie or pasty – which filling?

JS – Pasty for me with brown sauce! Norwich City do the best pasties. Delia knows what she’s doing!