Interview: Ron Watts (94-year-old fan)

Focus’ Daniel Smith had the honour of speaking to fellow Fulham supporter Ron Watts recently. Ron, who is 94 years young, remembers going to watch Fulham well before the Second World War. In fact, his first game was back in 1934. His memories of watching the Whites plus his knowledge of the club are incredible…

DS – Okay, let’s get started how did you become a Fulham supporter?

RW – I was about 10 the first time I went for climbing about and misbehaving! I watched the game but didn’t appreciate the quality of the players at the time. [Ronnie] Rooke was extremely popular. If you were a Fulham boy, you supported Fulham. There was no interest in Chelsea or QPR or Brentford, they didn’t even come into your mind.

I was born in Fulham; my father and grandfather supported Fulham, too, back when they were in the Southern League. I remember my father kept the newspaper articles that recorded our promotion to the Football League proper but they were lost unfortunately and I was never educated on Fulham’s past. You’ve got to remember that back then kids were supposed to be seen and not heard. My grandfather never once had a conversation with me; I used to pick up things in snippets, overhearing him speak to others. He and his eldest son were massive Fulham supporters and lived right opposite the cemetery. You could walk through the cemetery and you were in Fulham Palace Road with all those roads that lead down to the Cottage, and that was their ritual. Then we moved away from my grandfather into our own house but stayed in Fulham, still within walking distance of the ground. So, we’ve always been in and around. We used to go in the Crabtree sometimes before kick-off and I would always go into the Hammersmith End in those days.

I wasn’t close to my father; it was different in those days ’cos money was hard to come by. My father never once took me to a Fulham game – how about that? And that’s despite knowing that I went to Fulham, too. He would see me there on many occasions, but we never went together because he wouldn’t pay the money, and it was about three [old] pence to get in. I don’t think he liked me very much; he preferred my brother!

DS – How different was Fulham pre-war compared with when the Football League reformed after the hostilities were over?

RW – Pre-war, there wasn’t much concrete around the Cottage; the terraces were packed dirt with a wooden fascia and in those days, you could walk right around the ground if it wasn’t too busy – which it often was ’cos they had a good following in those days. There was only the one stand, the rest was all open. That’s when I used to misbehave etc, before the war as a kid. After the war, I lived near the Fulham recreation ground. It was a three-storey house shared between families and there were a husband and a son on one of the floors who were just as fanatical as my family were about the Club. I used to go to the Cottage with them. The bloke on the top floor was also Fulham because we were all Fulham boys. In North End Road there’s a market and in those days all of the stalls were run by local boys. North End Road leads to Stamford Bridge and all of the lads running the market were Fulham supporters despite being two minutes up the road from Chelsea’s ground because you always supported Fulham! Chelsea always had a bigger fan base though but they were in the First Division in the forties – despite being late on the scene with little history compared to Fulham, they were always a bigger club. Before the war, we used to bunk in and go as a group of mates but not with my family. You paid on the turnstiles on Stevenage Road; you were rich if you went in the stand back then! In those days there was no shelter, and no stands; it was all open other than the Stevenage Road stand. There was a bank at the back to block off the river and a few railings but not too much, you’ve got to remember that health and safety didn’t exist back then.

During the war, football was curtailed and I didn’t really know much about the ‘game’ beforehand. I played a bit in the Air Force and after the war, I understood the game much better. The crowds were enormous when football returned because we had been starved of it for so many years. During the war, they tried to produce a bit of entertainment for the crowd and they came up with the London Cup, which was quite restricted. It was restricted to crowd size cos you weren’t allowed crowds of more than 10,000 because of air raids. They used to borrow players who were on leave from the army and Chelsea borrowed Ronnie Rooke to play against a Russian side called Moscow Dynamo. They beat Chelsea 10-0! In the end, Moscow Dynamo’s never lost a game, drew a couple but they were too good for our sides.

I was transferred to central India eventually to a station called Jubbulpore which had been a station since the Victorian days so it was steeped in history. But I think they’ve altered the name now. There was a station team and they were very good. They insisted that every station had a team actually, it was taken very seriously and we all had our own grounds. I was talking to this bloke in the team one day and he reckoned he was a Fulham player. I told him I’d supported Fulham for years and said “I’ve never heard of ya” and I assumed he was lying. First home game after the War they started the league as quick as they could and when they ran out who should be in goal? Dougie Flack! He was the chap that I was arguing within India, he then went on to play in most games of the first promotion season in 1948-49. So, he was telling the truth after all! Taught me to not be so cocky!

