With Aleksandar Mitrovic facing an extended ban Carlos Vinicius may yet get to create a more favourable impression with our support than he’s achieved thus far. To be fair he’s not had that many opportunities and even if he doesn’t tear up any more trees, he’ll always have that winning goal against Chelsea to dine out on in years to come. In that sense he’ll have much in common with another Fulham player who is famous for just the one goal that is still sung about to this day. I am of course talking about the chap who put the ball in the Carlisle net some 26 years ago, Rodney McAree!
The Northern Irishman arrived at the Cottage to little fanfare in January 1996 from Dungannon Swifts, having never quite made it in England in spells at Liverpool and Bristol City. He scored two goals in the remainder of that season as we flirted with relegation from the Football League before Micky Adams hauled us away from danger to a 17th place finish. With the club in dire financial straits there was little optimism that the 1996/97 season would be much better even though Adams had recruited some fresh players that summer. Our predicament meant we were shopping in the bargain basement or more often acquiring players available on free transfers. Even so this rag tag army soon blended and with Super Micky Conroy scoring for fun we soon found ourselves top of the table.
We were still riding high into the second half of the season but a run of 4 defeats in 5 games into the start of February had us fearful it was all about to go wrong. A watershed late win against Swansea got us back on track though and as we approached the business end of the campaign, we found ourselves within sight of our first promotion in 15 years. Wigan were right up there too, as were Carlisle United and it was the Cumbrians we visited on 5th April 1997 in a mouth-watering fixture. Excitement was reaching fever pitch in our little corner of SW6 and so a mammoth contingent of Fulham fans made the long trip North.
The team news wasn’t great with centre back and penalty king Mark Blake suspended, and regulars Richard Carpenter and Darren Freeman out injured. Therefore, Micky Adams had to shuffle the pack and it was some surprise that he selected Rod McAree in midfield. He had hardly featured for much of the season, as our winning performances had meant we had a very settled line-up. Nevertheless, our fans were in a buoyant mood before kick-off, but that optimism was punctured on 20 minutes when Rory Delap (of later long throw fame) headed the home side in front. McAree came close to an equaliser with a shot that skimmed the post, but we went into the interval a goal down.
With Fulham now attacking the massed ranks of our support there was hope we’d turn the game around in the second half and within 6 minutes Super Mick bundled in the equaliser after a short corner routine that saw McAree’s cross headed back across goal by Danny Cullip. If that sent the decibel levels up it was nothing compared to what they were just 4 minutes later. This time Simon Morgan provided a cross that Christer Warren headed back into space some 25 yards out. He had spotted McAree stealing forward, and the ball sat perfectly for him to lash an unstoppable first time shot beyond Caig in the Carlisle goal. For the Fulham fans lucky enough to be there that day it was a moment they’ll never forget. Naturally Carlisle responded but the doggedness we’d seen all season from Adams team served us well again as we saw out a famous victory. The three points made promotion a formality that was made mathematically certain with a goalless draw at Mansfield three days later.
At last, after so many barren years we had something to celebrate and with Mohamed Al Fayed’s purchase of the club that summer it heralded what has been the most remarkable period in the club’s history since. It’s certainly arguable that our promotion in that 96/97 season was what attracted Fayed’s interest and for that we should always be grateful to Micky Adams and that band of warriors. That day at Carlisle was certainly Rodney McAree’s moment in the sun. He barely got a chance under the new regime and finally left the club to as little fanfare as when he arrived. Even so, that goal at Carlisle will mean we’ll never forget him.
Altogether now – ‘ Rodney McAree, Rodney McAree, Who put the ball in the Carlisle net? Rodney McAree’!