As regular readers of my guff will know I had a brief dalliance with the dark side when I was very young. Before newer converts to TOOFIF turn away in disgust allow me to explain myself.
My Dad was born in 1933 and grew up in Merton Park and told me he started going regularly to football at the end of the war. Although football was still played in the war years he’d been evacuated away from London for a large portion of it. Therefore he started attending games when he was about 12; going to Fulham one week and Chelsea the next. People of his generation tended to do that and it remained the case way into the 1960’s. In those days football was quite affordable and with terracing prevalent, you could always turn up at the gate and pay on the turnstiles. Even though he saw Chelsea play just as often Fulham grew closest to his heart. Ronnie Rooke was his first hero and he told me how gutted he was when the club sold him to Arsenal thinking he was past his best. The fact he rattled in goals for the Gunners as they won the League showed how flawed Fulham’s judgment was in letting him go. It probably did my Dad good that he was exposed to disappointment so soon after he started following the club. To be honest it’s something all Fulham fans have to get used to if they’re in it for the long haul.
My dad married in 1956 and soon after changed career path and started working as a Butcher. Family life and working Saturdays curtailed his visits to football but by then Fulham were well and truly in his heart. He told me he had been fortunate enough to see the amazing cup tie with Newcastle in 1956 when we pushed the holders all the way before succumbing unluckily to a 5-4 defeat. He told me many times it was the best football match he’d ever seen in the flesh.
I was born at the family home in Streatham in 1962 by which time Fulham were in the First Division with the peerless Johnny Haynes very much the star player. I was oblivious to that fact sitting in my pram and it’s only from about 1968 that I remember taking an interest in football, as I do recall watching that year’s Cup final between West Brom and Everton on the telly. I have no idea though what I was doing the day England won the World Cup in 1966, yet over 50 years later I haven’t given up hope that I’ll see us win something one day. A triumph for hope over experience if ever there was one.
I know for a fact that the first football match I ever attended was Johnny Haynes Testimonial match in April 1969. However, I have a better recollection of my dad carrying me on his shoulders through Bishops Park than the match itself. Little did I know what a galaxy of stars were on show and I was also blissfully unaware that Fulham were just about to be relegated for the second year in a row. By then, and for those easily offended look away now, my primary interest in football had been sparked by the Blue half of SW6. Our next door neighbours in Streatham had a son a few years my senior who I looked up to as something of an older brother. He was a huge Chelsea fan and was forever talking about his visits to Stamford Bridge and what an exciting team they had. I therefore decided they were the team I was going to support and informed my dad of the case. As he’d grown up watching Chelsea as well he had no hatred of them so raised no objections. Perhaps as a loving father, he thought that he might spare me a lifetime of pain if I followed a different team to Fulham. That’s not to say he gave up on the idea completely. The first League match I went to was Fulham v Gillingham in the third division in August 1969 and over the next couple of seasons, I saw a few midweek games at the Cottage including 3 or 4 visits in the 1970-1 promotion season. However, by that time I had seen Chelsea win the F.A.Cup on TV, even being afforded the luxury of seeing the first drawn game in colour at my Uncle’s working man’s club in Wimbledon. I managed to nag my dad into taking me to a game at Stamford Bridge the following season, a campaign that culminated in them winning the European Cup Winners Cup. Like most kids of my age, I was very happy to be associated with success and felt superior to those schoolmates who’d decided Leeds were their favourite team. After all, at least Chelsea were comparatively local and I had actually seen them in the flesh.
By the 1971-2 season, the Clarke family had decamped to the leafy suburb of North Cheam which proved to be the game changer that steered me back on the path of righteousness. Although we’d moved house my Dad was still butchering which meant the only chance of seeing a game live was if he’d take me to an evening game. As my mum undoubtedly wore the trousers the chance of that happening on a school night were some way short of watching Lord Lucan ride Shergar down Putney High Street. I’d managed to see a couple of games at my local club Sutton United and I recall my Uncle taking me to Plough Lane to see Wimbledon playing in the Southern League. However, opportunities to watch professional football were few and far between. Fortunately, relief was at hand in the form of one of my dad’s neighbours, Ernie Welch. Some older lags may remember Ernie’s dulcet tones in the Hammy End as he was the type of bloke you could hear long before you saw him. I knew that he was a huge Fulham fan from conversations he’d had with my dad and it came to pass that in December 1971 he offered to take me with him to a game. My Dad was pleased that I could go to a game or two and was probably doubly happy that it involved watching Fulham.
Our house was handily placed close to the start of the 93 bus route in Priory Road and so it was on Saturday 4th December that Ernie called for me at lunchtime to catch the bus to Putney Bridge. Ernie met a few of his old mates on the top deck and my football education was improved by the conversation on the way to the game. My vocabulary also got a bit of a top up as sometimes the presence of a 9-year-old seemed to get forgotten. It all added to the excitement I had about going to a match even though I wouldn’t be seeing my Chelsea favourites. The game that day ended in a 1-0 defeat to Carlisle and although I wasn’t as disappointed as Ernie and co I could still sense their frustration on the bus home. I thoroughly enjoyed the day though and was thrilled when Ernie told my Dad he was happy to take me anytime I wanted to go. I couldn’t wait for the next home game to come round and this time saw a much more entertaining game as Fulham fought out a 2-2 draw with Middlesbrough.
By the new year, Ernie was happy to take me to an away game and I saw us draw 1-1 at QPR in the FA Cup. My Dad managed to come to the replay and after a Roger Cross double saw us through in front of a packed Cottage I was well and truly hooked. From that moment on I considered Fulham were my team and although I retained a residual fondness for Chelsea for a while, it didn’t take long for those feelings to disappear completely. Over the last 45 years or so I’ve been a happy passenger on the Fulham rollercoaster and even though Chelsea have won trophies galore over that time, particularly since the Russian Revolution, I’ve no regrets that Fulham grabbed my heart back in that 1971-2 season. I’m a firm believer that your team chooses you as much as you choose your team and my Kismet moment has made me Fulham forever.
The reason for all this nostalgia was sparked by a visit I made to enemy territory last week. The top man at the firm my son works has a hospitality box at Stamford Bridge. When it isn’t filled by corporate clients he kindly ballots his staff and my boy was lucky enough to win two seats for their game with Swansea. Any misgivings I had about attending were easily overcome by my love of a freebie and I was lucky enough to be my boy’s plus one. To be fair the food was fantastic, the box was luxurious and the drink flowed freely. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, in spite of Chelsea’s victory. For all the splendour of my surroundings though it only served to remind me there is no finer setting in football than Craven Cottage nor a better club to follow than Fulham.
Even though the current form is disappointing I see supporting your team in the same way as marriage. For better or worse, through thick and thin; I’m grateful to say Fulham are stuck with me for life.