After the war, at half-time, they introduced some entertainment allowing the kids to climb on to the pitch and have a kick-about. The crowd would get into it and cheer if the kids scored a goal. Not structured like today, if kids fancied getting on they would shut their eyes to it for a few seasons but eventually they put a stop to it for some reason, don’t know why because it was sometimes more entertaining than the match!

Altogether I think there were 14 Fulham players who died in both wars; they didn’t pay tribute when football returned like they would nowadays. It was a weird feeling, there were so many who died so footballers weren’t given specific tributes. They had a player called Tomkins who was a very good player and he died in the Second World War, I remember him in my early days and sadly he never returned to the Cottage when it all started up again.

A lot of the players worked for Deans Blinds who were based in Putney; Arthur Stevens worked there. And some of the players had to be labourers when the stand was being built to bump up their wages because they weren’t paid enough to survive on that income alone.

DS – What about any funny stories about following Fulham?

RW – Well there are a few stories that spring to mind, not sure how funny they are though. Maurice Cook was another centre-forward who scored some important goals for Fulham. An amusing true story from back then was a discussion that he had with the then manager, Frank Osborne, about wages. I don’t remember figures but players were paid a certain amount in the winter and a reduced amount in the summer back then. This was normal practice but Cook had queried why Johnny Haynes was paid more than him, the manager told Cooke that it was because “Haynes is a better player than you”. Cook’s reply was “not in the summer he isn’t!” – I suppose he had a point!

Arthur Stevens was a very good winger. Fulham were playing a Cup-tie in January 1946 and had quite a few injuries so they decided to play Arthur at centre-forward for the game. Prior to this Arthur had greatly admired an expensive cashmere camel coat that Tommy Trinder wore so Trinder said to Stevens, “If you get a hat-trick I’ll give you the coat.” Arthur obliged with a hat-trick that day and he got his coat. I was there that day and they were super – I think it was versus Bristol Rovers, but I’m not certain about that.

Another one for you: Fulham sold Rooke because he was getting on a bit and they wanted the money. Arsenal were desperate and struggling so they wanted a goal scorer and Fulham assumed he was on his way out. So, he left, he scored the goals to keep them up and the next season was the top scorer in the league! His goals helped Arsenal win the First Division. Typical of Fulham that was. Rooke was a bit like Jimmy Greaves, he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Fulham only got peanuts for him as well!

There was a famous supporter when I was a kid, not a celebrity or anything, just well-known to the crowd. He used to shout “keep it on the island Fulham!” He was a coalman who stood in the Enclosure by the Cottage. I never met him, but you always heard him several times a game, no matter what the scenario was, without fail: “Keep it on the island, Fulham!”

DS – How did you get into the ground in the early days, was it pay on the gate?

RW – As kids, we had two methods of getting in, one was getting down below the fans’ legs and under the turnstiles. The other was to “Drop the Thames” – at low tide, we would drop down from Bishops Park towpath, walk round to the back of the Riverside Bank and climb up into the ground. There were no stands or fences in place but it could only be done at low tide. In those days it was about 6d to get in, a fortune to us kids and not as much fun!

DS – What do you remember from our promotion season (to the First Division) in 1948-49?

RW – I remember that Arthur Rowley played a big part in that promotion. That year West Brom were top of the league and had beaten Fulham at home, the only home game they lost all season. Fulham played West Brom away and they beat them in a raging snowstorm. As I recall. it put Fulham one point behind West Brom. The last three games of the season were all local derbies, Spurs and West Ham. I don’t recall the other team but we didn’t lose, we drew at Spurs, Bob Thomas scored, and the headline the next day was “Bob bobs up again”!

On the day Fulham were promoted to the First Division, Frank Osborne, who was then manager, couldn’t cope with the pressure of the last game of the season versus West Ham, so he walked out of the Cottage and paced up and down Stevenage Road until the game was over!

DS – What do you remember about our record attendance game against Millwall? What were the conditions like for fans watching matches in such high numbers?

RW – The crowds always passed the kids down to the front. There were railings around the pitch and they did that because otherwise, the kids couldn’t see. They were always really good to the kids back then, lifting us above their heads. If you wanted to climb down to the river you could, but the bank was there to block it off. The conditions were naughty back then – they would get crowds of 30,000 every game for a while because we’d been starved of football for so long during the war. It could be very cramped and every team back then had a big following.

