Interview: John Fraser

Image: Ed Lacey/Getty

As we gear up to FA Cup weekend, it’s fitting that our latest Q&A is with one of our heroes from 1975, fullback John Fraser. John made 66 appearances for the club after coming through as a youngster, including a start in the clubs only FA Cup Final to date. Daniel Smith spoke to John to reflect on his Fulham career with a detailed look back at that famous cup run…

DS – Which team did you support growing up and who were your footballing heroes?

JF – Well, I lived across the road from Queens Park Rangers, so I used to go and watch them play as a kid. My heroes were Jimmy Greaves of Spurs and Rodney Marsh, who was at QPR at the time. As I got a bit older and more involved with football, I enjoyed watching Billy Bremner and Dave Mackay.

DS – How did you get the opportunity to sign for Fulham?

JF – We had a very good school football team at Christopher Wren and we won 9-1 in a cup final. After the game, the headmaster called us all in and said that there’s a Fulham scout who wants to have a word with you. It was Eddie Perry who was the chief scout at Fulham at the time and he invited us to train over in Earlsfield for two nights a week after school. It was a process of elimination with many kids being let go but I stayed and eventually signed school boy forms when I was around 13. I was picked for the South East county side not long after and then George Cohen had to retire due to injury and ended up coaching our youth team. I was lucky because I had a purple patch around the time that George took over and he took a liking to me. I was in midfield back then, a position I loved but I was never blessed with much pace. The reason I ended up at right back was because a vacancy came up in the reserves at right back and George offered me the chance. I was happy to play anywhere if it meant going to play in the reserves, so I was excited about the opportunity. Thankfully, I did pretty well, George was happy and he told me that he would help me out with advice as much as he could if I wanted to make the position my own and obviously, George being a World Cup winning right back, I was very happy to give it a go. It’s been my main position ever since! I was very grateful to George for the time he invested in me, one-on-one sessions out on the pitch etc. He improved my game so much and I’ll be eternally grateful to him.

DS – What were the conditions like as an apprentice?

JF – As apprentices, we were allocated 5 or 6 of the pros that we had to look after, clean their boots etc. I remember one of mine was Johnny Haynes. He was a lovely fella. I can’t remember who the others were off the top of my head but the Maestro stands out. We also had other duties like sweeping the terraces, fixing the pitch & getting all the kits ready. Loads of odd jobs like that.

DS – Where does your nickname Sharky come from?

JF – Originally from a school mate, Barry Hunter. I always seemed to be getting bashed on my nose playing football. So, after breaking it playing for the school team, Barry said “if you keep this up, you’ll end up looking like a shark in the water.” Then years later when I was in Italy with Fulham, Mullery picked up on it and made a joke when I was doing the backstroke in the sea that there was a shark coming! It stuck from there.

DS – How was your relationship with Bill Dodgin Jr?

JF – Bill was a lovely guy, he’s sadly passed away now but he was the one who signed me pro. As I say, George Cohen did a lot for me, but it was Bill who introduced me to the first team and gave me my Fulham debut. He was a true gentleman and I had a lot of time for Bill. Eventually I joined up with him again at Brentford and I can’t thank him enough for giving me the chance to turn professional.

DS – Same question for Alec Stock, what was your relationship like with him? Was it a big change from playing under Dodgin Jr?

JF – Yes, it was very different. Occasionally Bill would lose it but generally speaking, he was a quiet, very gentle character who used to love players playing their natural game. He liked you to express yourself and play good attractive football, but he wouldn’t do much of the training, he left that to the coaches. Alec was a different kettle of fish when he came in. I think he’d been a tank commander in the war and he was very sergeant major. When he walked in, everyone went quiet and waited for him to speak. He was one of the last of his kind I would imagine as he really laid the law down. Alec rarely got involved with training either, but he was very knowledgeable about the game and had been successful before he came to Fulham with Queens Park Rangers and Luton and he continued that success with us by getting to the cup final. I was very grateful to both of them. I had two ambitions and they were to be a professional footballer and to play in a cup final, so both managers helped me achieve my ambitions. Alec showed a lot of faith in me, I played in every game from the quarter finals through to the final and as you know Les Strong got injured, so I was given the chance at Wembley playing at left back.

