Nights Beyond Compare

Image: Sky Sports

It’s a couple of weeks since our Playoff Final victory against Brentford and just the merest thought of that night can’t help but bring a smile to my face. We had achieved a similar feat in 2018 against Aston Villa (albeit in very different circumstances) and it got me thinking as to how the two occasions compared. Shortly after the Villa game, I penned an article for TOOFIF entitled ‘The Best Day of my life’ which is reproduced below…


As a modern man, I would undoubtedly have said the best day of my life would boil down to a choice between my Wedding Day or the days on which my children were born. However, I don’t imagine the TOOFIF readership will be too interested in the graphic details of these events.

Therefore I am pleased to announce that the title has now passed on to a much more recent day in my life. It was in some ways a less intimate occasion than marriage or childbirth being as I shared the occasion with some 38,000 like-minded people. However, as my love affair with Fulham stretches back some 50 years the emotions triggered that day are unlikely to be surpassed. I am of course talking about Saturday 26 May, the day of our Playoff Final victory. It was a special day for Fulham fans of every generation but even more so for us old lags that were there last time we went to Wembley.

To put it into context how special it was I need to go back to the beginning. My first trip to the Cottage was with my Dad in 1969. He had many great qualities as a father, not least of which was the passing of his love for Fulham on to me. I started going regularly in 1971 and since then have lived and breathed the club. I was only 12 in 1975 when we had the amazing marathon cup run that culminated in a trip to the old twin towers. I don’t remember much about the match itself although I do recall crying my eyes out as West Ham broke our hearts. ‘Never mind, cheer up we’ll soon be back’, I was told as I left the stadium that day. Little did I know then that the term soon would be redefined as 43 years.

Since then much water has flowed under the bridge. I married in 1989 with a son coming along in 1991 and a daughter in 1993. Tragically my wife died from cancer in 1997 and for a while, my interest in football diminished. Early the next year my Dad talked me into going to a game and although football had at that time lost its meaning I knew life had to go on. Going back to the Cottage for the first time since my wife’s passing was a cathartic experience. Within 5 minutes I was shouting and hollering as though I’d never been away. At the end of the season, I took my two kids to the Cottage for the first time and the club made them mascots for the day. Although we lost they had a great time and from that moment on I knew I’d have them hooked.

I remarried in 1999 and acquired three lovely stepdaughters. Although I dragged them along to the Cottage a couple of times I couldn’t pass my love of football or Fulham on. Perhaps it’s a genetic thing. However, my son, Dan was soon a regular with me and a stand out memory is having season tickets with him and my Dad when we got promoted to the Premier League in 2001. The last-minute Sean Davis equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday that clinched the title remains vivid in my mind, a moment I was especially proud to share with my father and son. My Dad passed in 2003 and I’m sure he’s looked down since with astonishment at what Fulham have gone on to achieve.

On our return to the Cottage in 2004 I got my daughter Beth a season ticket as well and over the years since the three of us have had some special times watching our magnificent club. The highlight was probably our Europa League run in 2010 and although we lost the final the trip to Hamburg with my kids and friends was an incredible experience.

The first bad experience for them as Fulham fans was our relegation in 2014 but their passion remained undiminished as we adjusted to life in the Championship. The first two years were pretty shocking but since the Slavalution, we’ve been privileged to watch the best brand of football witnessed at Fulham since the halcyon days of Tigana’s promotion side.

We were desperately unlucky to lose to Reading in last season’s playoff and the hangover at the start of this season made a tilt at promotion look exceedingly unlikely. However, January’s signings helped gather momentum and the amazing unbeaten run left us with a chance of automatic promotion on the last day. I went with Dan to St Andrew’s in the hope it would be a Red Letter day but it just wasn’t meant to be. On the trip home I was entirely pessimistic about our playoff chances. Past experiences had conditioned me that way and the first leg at Derby left me fearing the worst again. However that Monday night at the Cottage was electric and the celebrations at the end were crazy. At the final whistle, I stood in disbelief- after 43 long years, we were going back to Wembley.

And so to the day itself and a magnificent 7 of us set off for the grandest of days out. Me, two mates ( both named Martin), Dan and his friend Harry and Beth and her boyfriend Phil formed the matchday line up for a trip I prepared with military precision. Train beer had been purchased for an early start and a table was booked in a pub ‘en route’. I felt solids were an essential ingredient for a full day’s drinking. As we walked up Wembley Way the excitement really started to grow. My team had actually bloody made it.

Another pre-match nerve calmer was quaffed inside the Stadium before we took our places in the White Wall. The first half went like a dream and TC’s sublime finish sent us bonkers. At half time I was disappointed we were only one up as I knew Villa had to improve. They were much more on it after the break but we still were creating decent chances of our own. Stef Jo blazed the best opportunity over which was regretted all the more when Denis Odoi was dismissed with a good 20 minutes still to play. My heart filled with dread every time Villa attacked but our valiant 10 men held firm. Five added minutes shredded nerves even further but finally, the referee blew time. I had never allowed myself to imagine what winning at Wembley would feel like but even if I had the experience surpassed my wildest dreams. The feeling of disbelief and ecstasy washed over me in waves as I hugged my kids, friends and pretty much any Fulham fan within reach. Those moments and the scenes afterwards as we got the trophy and the players celebrated on the pitch below will remain etched in my memory forever.

