Aah, 1991. A great year for music, a warm summer, and a, by the end, pretty bizarre season, even by 80s/90s Fulham standards. It was a season that gave us 18-year-olds in Andy Cole and Corey Browne, Dicks out, Och Aye Don Mackay, Sean Farrell and that agonising climax which saw us just miss out on an unlikely playoff place.
LEAGUE CUP: ROUND ONE (lost 5-3 to Charlton on aggregate)
FA CUP: ROUND ONE (lost 2-0 to Hayes)
AUTOGLASS TROPHY: ROUND TWO (lost 2-0 to Wrexham)
HIGHEST ATT: 8671 vs Bournemouth
TOP GOALSCORER: Gary Brazil – 14 (19 in all competitions)
MY PLAYER OF THE SEASON: Gary Brazil
There were a few contenders during the second half of the season but Brazil’s performances and goals kept our heads above water in the first half of the season, especially during his hot streak across September and October.
GOAL OF THE SEASON: Gary Brazil vs Bolton
A fluid move through midfield left john marshall in space on the right wing. He threaded the ball through to brazil, back to goal who span the defender with his first touch and thumped the ball into the far corner with his second. He’d already scored a sumptuous half volley in the same match to give us the lead in the first half.
BEST HOME MATCH: 2-0 vs Bournemouth
There’s a few contenders, a Friday night win against third-place Huddersfield was outstanding, and the 4-0 against Darlington where we scored a couple of corkers stand out, but that Bournemouth match, in front of a bumper, easter Monday crowd, in glorious sunshine has always been a memorable match for me.
BEST AWAY MATCH: 3-2 v West Bromwich Albion
Again, a few contenders here – the late win at Orient, the back to back wins at Bolton and Bradford, but West Brom wins it because we’d been in poor form, The Baggies had the best home record in the league, and Farrell’s hat-trick was exceptional.
THE BROWNE TRAGEDY
The previous season had gone close to the wire, with a couple of late away wins seeing us avoid the drop. Alan Dicks remained in charge, and the majority of the fanbase expected another season of struggle. A dreadful opening day defeat at Chester was followed up by two more, including a 4-2 first leg, league cup defeat at Upton Park, albeit with Charlton as the opponents. The second leg of that tie finished 1-1, Fulham eliminated, but saw the first appearance of a young attacking midfielder called Corey Browne. It was an exceptional display, capped by a quite sensational goal, and every Fulham fan present knew they had just seen the future of the club. 4 days later he made his league debut at Plainmoor, Fulham registered their first win, but unfortunately, all of this was marred by a horrendous challenge on Browne, a challenge so bad you could hear the 18-year-old’s scream, and the snap of the leg, from the away end. It was a devastating blow, and ultimately, although we didn’t know it at the time, Browne’s second professional appearance would become his last. A sad tale indeed.
Results continued to pick up – promotion chasing Stoke, and West Brom were held away and at home respectively, and Swansea were hammered 3-0 in a match memorable for Martin Pike being assaulted optically by a linesman’s flag. The Stoke game, at the old, intimidating Victoria Ground, was a super match, Andy Cole running riot and scoring his first goal for the club in a 2-2 draw – an individual performance so good that Lou Macari, the Stoke manager, declared it unfair that players like Cole should be allowed in the third tier. Despite the odd setback (yet another 1-0 home defeat to Brentford stands out), the results were good enough to have us hovering between 10th and 16th, and a fair gap from danger. In the middle of October, we really hit our stride. Bradford were despatched at Valley Parade in a ding dong 4-3, a Gary Brazil masterclass saw us win 3-0 at Bolton a week later, Preston were despatched at the cottage and in the Autoglass, Maidstone were hammered 6-2 at their own ground, in front of the lowest ever (non-Covid) gate at a competitive Fulham fixture (under 900 in attendance, of which 2/3 were Fulham), and following a 0-0 draw with Hull, Fulham were unbelievably 7th, a third of the way into the season. Even ‘Dicks Out’ (I’m convinced the sole reason some people attended games was just to be able to chant that) had stopped.
IN A HAYES
A critical game was to follow. Huddersfield – perennially around the playoffs with a strong 3rd tier strikeforce including Phil Starbuck, Iwan Roberts and Iffy Onuora, and a midfield that included former Fulham man Gary Barnett – away on a Tuesday night, gave us the opportunity to climb above them – a win would guarantee us moving into the top 6. It started well – Onwere giving us an early lead, but we collapsed in driving Yorkshire rain and lost 3-1. The gap to the top 6 reopened, and optimism faded, but what was to follow was much worse than we thought possible. Hartlepool, mid-table, were next up, Bryan Honour, a man who always looked like he was 50, orchestrating the match for Pool, and we lost again, 2-0. It was fine though. The next we had non-league opposition (and relatively local ones), Hayes to come to the cottage. A comfortable win, and back on track, surely?