Years later, I saw Alec at Yeovil in the stands and I thanked him properly. He was always known as boss so that’s how I addressed him. He told me that “you waited patiently for your chance and got what you deserved, nice things always come to nice people John” and that meant a lot to me, it’s something I’ll never forget. I had immense respect for both managers.

DS – Before we get onto the famous cup run, you scored your only goal for the club in the same season as we beat Norwich at the Cottage. Do you remember much about it?

JF – I do remember it! We had a free kick half way in the Norwich half. I was at right back that day and I remember Mullers telling me “push on John, you’ll get this” which I did. That in itself was unusual because Stocky would generally shout at me ‘to get back’ because I was too slow to track back into position otherwise! So, the ball was whipped in and cleared out to the corner of the 18-yard box on the right-hand side, it sat up lovely for me, I caught it sweetly and it flew into the corner in front of the Putney End. It was a wonderful feeling to see it hit the back of the net, to hear the roar of the crowd and to put us 2-1 up. There’s no feeling like it! The keeper should probably have saved it but we won’t go down that road today.

DS – At which point during the famous cup run did you believe we could get to the final?

JF – We played Carlisle in the quarter finals and believe it or not, they were a first division side at the time. We were in the second tier, so to go there and win was a big coup, as you can imagine. But I’ve got to be honest, we were under the cosh for most of the game and Peter Mellor in goal had the game of his life. We managed to keep it at 0-0 and as the game progressed, I think all the lads began to get the feeling that they weren’t going to score. So, we grew in confidence and eventually we nicked it with Les Barrett scoring with about 20 minutes to go and we managed to hold on. We all huddled around the radio on the Monday during training to listen to the semi-final draw, it was Arsenal, Birmingham, West Ham and Fulham left in the cup. We were the only second tier side left but Birmingham were the ones struggling in the top division, so I think we were hoping to play them and when we were drawn against them, you start thinking to yourself, ‘it’s just one game away from Wembley’. Once we’d played them in the first match and drew, I knew there was nothing to fear and that we would do it!

DS – Do you remember the scenes at the final whistle when we won the semi-final?

JF – I remember it going into injury time and I was sat on the halfway line next to Bobby Moore and I said to him “it looks like another replay Bob” as I went on the overlap down the right screaming for the ball. Luckily, Alan Slough didn’t give it to me, he lobbed it into the box and John Dowie knocked it down for Mitch to get the last minute goal that we will never forget. It just bobbled into the goal, I couldn’t see if it had gone over the line or not. I don’t think it actually reached the back of the net. It just stopped once it had crossed the line but you then wait anxiously to see if it’s a goal and when I saw the reaction of Mitch and the crowd behind the goal, I can’t describe the feeling. It was sheer and utter pandemonium. I remember dancing along the touchline with a policeman at full time, and then I heard a voice in the crowd shout out “Sharky!” So, I looked up and saw one of our ex-team mates Wilf Tranter in the stands and you could see how proud he was at what we had achieved which was such a lovely feeling. That togetherness is what made Fulham such a special club. The crowd were on the pitch and it took ages to find our way back to the dressing room! I think Strongy and myself were the last two to get back and the room was crowded with loads of people, everyone was in there. Bottles of champagne everywhere and Mullers was up on the treatment table which was in the middle of the room, a bottle of champers in each hand and he turned to us and said, “Sharky, Strongy, I’d like to thank you young lads for doing all the running for myself and Mooro, and thanks for getting us back to Wembley again!” A moment that’s always stuck with me.

DS – Did you feel extra pressure knowing that you were in the starting eleven for the final as a result of Les Strong’s injury?