For the Millwall record attendance, they had to shut people out ’cos there were too many! It was Millwall’s first game after promotion so loads of their lot wanted to be there. People were trying to break the gate down to get in, the gates are still there actually by the Cottage and God knows how many were there in the end ’cos loads broke in after kick-off. All fans in those days mixed together, there was no designated away end. The crowd were potty for football back then, every club got massive gates. That Millwall record was for an ordinary Second Division game, the 25,000 capacity they have now was a very ordinary crowd back then; we had a much bigger fanbase than we have now.

I remember once, can’t remember the game, I queued to get into the ground from Putney Bridge! The queue went over the bridge, down the stairs and through the park onto Stevenage Road; you can’t even imagine it now which is a good thing.

DS – Did the Club provide any match day food or beverages available to purchase?

RW – Not from what I can remember. I only lived down the road so I didn’t need to eat or drink as I would be home before long. It wasn’t like it is now with burgers and pies on every corner. I don’t even remember them selling beer in the early days. They had a very popular ice-cream stall as you came out of the park on to Stevenage Road on that corner. It did well on match days, their ice cream was delicious. It was run by Italians and it was there for years but that’s as good as it got.

Didn’t have much of anything in those days. Toilets were the worst! There were nowhere near enough toilets to cater for the number of people in attendance. You couldn’t queue on a busy day unless you wanted to miss the whole match. You went anywhere you could find. The toilets weren’t cubicles, they were a giant urinal. God knows if you needed a number two… good luck to ya! Plenty of bushes around I suppose… Must have been a mare for the female fans.

DS – What does the Cottage mean to you and at what point in your life has the ground looked at its best?

RW – The Cottage means everything to me, I really love it. I think it looks its best now with all the stands complete. The Cottage looks immaculate still, which is wonderful and very important. I wish I was able to go as often as I used to, but I’m 94 now so don’t like going on my own. Last game I went to I sat in a box when they played Everton. Our American centre-forward scored a header [McBride]. I liked him; a good player. We won 1-0 I think in the Great Escape season.

DS – It was my fascination with Ronnie Rooke that prompted your daughter to contact me to tell me about you and your knowledge of the club. What was he like as a player, and is there anyone more recently that you could liken him to for his style of play? Just how good was he?

RW – Rooke was an old-fashioned type of forward; he had a terrific shot with both feet. He wasn’t particularly big or tall; he was an ugly sod who looked more like a boxer than a footballer.

I used to see him on the corner of Fulham Palace Road and Lillie Road, there was a cafe and he used to go in there for breakfast and I’d bump into him in there. It wasn’t like it is now, they were approachable back then, they lived an ordinary life like the rest of us. He came to Fulham from Crystal Palace in the mid-1930s and soon became very popular, he had a very strong shot with either foot; very bow-legged he was. Always gave 100 per cent for the team. When he got into his early thirties he was finding it very hard, a marked man on heavy pitches. I was at Fulham one Christmas day when he was sent off (the only time in his career). He had been given a very hard time by the visiting team – forwards were not given much protection from the ref back then.

I recall a story from back then. When he was in the bath after a match, the manager Frank Osborne came in and said to him, “There’s someone here from Arsenal and they want a word with you.” Ronnie thought they were winding him up, but it was true. They asked him if he would like to join them at Arsenal. They were going through a bad time and were in the League danger zone. He signed, and his goals got them out of trouble. Ron became very popular at Arsenal.

DS – What songs did the fans sing in your early days? Was the culture different with singing?

RW – They didn’t have a choir like they do now at the back of the Hammersmith End. It was always a friendly crowd, nice atmosphere and nobody had a bad word to say about Fulham, which hasn’t really changed. But they weren’t a loud crowd; to be honest, I don’t think we ever have been.

DS – Has the style and conditions in football made the game better or worse as a spectacle?

RW – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the boots they used to wear in those days? They were thick leather and the studs were leather, too. They were as solid as a rock! What they used to do on buying a new pair of boots was to put the boots on and stand in a bucket of water so that the boots would mould to your foot. They had big toecaps that were rock hard too; you didn’t want to get kicked by one of them! Football is better now, much quicker and fitter. Not sure about entertainment though – it was great back then. You’ve got to remember the boots and the ball. The ball soaked up water in the rain and instead of being 15 ounces it would weigh 15 pounds – you can’t imagine the difference. The pitches weren’t like today’s carpets, they were mud heaps. especially come winter. So, I think the talent was greater in those days.