Now, we’ve had some humiliating defeats in our time. We will continue to do so. Hayes didn’t play us off the park, at all – they took their goals well – we huffed and puffed and suffered from profligate finishing, but, ultimately, this was an absolute shambles. With 10 minutes to go, 2-0 down at home to non league opposition, I remember Simon Morgan looping a ball down the right flank, and two Fulham players – both who could have got to the ball and would have been clean through, stopped chasing and stood hands on hips looking perplexed. Peter Scott went mental, and the remaining home fans in the ground turned on Dicks vociferously. To this day I’m astonished the board allowed him to stay for a further couple of games.
Those games were a 2-1 home defeat to a Preece/Francis inspired Stockport (also notable for containing Andy Coles last goal of his loan stint, a lovely cushioned volley), and a 3-1 defeat at Feethams, Darlington, notable only for the fact that our opponents were comfortably the worst team in the league and the fact that Nick Cusack became the second ‘future’ player from the Micky Adams promotion team, to score against us for an opposing side.
And with that, the plug was pulled. Dicks Out had actually happened, Ray Lewington stepped in whilst a new manager was being sought – he caretook just one match, a 3-1 defeat at promotion-chasing Birmingham in the last fixture before Christmas – which dropped us down to 20th in the league, a place and two points above relegation. It was almost unthinkable that 6 weeks before we had been on the edge of the playoffs and in sparkling form. The new manager had a massive job in the second half of the season, just to keep us from falling into the bottom tier for the first time in our history. So Santa brought us Don Mackay.
DON MACKAY’S BLACK AND WHITE ARMY!
Santa brought us two presents, in fact. Sean Farrell – a bustling, 22-year-old striker, who was getting games at top-flight Luton (his only top-flight league goal came at Stamford Bridge), arrived, initially on loan (but soon turned permanent to the tune of 100k) early enough to make his debut on boxing day vs Torquay. He scored a textbook header in the first match of the Mackay era to seal a 2-1 win in a match where Torquay’s Justin Fashanu was red-carded. We followed that up by surging into a 2 goal lead against relegation rivals Chester, only to allow, frustratingly, the opposition to steal a point, Graham Abel nodding in two identical set-piece headers at the Putney end in the last minute of the game. We headed for a new years day trip to the Hawthorns next – against a promotion-chasing West Brom, who hadn’t lost a home match for over a year. Despite cautious optimism over our start under Mackay, few gave us a chance of a positive result, but our new striker caught fire, scoring a perfect hat-trick as we ran out 3-2 winners. Mackay endeared himself further to the fans by showing ruthlessness with his subs – despite leading 2-1 at halftime, John Finch was having a torrid match and was hooked at the interval.
A couple of setbacks followed, and we were still looking over our shoulders. Then, at the back end of January, everything changed. A sequence of results started, that remains one of the most remarkable turnarounds to a season in memory. In the last 22 games of the league campaign, we lost just 3 times, with those defeats coming with an almost unbelievable symmetry. Each time, we went unbeaten for 6 games and lost the 7th. 3 times in a row. The first, was a critical one, although we didn’t realise it at the time – David Alcock nodding in a winner for Peterborough at the cottage. This result followed directly on from a brilliant win at Reading, at their old Elm Park ground, with Farrell and Eckhardt scoring within 40 seconds of each other to clinch a 2-0 victory. Despite the Peterborough defeat, we were now firmly ensconced in lower mid-table, with relegation looking unlikely. Another 6-game unbeaten run, in which we didn’t concede a single goal, and contained a win over 2nd placed Huddersfield, again ended on the 7th fixture – a Friday night defeat at Stockport (again, a team in the playoffs) the setback this time.
RACE FOR THE PLAY-OFFS
By this point, we hovered between 10th and 12th and had an 8 point gap to the playoffs. Our fixtures looked ok, Swansea away, Reading and Bury at home, before a crunch period at, and just after Easter, where we would play away to Orient, who were 8th, home to Bournemouth, who were 7th, and finally, away at Brentford, before the season closed against mid-table opposition, Bradford, at the cottage.
We started well enough – 7 points from the first three, even allowing for Martin Pike to play half a match in goal after an injury to Stannard against Bury (we had gone 4-0 up before the injury, and ended up winning 4-2), which left us poised to take on successive must-win fixtures. Because of the sides positions in the league, and the points gap which we were still desperately trying to overcome, even draws didn’t really work. Anything other than a win, in any of those matches, effectively ended our charge.