JF – I was uncertain of whether I would be in the squad, I was still playing in the league games and had played in the quarters and both semi-finals because John Cutbush was out for a while with an injury, but he was on his way back with 2 weeks before the final, so I would have been devastated to miss out. Then Strongy got injured which meant that Cutbush came back in and I went to left back for the final. Maybe it was fate on my part, but it was horrible to see what happened to Les. How unlucky it was that he played in every match and then got injured just before the final. I was so excited but felt so sorry for him at the same time which was a strange situation. I remember Les went to see a specialist in Harley Street a few days before the final to see if there was any chance of him recovering. He then rang me to tell me that he was going to miss the final, wished me luck and told me to enjoy the big day which meant a lot and stopped any awkwardness developing. We had grown up at the club together and he was my mate, so that phone call went a long way. Strongy is a top bloke, the best you can wish for as a team mate. Funny enough I had some of my better games at left back and my whole career was spent covering both flanks as a squad player, so it wasn’t unfamiliar territory. Having said that, this was a final and Les had played in every game, so I did feel a bit of added pressure, but I was so pumped up on adrenalin that it didn’t faze me.

DS – What was it like to play in the FA Cup final?

JF – Going into training every day leading up to the final there was something happening all the time with the media and television crews, it was surreal. But then you walk out at Wembley in front of thousands of people and it suddenly hits you. I used to suffer with pre-match nerves at the best of times and I remember being very nervous. We went out at 1.45pm to test the pitch and see which studs we were going to wear, and they had only just opened the gates, it was about a quarter full and I was already struggling to breath! My legs were like jelly and I thought to myself, ‘if you’re like this now, what are you going to be like at kick-off’?! Cup final day back then meant so much more than it does today. It was a showpiece of the season, watched all around Europe and other parts of the world. It was massive and we were preparing to be centre stage. I get goosebumps now just thinking about it.

DS – Was a lot of the media attention on Bobby Moore ahead of the final because of his association with West Ham?

JF – Well, it’s funny you ask that Dan. When I came in from testing my boots at Wembley an hour before kick-off, Bob was sat in the corner of the dressing room as calm and quiet as you like. Legs crossed, hands behind his head as if it was a Sunday league game or something. He wasn’t fazed by the occasion at all and he kept a very low profile that day before kick-off. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later that it suddenly dawned on me that he must have done that because he knew that all the cameras and limelight would have been on him. Bob was very conscious that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for everyone in the team except for Mullery and himself. So, I think he stayed out of the way to ensure that we got the attention we deserved and that it was Fulham’s day, not Bobby Moore’s day. That just illustrates what a gentleman he was. A lovely, lovely man and a true legend. I don’t think you’ll ever hear anyone say a bad word about him.

DS – Do you have any funny stories you can share?

JF – Yes plenty! The one that sticks out is on cup final day. We had a nightmare on the morning of the final. Stylo the football boot makers signed a deal with Fulham at the start of the season to wear their boots but most of the players didn’t know anything about it. They wanted us to wear their brand new boots in the cup final and there’s no chance you are going to wear new boots on an occasion like that, you wear what you’re used to. So, there was a court case to see if the matter could be resolved because it looked like they could pull the plug on the game. Les Strong was one of those that went along as a Fulham representative and they came to a compromise that five or six players had to block out the logo of the boots they were wearing with black paint. So, I volunteered because it didn’t bother me and I remember Johnny Haynes coming into the dressing room before the match. He’d flown over from South Africa and it brought it home how far I had come. It was only 5 years ago I was cleaning the Maestro’s boots as an apprentice and here I am painting mine ahead of the FA Cup Final! So, here we are an hour or so before kick-off painting our boots, thinking this isn’t ideal and then someone opened up the kit bag and the apprentices had forgotten to put the shin pads in! So, we had to get a policeman to go up Wembley high street on a motorbike to a sports shop and buy a dozen pairs of shin pads. This is now 2.30pm and it was a 3pm kick off! In those days we would cut the shin pads down to fit comfortably in the socks, so it was a mad rush hack sawing 12 pairs of pads down to size 20 minutes or so before the biggest game in the club’s history. You just couldn’t make it up!