Footballers have always been paid pretty well. Not silly money like today, but always more than the average man. Don’t quote me on this but I think it was £8 in the summer and £10 in the winter, with £2 for a win and £1 for a draw. I mean, compare the £10 with what my father earned, £3! So, they’ve always been paid okay even before the days of Johnny Haynes earning £100 quid a week.

Another notable change off the pitch is the number of women who go to games now. There weren’t many back then, and it’s brilliant to see so many more going now. They can be as fanatic as the men, and probably get more involved than the blokes!

DS – You mentioned that you worked on the buses in the sixties and often saw players on their way to training. I’m a bus driver so I find this really fascinating. Did you ever make them pay!? I suppose you had conductors back then? Which players got on your bus?

RW – Well I was a conductor actually, I was on the 74 bus mainly. It went from Putney Heath to Camden Town and came out of Putney Bridge garage. Bobby Robson got on my bus a few times.

DS – Did you make him pay?

RW – Yes, of course! I was on the 14 route, too. Later, I had a forward, a Scotsman called Jimmy Bowie on the bus. He came from Chelsea ’cos in those days Stamford Bridge had a dog track around it and he was a bit of a gambler, so he came to Fulham to get away from it all. He was quite a good servant to Fulham, eventually going to Watford and I got to know him quite well personally. We used to drink together in the Greyhound, off the Fulham Palace Road. He had an Irish friend who played also for the Club, but I can’t for the life of me remember his name. He was a troublesome lad who caused the Club problems. They tried to get to the bottom of what was wrong ’cos he was a good player but he had no stamina whatsoever. In the end, they decided that the problem was his teeth so they had him remove all of them. Can you imagine? A young lad with no teeth. And it didn’t make a lot of difference in the end, poor sod. Now no stamina or no teeth! I remember him scoring in a draw at Stamford Bridge in the Cup, and they had to come back to Fulham for a midweek replay. In those days we didn’t have floodlights; anyhow, we beat them!

DS – What are your memories of the ’75 Cup Final?

RW – For the Cup Final Fulham was covered in black and white. Every house had flags and scarves in the windows. You can imagine North End Road, where they were all fanatics – covered it was. I didn’t go to the game, sadly. I watched it on our 12-inch television [laughing]. It was very special – you didn’t have any competition in those days; it was the BBC and nothing else, so everyone was watching the game. The roads off Fulham Broadway had black and white bunting across the streets – it was a really exciting day, but it’s a shame they couldn’t quite do it. The keeper had a bit of a mare, didn’t he…?

DS – Can you put together a customised best XI from your whole life supporting Fulham – best keeper, best right-back etc…?

RW – I’ve gone for a very attacking team.

Keeper: Tony Macedo
Right-back: George Cohen
Centre-half: Jim Taylor
Left-back: Jim Langley
Midfield: Eddie Lowe
Midfield: Alan Mullery
Right-wing: Arthur Stevens
Inside-right: Bobby Robson
Centre-forward: Bedford Jezzard
Inside-left: Johnny Haynes
Left-wing: Graham Leggat

Subs: Roy Bentley, Les Barrett, Charlie Mitten, Bob Thomas, Allan Clarke and Louis Saha. That Sessegnon will be a star, but it’s early days for him in a team like this.

DS – Any other stories or memories for us?

RW – They had a centre-half called Roy Bentley who was a centre-forward when he came to Fulham. He’d played for Chelsea and left Newcastle for top money. He was unbelievable in the air and having been a centre-forward himself, he knew how to beat other forwards when he was put into defence. You weren’t beating him in the air, that’s for sure. He was a great player. When he retired he did an interview on one of those football programmes on TV and he said of his entire career he enjoyed his time at Fulham the most. I love hearing that, it’s really nice, isn’t it?

Fulham were always a mid-table Second Division side in the early days and weren’t very ambitious as a club. They had a brilliant forward line of Jezzard, Haynes and Robson and you had Arthur Stevens on the wing. At the time they had a lot of showbiz people on the Board, which is how Tommy Trinder got into it and they only cared about their dividends. The forward three were so good that one season they scored 100 goals between them and yet we were still only mid-table because the Board didn’t invest in better defenders. We were such an attacking team that the defence was very exposed the majority of the time; 50 or so years on and you could say the same about the team last season.
I remember Jimmy Hill saving the Club. He was a decent player, but saving the Club is what he should be remembered for after that bastard Ernie Clay tried to mess it all up. If it hadn’t had been for Jimmy and the Muddymans we could have joined up with QPR! Fulham Park Rangers – horrible! Bastard that Clay was!