The first match, at Orient on Easter Saturday, was extremely one-sided. Orient, led by Andy Jones up front, supported by an irrepressible Ricky Otto and Kenny Acheampong put us under constant pressure, and we barely got out of our half. With 15 minutes to go, a rare sortie into the final third saw Gary Brazil thump an exquisite 20 yarder against the crossbar. Time stood still as the ball rebounded to virtually the penalty spot. Sean Farrell, at his predatory best, reacted quickest and planted a header, off the rebound, into the back of the net. It was absolute delirium on the away terrace. Orient couldn’t find an equaliser in the remaining minutes (quarter of an hour seemed like 3 weeks), and part 1 was ticked off. The gap was now down to 4 points, with 3 games remaining.
2 days later, we hosted Bournemouth. It was a bumper crowd of about 8k, with Fulham fans genuinely starting to believe. Bournemouth brought a good crowd, and, driven on by a young Efan Ekoku, had the better of things for much of the match, played in glorious sunshine. They hit the woodwork twice – one, an instinctive 20-yard drive from Ekoku skidded off the post when it looked in all the way, but with 20 to go, we were still in it. We were starting to get forward more often, and in the 74th minute, a mindless lunge on Julian Hails on the left side of the penalty box saw us given a penalty, which Gary Brazil despatched with confidence. To our credit, we continued to probe, and, 10 minutes later, Farrell raced onto a through ball, going clear of a tiring Bournemouth defence, rounded the keeper, and slid home. His celebration was memorable, racing to the Hammersmith end, and scaling the fence (younger fans won’t remember the ends being fenced off) to triumphantly hold his arms aloft in the glorious sunshine.
It’s funny – a goal that, eventually counted for nothing, in a third division match 30 years ago, remains a standout, memorable moment for me. The gap was now down to 1, and crucially, the two wins for us had also removed 2 of our 4 potential rivals for the last playoff spot from the reckoning. Our next match was at Griffin Park, against a Brentford team who would then travel to Peterborough in the final game of the season – who were the team we had to catch.
Before we get to that Brentford match, the day before it was played, was pivotal. Our game against Brentford was to be played at lunchtime on the Sunday, and our rivals for the playoffs – Stockport, and Peterborough, both won on the Saturday, which not only cranked up the pressure, but meant that, with goal difference taken into account, we had to win both of our matches, and one of those two lose their last one. We were 4 behind Peterborough, and 3 behind Stockport, who had a goal difference some 20 or so better than ours. Frustratingly, both clubs had done the double over us that season – a single point, in any of those 4 games, could have seen things pan out differently.
The Fulham end, as was often the case, was absolutely heaving at Griffin Park. For 15 minutes, spurred on by a raucous away support, it seemed ok. And then our world caved in. Gayle. Holdsworth. Blissett. Booker. One after another. 4 goals in 21 minutes (the first two coming seconds apart) left us 4 down at halftime and our playoff hopes in complete tatters. I was devastated. Many others too, I’m sure, but it didn’t stop a tremendous show of support, for the whole team, but especially Mackay, throughout the second half. It was a procession by then, of course, and Brentford settled for 4. Less bitter now, I can look back at that day, and point out what a very talented Brentford team that was, especially upfront, and with the tree-like Terry Evans marshalling the back four. They deserved the title that season and clinched it at Peterborough on the final day, whilst we played out a meaningless 2-1 win at home in one of our regular ‘last ever game at the cottage’ final games of the season, failing to secure the 27-0 win that might have pipped Stockport to the final spot (it wouldn’t matter anyway, Stockport won).
Mackay was heaved off the pitch on supporters shoulders that day, a new messiah found. We couldn’t help but have hope for the new season. Mackay was a divisive figure at Fulham, and probably still is to those that remember or care – some, like me, remembering that first, glorious half-season, or the run of form that had pulled us clear of danger in the 10 matches before he was sacked, whilst others will point to the relegation of 93/94 or the inconsistency of 92/93. I may even write a review of those campaigns another day, but taking 91/92 in isolation, my memories of the Mackay element will always remain fond. That doubleheader at Easter, which had seemed so, so impossible a couple of months before, seemed like something from Roy of the Rovers. 6 years later Al Fayed would enter the fray and the Fulham we knew would become something completely different, but that snapshot in time, Farrell stood, in full Christ the Redeemer pose, on the fence at the Hammersmith end, had reminded us all of why we loved our club. We’d risen from the ashes of the Hayes debacle, and once more, had hope.