DS – Who were your closest mates at the club?

JF – My closest mate was Ernie Howe. I still see and speak to Ernie regularly and he was best man at my wedding. Les Strong and John Mitchell too, as those three were my age group. We came through as apprentices together. I still see Les every time I come down to Fulham and Mitch on golfing days. It’s always great to have a catch up.

DS – Who was the best player that you played alongside at Fulham?

JF – Bobby Moore. 100 percent.

DS – Why did you leave Fulham in the end?

JF – After Wembley, several people had told me over the summer that I played really well in the cup final, plus I had played my part in most of the games during the final run in of the season. So, when we came back the following season, I was hoping to have a chance. But we went out on a preseason tour and I was named as sub. From that moment on my head just dropped. I had been a squad player my whole career, and I thought if I’m not getting a chance off the back of last season, I’ll never be a regular in the team. It was quite demoralizing. So, regrettably, I didn’t try my hardest, I know it’s the wrong thing to do but my head went down, and I thought what’s the point. I was always working hard, doing as I was instructed, being professional and this really knocked the stuffing out of me to be honest. About a month before the end of the season, Alec called me up to his office and told me that they were going to give me a free transfer as it was in my best interest because I wasn’t playing. I spoke to a few clubs; Wimbledon and Aldershot. Burnley was keen but there was no way I was moving up to Burnley. I had the opportunity to sign for the New York Cosmos, but I had only just got married and I didn’t feel it was the right time for a move like that. Then Brentford came in and I was living in Ham at the time which was local and very convenient, so I thought ‘that’ll do me’.

DS – When you joined Brentford, did you receive any grief from their fans for being ex Fulham?

JF – Yes, I did! As soon as I joined there were comments saying that “we don’t want Fulham players at our club.” There were a few ex-Fulham already in the team.Roger Cross was there before me and he used to get a lot of stick from the crowd and then Barry Lloyd joined us. So we all experienced it but, to be honest Dan, Fulham had been my life since I was 14 and it was the only club I knew. So when I went to Brentford it was like chalk and cheese. Fulham in my mind was a great club, that looked after its staff, had a lot of time for its younger players and was really well run. Brentford just wasn’t like that. Don’t get me wrong, the staff and lads at Brentford were friendly and we got on, but it wasn’t the same. Little things like you would turn up for training and have to wear odd socks and a mismatch of training gear and the shirts wouldn’t fit right. Then you’d have to take them home and wash them yourself. It was just a shock to the system for me. Fulham are just a well-run, lovely club and they are my club.

Alec Stock used to say that when you play for this club, we do things in style and Fulham have always been a classy club like that, doing things the right way.

DS – You did the knowledge whilst you were at Brentford, what’s it like being a London cabbie?

JF – I was never interested in becoming a manager or anything like that. I took my coaching badge and was coaching for about seven years either side of my retirement but to be perfectly honest, I got bored of it. I knew a few ex-players that had done the knowledge, Freddy Callaghan in particular and he convinced me to give it a go. I liked the idea of being my own boss and working hours to suit myself, so I did the knowledge whilst I was still playing for Brentford. It was handy because we used to train in the mornings, so I would go to training and then do the knowledge in the afternoons. When I packed up football, I became a cabbie and I’ve done it ever since. I’m 66 now so hopefully a couple more years and I’ll retire. But I love it. I love the freedom. I love the fact I can fit my golf in whenever I like. It’s the ideal job for me.

DS – So, lets get this straight. You were born a stone’s throw from QPR’s Loftus Road, you played for and love Fulham, you also played for Brentford and are a London Cab Driver. Who do you dislike more, Chelsea or Uber?

JF – Haha! I love my football but definitely Uber!

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

JF – Pie, steak and kidney please.