Great Football League Teams 35: Fulham, 1982-3
Every one of the previous thirty four entries in our Great Teams series has featured promoted teams and this would seem apt given the epithet ’lower leagues’ so often applied to the English divisions 2 to 4.
Today, however, we feature a Fulham side that finished the 1982-3 season outside the promotion places. A tempestuous and controversial 1-0 defeat at Derby (more of which later) left the Cottagers short of Leicester City by a point and well behind the Queen’s Park Rangers and Wolves representation previously featured in our annals. Why therefore the fuss? Is a team that lost 13 games and that chalked up a modest 69 points really worthy of our attention?
These boys were not the nouveaux riches of the Fayed era remember. The triple promotion winners of 1997-2001 really were among the best to ever feature in the Football League and we hope to provide coverage of their exploits at some point in the future – but the 82-83 vintage were a different animal altogether. The 1981-2 season had seen them promoted from Tier Three to Tier Two but with an infinitesimal fraction of the finance afforded to Kevin Keegan’s 101 pointers.
Malcolm MacDonald can also lay a claim to be one of the country’s great lost managers. Under-rated as a player, he was deemed lacking in natural ability despite a five goal haul against Cyprus for England and a more than handy 10.9 seconds in the 100 metres in Superstars. Forced into early retirement after a goal poaching career for Newcastle and Arsenal, he brought a touch of finesse to managerial theory.
Supermac and his assistant Ray Harford had supervised that earlier promotion and the club took to the higher level like mallards to H2O; commencing with six unbeaten games including a four goal tallies against Bolton and Middlesbrough and a 3-2 win over Leeds, covered by ITV’s Big Match and attended by this correspondent as a 13 year old. The style of play on a new technology pitch was pleasing and MacDonald’s eighties career deserves a higher opinion than the memory of his later spell at Huddersfield would thrust upon him.
MacDonald picked a very consistent line up and no less than six players were ever present in the league – goalkeeper Gerry Peyton, midfield water carrier and future Crawley Town supremo Sean O’Driscoll, centre backs Roger Brown and Tony Gale and the versatile Ray Lewington were joined as 100% men by the season’s real find – Scots-Irishman Ray Houghton, discarded by West Ham after one substitute appearance and a man who would go on to forge a glittering career. Houghton was an absolute revelation that year, angling in a brilliant goal in the televised 4-1 win at Newcastle after a sweeping passing move – the presence of the Magpies, Leeds, Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday and Team of the Eighties Crystal Palace alongside the promoted clubs gave the League a fearsome aspect.
In addition, right back Jeff Hopkins missed only the 3-1 reverse across West London at the Champions and Robert Wilson played 44 times. Up front, the attack was led by Welshman Gordon Davies and Londoner Dean Coney. The latter relied on his link up play and assist building for his first team starts, netting only 4 times, but Davies was effective – scoring 19 and keeping the Cottagers in the top three for the bulk of the nine month period. Highlights included a sparkling 4-2 victory at Molineux and dual 4-0 thumpings of Grimsby. At one point, a twelve point cushion protected them from fourth spot.
But Fulham were to slump badly in the Spring and this despite the personnel remaining largely unaltered. That Loftus Road defeat was the third of three at the season’s business end, with a 1-0 home loss to main rivals Leicester especially excruciating. The young side often found it difficult to maintain their passing on that era’s mud heaps and even the emergence of talented youngster Paul Parker failed to ignite the charge. A 2-0 win over Carlisle in the campaign’s penultimate encounter left Fulham level on points with the Foxes going into that final game.
What followed seems inexplicable. As Leicester faltered to a 0-0 draw with Barnsley, Fulham, starring in a rather natty red kit with black shoulders, went toe to toe with the relegation threatened Rams in the aforementioned match. Trailing to a pinch hit from Bobby Davison, the Londoners pressed ever desperately and Ray Houghton tested Steve Cherry with a fizzer. But from the point that Davison put the Rams head, Derby fans began to encroach on the pitch and final moments were subject to chaotic scenes with the nadir coming when a supporter stretched out a leg to tackle Wilson as he manfully attempted to retain possession.
Subsequently, the referee admitted to not playing the full ninety minutes and yet the Football Association in their infinite wisdom decided not to order a replay because they felt it would be impossible to replicate conditions on the day. Highlights of the piece and a revealing interview with a very passionate MacDonald can be enjoyed here.
So Fulham may have choked to a degree on that May day in 1983 but can you imagine the furore should such events come to pass today?