On this day, 62 years ago, I went to Craven Cottage for the first time. This was the second professional football match that I had attended. On the 17th September I had been taken to see Chelsea, the reigning league champions of England, play Aston Villa. The game that day ended 0-0. Not seeing any goals was a huge disappointment to this 6-year-old. In those days, with Saturday afternoon public entertainment low on the ground, it was not uncommon to support a couple of local teams. Strange as it sounds now, many chaps went to Arsenal one week and Spurs the next. In the case of my father & uncle, they went to Chelsea & Fulham. So when, 3 weeks later, I was taken to Fulham and saw them score 5 unanswered goals against Hull, I declared that I only had interest in Fulham – despite their playing in Division 2 – from that day on.
I can’t say that I honestly remember too much about the Fulham v Hull game beyond the scoreline. What remains for me from my first Fulham match experience are the memories of what it was like going to a game at Craven Cottage. The record books show that 21,207 folk attended that game of October 1955. This was by no means a sell-out. However, compared to Stamford Bridge where greyhound racing took place until 1968, Craven Cottage was a very compact stadium. The closeness of the pitch, the presence of Craven Cottage, squeezed into the corner between the Stevenage Road & Putney stands and the stadium location on the north bank of the Thames further enhanced its intimacy. The record books show that the largest crowd to attend a game at Craven Cottage was the 49,335 that saw Fulham play Millwall in 1938. However even in the 1950s, with standing on terraces still at three ends of the ground, games often attracted crowds of around 45,000. It is very likely though that attendances were even understated not only for the purposes of tax-reporting but also because many youngsters like myself entered the ground not through the turnstiles but over them – for the price of a ‘tanner’ (sixpence) or so, which was pocketed by the chap at the gate. I can’t remember quite when an actual ticket was first purchased for my attendance but it was certainly not for a couple of years yet. I certainly can recall matches where the ground was so full that people were sitting on the ground on the small track surrounding the pitch. Also, the crush of people as the crowds exited the ground.
The next season, 1956-57 my father & uncle also abandoned Chelsea, ostensibly following the transfer of their favourite player Roy Bentley from Stamford Bridge to Craven Cottage. When Fulham gained promotion in 1959, they bought three season tickets in Stand G for the 59/60 season and my days of ‘flying’ rather than walking into the ground were very truly over. It is hard to imagine in today’s global village the relative scarcity of intimate information available to fans about their clubs. Sure the back pages kept tabs on the major news of the bigger 1st division clubs, but smaller & lower league mostly received a skimpy match report at the back of the Sunday paper. The only match shown live on television was The Cup Final, with short highlights featuring occasionally in news cinemas. There was some live radio coverage from the grounds on Saturday afternoons but it was the epic BBC Live Programme’s 5 o’clock Sports Report programme that brought the full set of Saturday’s results to football fans. However, a unique media feature of those days was the publication on Saturday evenings of a football-special paper – in London’s case The Evening Standard & The Evening News. At around 6 o’clock queues would form at corner shops, awaiting the arrival of the news van that transported these footballing tablets of stone to the faithful and the hopeful. From Monday to Friday football fans of smaller clubs survived without much more until Saturday came round again. I felt this sense of isolation more for the fact that we lived in North London and what football banter there was, in the playground of my school, centred on Arsenal & Spurs. Even when we ascended to The First Division in 1959, supporting Fulham was a very minority occupation in my neck of the woods. It also needs to be said that we weren’t supporters who went to the pub before & after the game; so even that sort of mingling with fans didn’t exist for us. So when, on Saturday afternoons, we settled into our seats in Stand G it really did feel like we were getting together with our football family. This is still the case today among season ticket holders – I now have season tickets at The Hammersmith End of the ground – but in those days the feeling was much more intense. I particularly remember the Greek fellow who sat behind my father, who chain-smoked throughout the game and who over the years burned many a hole in my father’s various coats. We also had 2 celebrities who sat right in front of us: Harry Fowler & Kenny Lynch. As I recall it, Kenny used to get quite annoyed when things didn’t break Fulham’s way but Harry was more laid back about things.
Looking up the Fulham v Hull match in Fulham Facts & Figures, I am amazed to find out that the Fulham captain Bedford Jezzard scored all 5 goals on that day. Perhaps it is the fact that Jezzard’s footballing career ended the following summer, after breaking a leg during a pre-season tour to South Africa, that I have no real recollection of him at all. The player that I do most fondly recall from that time, if not that particular match, was Johnny Haynes. Without a doubt, Johnny Haynes was Fulham’s stand-out player from those times and, most would agree, Fulham Football Club’s most famous son. So much so, that when we were blessed with our first child, few of my friends were totally surprised when we named Samuel Haynes. (How I got this one by his mother is a different story!). I have recounted this event and my feelings about The Maestro in an earlier blog entry, (see here); however it would be hard for me to overstate how much I adored him. At the time he seemed to possess a vision to pick out, and an ability to execute, the perfect defence-splitting pass. I sincerely believe that he was a man of true character as many have also noted and as reinforced via my subsequent contact with him in the 1990s. Suffice it to say that loving Johnny Haynes was the central plank to my earliest Fulham experience.
The match programme of that day noted that Johnny Haynes 21st birthday was upcoming on October 21st. I also note the influence of the Dean family on the club of that day: C B Dean (Chairman) and R A Dean & C B Dean Jr. as directors. But the tone of the club was very much set by the presence on the board of nationally-acclaimed comedian, Tommy Trinder. Both as a cause and effect, the tag ‘Joke Club’ attached itself to Fulham. (Some would claim that this holds true to this very day!) Despite being majorly unfair, there was something to this epithet, which has morphed into the well-used descriptor ‘Fulhamish’, as used to this very day. (See: Fulhamish podcast here). Today it refers mostly to the club’s ability to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, but in those days Trinder did milk his Fulham connection as part of his act, and very often in a not very supportive manner. However, there was, and is still, something about Fulham and its fans that is somewhat Quixotish – a smaller club tilting against the odds at windmills. Fulham relatively may not be a small club but compared to its ‘noisy neighbour’ and other giant London clubs it is, and is always likely to be, a poor relation.
How different my life could have been had Chelsea scored one single solitary goal on 17th September 1955! However, I am truly glad Chelsea failed to score that day and that Fulham’s 5-0 win, 3 weeks later, led me to be where I am today. Despite 62 years of lean pickings, when joys have been low on the ground and there have been many disappointments that still truly hurt, I would have it no other way. Sure things change, but I care to believe that Fulham are a unique club, who still do things in a way that doff a cap to the club I first encountered in 1955. We may never win the Premier League nor get to another European final but Fulham is my first, and remaining, true footballing love. COME ON YOU WHITES!