Fulham keeper Ernie Beecham was a player everyone raved about. He was tipped to be the next England goalie. He played in a game against Exeter and was kicked in the head by their winger, named Death. He actually broke his neck, I believe and wasn’t the same afterwards, eventually fading out of football. Years later I met his daughter by pure chance and she told me that he never spoke about his football career; really sad for someone who had so much potential.

Tommy Trinder was running things, he was popular as a showman. He fronted Sunday Night at the London Palladium on the telly. One Sunday, Tony Macedo was on the show with him as a guest. He did a demonstration of goalkeeping – they brought a goal onto the stage and he demonstrated some of his exercises. It was one of the things that made him a popular name in the league at the time, as well as being a top keeper.

DS – Do you remember where the players trained in those days?

RW – The routine of Fulham in those days was that they didn’t train on Mondays; Tuesdays it was exercises on the pitch; Wednesdays, a low-key practice; Thursdays general fitness work, all rather low key; Fridays it was a case of taking it easy and nobody trained after 12 noon; then Saturday it was match day. The team went for lunch at the pub on the corner of Putney Bridge and New Kings Road, or several of the players would go to Bishops Park to play tennis and eat lunch in the park.

DS – If you could reverse one result in our history that didn’t go our way what would it be and why?

RW – There was a cup-tie at the Cottage versus Newcastle. We were 3-0 down and came back to 3-3. It was exciting to come back and really built our hopes up of keeping the momentum and winning the game. But Ian Black the keeper was bundled into his own goal when he caught the ball and the goal was allowed to stand for Newcastle to win the game. It was a poor decision by the ref and would definitely not have stood in today’s game. Would have liked to go on and win that one – it’s not often you win after being three-down.

DS – Do you have a favourite match and why?

RW – Favourite match was the Arthur Stevens hat-trick game I’ve already spoken about. They played some fantastic football that day. It was also great beating Man Utd when Bobby Charlton was playing for them; we were really good that day.

DS – Favourite player and why?

RW – Haynes was the best. He sulked a lot because the others weren’t on his wavelength, but he was a top player. My favourite was a winger who had played for Man Utd before joining us: Charlie Mitten. A good player, brilliant in fact! I liked watching him ’cos he was so elegant and could run with the ball, he was very exciting to watch.

DS – Favourite goal, and why?

RW – Alan Mullery’s volley against Leicester City in the FA Cup was the best – what a strike! Bedford Jezzard scored a few good ’uns too, but I can’t think of a specific one.

DS – Best and worst managers, and why?

RW – Well, the majority of them were much of a muchness. I liked Frank Osborne in the early years, he was a good servant to the club as a player and then as a manager. Micky Adams was very good, too, and a key figure in Fulham’s history. The worst would be Vic Buckingham – I just didn’t warm to him at the time.

DS – What would you say is your proudest moment supporting the club?

RW – Proudest moment was the West Ham game at the Cottage I’ve spoken about already to get promoted in 1948-49 for the first time. It was a very special day and the atmosphere was like never before. It was the first time Fulham had been out of the Second Division. News came through in the last game of the season that West Brom had lost, which meant that Fulham were champions. So the crowd climbed over the railings at full-time when the players had gone off and we gathered around the Cottage on the pitch. The players came onto the balcony of the Cottage and the crowd cheered them, singing songs and waving. It went on for ages – it was so special and they couldn’t get rid of us in the end. Nobody wanted to go home!

DS – Where do you see the club in five year’s time?

RW – Well they owed a lot to Al Fayed as it was his money that got them to the top. They started playing great football especially when they had that young Saha up front – what a player he was! Now they’ve sunk a bit. I don’t have much time for the way the Club is being run at the moment, and that gap between the Championship and the Premier League is quite big now. It’s not as easy as it was before when they pissed it under Al Fayed. I think they will still be around mid-table in this league in five years. Okay, we might be in the top flight if we are lucky, but on the other hand, I don’t think we’ll go down. Fulham are one of those clubs that will always survive at this level; this is where we’ve always been pretty much.

DS – Pie or pasty, which filling?

RW – Oh, pie – steak and kidney please!

DS – Ron, it’s been an honour to speak to you. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

RW – If you ever need to ask me anything else, ring me anytime. I’m still a supporter at heart mate, even if I am 94 and don’t go anymore. I’m still as keen as I was in my prime, and the Club means the world to me. The family still carry it on, my daughter and granddaughter are fanatics, which is great for me. It doesn’t matter your age, you never stop loving Fulham.