The featured programme this time is from a League Division 3 game with Northampton Town in April 1997 which is significant as it’s the first game after Micky Adams team clinched promotion with a point at Mansfield the previous Tuesday night.
The 1996-97 promotion side are still rightly heralded to this day as Adams side were a collection of bargain buys and free transfers that had hardly been expected to reverse many years of decline at that campaign’s beginning. Their achievement is widely regarded as a watershed in Fulham’s history as before the next season started Mohamed Al Fayed had bought the club and with his financial backing completely changed the mindset of the club. With him at the helm we were transformed from a club merely struggling to stay in existence to one with a 5 year plan to reach the Premier League; a feat that was achieved in just 4.
It’s fair to say without this promotion success Al Fayed’s interest may not have been piqued , nor would we have enjoyed all our subsequent success. Adams was the first manager to lead us to promotion since Malcolm MacDonald took us to the old Second Division in 1982, and did it in his first full season as a boss. He had taken over from Ian Branfoot in the second half of the 1995-96 season when at one stage we had drifted as low as 23rd in the table and had lost at rock bottom Torquay. We were staring into the abyss when Micky took the job but he managed to steer us comfortably to safety and we finished the season in 17Th place; still the worst finish we’d had since joining the Football League in 1907.
Since MacDonald’s side had come so close to reaching the First Division in 1983 we had been in constant decline and nearly went under completely in 1987 when Marler Estates tried to merge us with QPR and build flats on the Cottage site. We managed to evade the hangman’s noose thanks to Jimmy Hill and his allies but after that the financial issues caused in trying to secure our tenure at Craven Cottage meant that there were little funds available to restore our fortunes on the pitch.
This was certainly the case when Adams went about his business in the summer of 1996. He managed to entice his old Southampton team mate Glenn Cockerill to bolster the midfield and picked up Darren Freeman and Paul Watson from another of his old clubs, Gillingham. Midfielder Richard Carpenter was to follow from the Gills early in the season. Another significant signing was made in Mark Walton who was to dislodge Tony Lange from his position between the sticks. Matt Lawrence was another handy addition later in the season but otherwise Adams kept faith with much of the squad he’d inherited. Continuity was provided by Captain Simon Morgan who provided such loyal service to the club and who proved his undoubted on field ability in our subsequent rise back up the divisions.
Team spirit was built on a pre-season tour of Ireland and we hit the ground running with a run of victories in the opening couple of months that put us top of the table. There were occasional blips but the only poor run occurred in January and February when 4 defeats in 5 games had us nervously looking over our shoulders. Nerves were calmed though in a vital fixture with Swansea that we came from behind to win thanks in no small measure to Paul Brooker’s intervention from the substitute’s bench.
The standout result of the season had been achieved a week before this game with Northampton when we travelled to promotion rivals Carlisle. Again we had to come from behind but Micky Conroy equalised and Rodney McAree put his name into Fulham folklore with a stunning winner to put us on the cusp of promotion. Mathematically we still needed a point and this was achieved with a battling goalless draw at Field Mill in midweek.
A bumper crowd of over 11,000 arrived at the Cottage to celebrate but on the day the team were very flat; probably due to the exertions of the previous week. Northampton were in the chase for a play off spot so were clearly motivated enough to take advantage of our off day.
FULHAM 0-1 NORTHAMPTON TOWN
12TH APRIL 1997
FULHAM TEAM: Mark Walton: Matt Lawrence, Terry Angus, Nick Cusack, Danny Cullip, Paul Watson: Richard Carpenter, Glenn Cockerill, Christer Warren; Rob Scott, Micky Conroy.
SUBS: Martin Thomas, Paul Brooker, Mark Blake.
The defeat wasn’t enough to take the gloss off our celebrations that day although it still niggles slightly that we missed out on the title to Wigan a few weeks later on goals scored. Just one more point anywhere that season would have made us Champions; a title I’d argue we rightfully deserved. No matter -some 23 years on that team are still Champions in my eyes.
All matchday programme images used in this article were sourced through the fantastic FulhamFootballProgrammes.