At Fulham Focus we pride ourselves on offering supporters a wide variety of current content and now that the season is back underway, there’s plenty to talk about. But during the lockdown when games weren’t possible there was a tangible yearning for Fulham nostalgia…
As one of the older hands on the Focus Team, I’m a keen fan of the club’s history – after all, I’ve been around for quite a proportion of it! When lockdown started I began to post several programme covers of memorable matches I’d been to. They seemed to trigger quite a positive response and sparked some interesting chat as well as some happy memories. Therefore, when FF’s head honcho asked if I was able to provide some regular ‘Memory Lane’ style content I thought it might be a plan to Focus on a different Fulham programme in each piece and elaborate from there…
GEORGE BEST’S DEBUT
The first programme featured is from a Second Division match in September 1976. In ordinary circumstances, it would have been considered a pretty mundane match between a couple of average sides. However, this was the day showbiz style razzle-dazzle came to town in the form of Rodney Marsh and more especially George Best. I say more especially Best because this game would be his debut for the club, whereas Rodney had already made his bow in a midweek League Cup tie with Peterborough.
Marsh had also already had a considerable stay at Fulham in the 1960s after breaking through in style to the senior side in our First Division days. Vic Buckingham made a serious mistake in letting Marsh leave far too soon and he went on to make his mark at QPR and latterly Manchester City. Rodney’s career in England had petered out and he’d gone to join the NASL football revolution in the USA where he’d been starring for the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The other reason Best’s bow seemed more special than Marsh is that he was undoubtedly a far bigger star. He had burst on the scene as a precocious youth at Manchester United and under Matt Busby’s tutelage became one of the biggest names in World Football in the second half of the 1960s. In fact, it’s fair to say he was the first footballer to transcend his sport and become a celebrity in his own right. The trouble was that after Busby retired Best’s ‘extravagant’ lifestyle seemed to take precedence and after eventually leaving United in 1974 he was effectively lost to the game before resurfacing in the NASL with Los Angeles Aztecs.
It was a massive coup for Fulham to sign two such big names. It helped that the American season ran during our summer so they would be able to play in England yet still be able to resume playing for their American clubs when our season ended.
The move really triggered the public’s imagination and while Marsh’s bow attracted an above par gate of 10,222, Best’s debut against Bristol Rovers was on a whole new level. A crowd of 21,127 turned up to see the Irish genius (some 12,000 more than the previous home League game). A fair few of them were still queuing to get through the overworked turnstiles when Best marked the occasion in style with the games only goal after just 71 seconds.
Also in the Matchday Programme:
Fulham 1-0 Bristol Rovers
4th September 1976
Goalscorer: George Best (2 mins)
Fulham team: Peter Mellor; John Cutbush, Ernie Howe, Bobby Moore, Les Strong: George Best, Alan Slough, John Evanson, Les Barrett: Viv Busby, Rodney Marsh.
Sub: Terry Bullivant
It was a fairy tale start that helped attract a staggering 25,794 for the next home game with Wolves a week later. The home game after that was the famous televised one with Hereford that at one stage had Marsh and Best tackling each other as we showboated to a 4-1 victory. The honeymoon was to end a week later at Southampton when their rough house tactics went unchecked and Bestie was sent off for his choice words to the referee Lester Shapter, who was no doubt happier to get his name in the paper than to do his job properly.
Form became inconsistent after that and Marsh quickly seemed to lose fitness and interest as we nosedived down the table. George Best was still putting in a regular shift though and was held in such high regard that Chelsea had to kick him black and blue in the Boxing Day derby. By the time we played the reverse fixture on Good Friday, we were in a parlous position while they were on their way to promotion. It was to prove Best’s finest hour in a Fulham shirt as he rolled back the years with a masterclass of wizardry crowned by a cracking goal in our vital 3-1 win. It was a pivotal result in our season as we ultimately beat the drop by just one point.
Marsh and Best departed back across the pond and Rodney wasn’t to be seen in our colours again. Best did return for the following season but had left by the November amidst rumours that his off-pitch unreliability was proving too disruptive. Fittingly his last home game for us was a thrilling 3-3 draw with Sunderland in which George scored a trademark beauty. As a fan, I can only say good things about him. He was a genius on the ball but was no prima donna working equally hard for the team off it. I was privileged to be of a generation that saw such a world-class player in our ranks.
RIP George, the Best player I’ve seen in a Fulham shirt- no pun intended.
All matchday programme images used in this article were sourced through the fantastic FulhamFootballProgrammes.