I’m writing this in the middle of the World Cup some 5 weeks since our victory but the thought of that day still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I can’t imagine that day will ever be bettered- it will take something truly astonishing. I’ll be eternally grateful that I was privileged enough to be there the day little old Fulham won at Wembley. As Tommy Trinder would have said to those of us who went,‘You lucky people’.

As I said in the final paragraph of that piece I couldn’t imagine that day ever being bettered. To be fair at the time I was rather hopeful that we’d consolidate ourselves back in the Premier League for a while. I, therefore, didn’t see us returning to Wembley for a Final any time soon, bearing in mind our pitiful record in the domestic cups. Neither am I a greedy man. The 2010 Europa League run and various promotions and highs, particularly since Micky Adams led us to a watershed promotion in 1997 has sated my appetite for glory fairly well. Don’t get me wrong; I hunger for success as much as the next person. However, glory is not my prime motivation as a Fulham supporter; it’s much more to do with that special feeling we get about our club.

With the awful Coronavirus taking hold in spring we all wondered when football would resume and how or even whether the season would get finished. When the news came that we could play again, but behind closed doors, I wondered if I’d care as much about football if I couldn’t go. When we started back with straight defeats to Brentford and Leeds that all but ended our chance of automatic promotion I was struggling to raise much enthusiasm for Lockdown football. The best part of it was that I was making each televised game something of an event with beer, family and friends – socially distanced of course. I, therefore, went to my daughter’s for the QPR game in a hopeful mood, but by the time she got her FFCTV stream up and running, we were already a goal down. Thankfully Harry Arter got us back on level terms and when Cyrus Christie’s shot flew in for what proved to be the winner I screamed so loud the cat tore off my daughter’s lap and fled from the room. Proof that my passion and enthusiasm for the game were as strong as ever; although not such good news for the cat.

Performances and results steadily improved from that moment on and West Brom’s faltering form even meant we went into the final league game with a mathematical chance of promotion. In truth, the door was hardly open a crack for us and we’d already mentally attuned ourselves for the playoffs. In contrast, Brentford had virtually kicked the door off its hinges with two games left only to blow their chance by losing their last two games. It was, therefore, a London v Wales face off in the Semis and we produced an absolutely wonderful performance in Cardiff to put one foot in the final. A very nervy second leg followed at the Cottage as the proverbial kitchen sink was thrown at us but we just about made it through. In contrast, Brentford arrested their slump with a second-leg win over Swansea which helped stoke up their portrayal as the media’s darlings.

Bookies had them down as huge favourites and the rhetoric of their coach and one particular player suggested it would hardly be worth our while turning up for the final. Curiously for me though I was feeling quite optimistic. Focus’s very own Danny had suggested some time back that Parker’s style of football was ideal for the Playoffs. We’d been steadily improving since the restart, had recent experience of the pressure of a Playoff Final and with underdog status had nothing to lose.  In contrast, Brentford were being spoken of as the Championship equivalent of Barcelona; as the media talked up the ‘fairytale’ of them potentially starting life in their new stadium in the Premier League.

With going to Wembley not an option I wanted to recreate the vibe of 2018 as much as possible. Very sadly one of my dear friends that went then passed away from cancer last summer ( RIP Martin Denholm) and my son’s mate Harry was otherwise engaged. Therefore five of us 2018 stalwarts gathered at Clarke Towers with one extra guest being my daughter’s boyfriend’s father Mike who was down visiting from Liverpool. He may be a Scouser by birth but for one night only he was very much a Fulham fan; to be fair he wouldn’t have got through the front door otherwise.

The game was a slow burn but we were definitely the more comfortable and purposeful side from the outset. Clear cut chances were at a premium though. We squandered the half-chances that came our way whilst Marek Rodak was only tested once by a long ranger from Watkins in normal time.

Mitro’s introduction at the game’s end suggested we were going to go for it, but again no clear openings were made until Joe Bryan’s incredible free kick at the end of the first period of extra time. I’d had a few beers by then and couldn’t quite believe it had gone in at first glance. Raya’s theatrical dive confused me for a split second until pandemonium was let loose in a small corner of West Sussex.

It was about that time that my wife returned to the house with my friend’s wife. Astonishingly they’d chosen to go out for a meal while the game was on! My wife doesn’t mind football and has come to a few games with me; after all, I know how to treat a lady. However, she was happy to avoid the inevitable noise created by this game. They’d gone for a drink after their meal hoping the game would be over by the time they got back but had seen in the pub that the game had gone to extra time. They immediately retired to another room where my mate’s wife waited ‘patiently’ for the game to finish so she could drive her old man home.

Meanwhile, in the heat of the action, we seemed to be keeping Brentford well at bay. We’ve never a lost a game under Scott Parker after scoring first and we’ve become rather expert at seeing games out. Nevertheless, the insurance of a second goal was much desired and when it came courtesy of another superlative Joe Bryan effort my living room erupted again. We may not have been at Wembley but they may very well have heard us.

Like the classy outfit, we are we let Brentford have a meaningless consolation goal before for the third time in about 20 minutes the assembled masses went bonkers again, with yours truly comfortably having gone the most bonkers of all. Fortunately, there was a chilled bottle of something fizzy to hand as we toasted a fabulous Fulham performance and watched our heroes celebrate. We may not have been there in person but it certainly felt as special to me. Perhaps had we not been to Wembley and won so recently then the night might have been tinged with a little regret. As it is I think I’ve now got 2 Best Days of My Life.