This article is part of our Neutral's Guide series. You can read previous entries here.
Nickname: The Whites, The Cottagers
Concise Summary: Hospitable south-west London club by the river, once famous for sporting a statue of Michael Jackson, which has now mercifully been removed.
Famous fans: Keith Allen, Lily Allen, Hugh Grant, Scorpio from Gladiators, Daniel Radcliffe (though he's 'not that into football', the bedwetter).
For almost a decade and a half starting just after the turn of the millennium, Fulham were a neutral's favourite amongst Premier League sides. Generally seen as a friendly club with a modest, affable, disproportionately middle-class fanbase, a trip to Craven Cottage was widely considered to be one of the most genial away days in the top flight. With the ground situated on the silty banks of the Thames, bordered by the cloistered greenery of Bishop's Park and only a stone's throw from Putney Bridge, there are few more aesthetically pleasing places to watch football, and no better walk to a stadium in the country. On matchday, all the grand Victorian public houses are spilling over with white-shirted Fulham supporters, drinking bitter, radiating warm humour and cheerful fatalism about the events of the next few hours. If that isn't appealing enough, Fulham fans also had a healthy contempt for Chelsea before it was fashionable. Their temperament couldn't be much more different from that of their local rivals, even if Stamford Bridge is barely two miles away.
A lower-league team for much of their history, Fulham's rise to the Premier League now seems like something of a football fairytale. Bought up by Egyptian businessman and former Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed in 1997, money was made available to improve the squad like never before. They were perhaps a precursor to the modern Bournemouth side in that sense: bankrolled to success by a wealthy owner with calculated designs on Premier League status, yet somehow still able to preserve a sense of starry-eyed romance in the process. Under the guidance of Kevin Keegan and then Jean Tigana, Fulham had soon climbed from Division Three to the top flight within the space of five seasons, grabbing headlines and national acclaim the likes of which was almost unprecedented in their well heeled corner of south-west London. Al-Fayed even went as far as to say that Fulham could compete with the biggest clubs in England, notoriously claiming that he would turn them into "the Manchester United of the South."
Still, while Fulham's rise was sublime on the surface, the golden era of Al-Fayed was never without its flaws and difficulties. For a while, there were fears over the future of the club, with debts spiralling to fearful heights and Craven Cottage mooted as a target of ambitious local property developers. Thankfully, a move away from the area never materialised, though Fulham were forced to spend two years lodging with QPR at Loftus Road while improvements were made to their spiritual home. Of all the many football stadiums lost to lucrative redevelopment over the past few decades, Craven Cottage would have been the greatest tragedy. It was, and remains, one of the most iconic settings in English football, with its clusters of wooden seats, wooden staircases and stylish Edwardian facade. Indeed, the red-brick Johnny Haynes stand is a Grade II listed building, along with the famous pavilion (or eponymous 'Cottage') which stands at the Putney end of the ground.
Fulham never did manage to usurp Manchester United and, in his later years at the club, Al-Fayed scaled back his involvement and investment. His relationship with the fans was sporadically strained, not least when he erected a statue of Michael Jackson outside the ground in tribute to the late singer, a close personal friend of his. This was the cause of much mockery, which prompted Al-Fayed to proclaim that those who didn't like it could, in his opinion, "go to hell." Nonetheless, Fulham were still in for some special moments on the pitch, not least during their famous run to the Europa League final, which included victories over Juventus, Wolfsburg, Hamburg and Shakhtar Donetsk before a heartbreaking extra time loss to Atletico Madrid. Despite their eventual defeat in the final, seeing their team making waves in Europe represented dreamland for the supporters. Fulham, a fourth-tier club just over a decade earlier, had seemingly reached the pinnacle of their potential. Unfortunately, from there, the football at Craven Cottage would go steadily downhill.
Over the course of the next few seasons, Fulham could only really tread water in the top flight, and soon found themselves gasping for breath. Slow decline under Martin Jol became extremely rapid decline under Rene Meulensteen and Felix Magath, with the latter ranking among the most disastrous managerial appointments ever made in the Premier League. Fulham were relegated to the Championship at the end of the 2013/14 campaign, where they continued to struggle for results, belief and confidence. Whether or not the two things can be directly linked, the start of this slump roughly coincided with the purchase of the club by Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-American billionaire who made his fortune in manufacturing and snapped up Fulham from Al-Fayed in the summer of 2013.
Now, several seasons on, things are once again looking up for Fulham. This season has been one of modest recovery, which has seen them go on several good runs and compete for a place in the upper echelons of the Championship. In the meantime, Fulham supporters have had time to reflect on the Premier League era, and reassess what it means to watch football at Craven Cottage. Relegation from the top flight is always likely to mean a cultural change, not least by sorting the fair-weather fans from the loyalists who define the atmosphere and ethos of a club.
Chatting to fans at the Cottage ahead of their win over Rotherham in December, it appears as though, despite recent struggles, the spirit of Fulham is alive and well. Though several supporters mention that the fanbase has been more divided over the last few seasons than it perhaps was previously, there is a cautious sense of optimism about the coherence of the club and what the future might hold. Fans are characteristically open and welcoming, reflecting on the vagaries of supporting Fulham with exasperated laughter and wry smiles. First up we speak to the wryest of the bunch, Sammy James, who hosts the independent Fulhamish podcast.
Considering that Fulham's decline coincided with Shahid Khan's arrival, we ask Sammy what he thinks the owner's reputation is like amongst the fans at the moment. While he admits that Khan's tenure has been anything but smooth sailing, Sammy points to mitigating circumstances, not least the vaguely shabby state in which he found the club and the fact that he has spent considerable sums since. While some of Khan's investment has been ineffective and ill-advised, Fulham fans are not at the point of running out of patience with their mustachioed benefactor, not that they are a naturally turbulent bunch anyway. "I feel a bit sorry for Shahid Khan, to be honest," says Sammy. "It's been a poor transition of ownership, but I think his heart is in the right place and his motives are genuine."
In general agreement with Sammy is fellow supporter and Fulhamish podcast regular, Jack Collins. He says that, while Khan has his detractors amongst the fanbase, most feel that the club has stabilised in the aftermath of his takeover and is now moving in roughly the right direction. "There's a mix amongst fans, and obviously it's difficult to say for everyone," Jack tells us. "But, I personally think he's trying to do good things and to move the club forward." There certainly seems to be an impression amongst supporters that, despite his teething problems, Khan only wants success for Fulham and is willing to facilitate that. There are many teams who lack similar financial backing and, as such, there is little doom and gloom around the club, even if the fans' confidence comes with a few characteristic caveats.
Beyond the club's ownership, then, what else has changed in the past few years? How have the fans adapted to the Championship, and how has the club adjusted to the realities of the second tier? Not so long ago, Fulham boasted a side that included the likes of Danny Murphy, Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey at the peak of his powers, not to mention fan favourites like Damien Duff, Andy Johnson and John Arne Riise. Now, while Fulham still have a decent squad with a smattering of exciting players, there is considerably less by way of box-office talent to draw in the casual spectator. That has trimmed down attendances somewhat, and seemingly left Fulham with a more committed fanbase for it. Speaking to supporters, the idea of renewed 'identity' crops up on several occasions, and most seem to be of the opinion that the fanbase has gone back to its roots.
What is perhaps most interesting is to hear fans saying that, tacitly, there are many who prefer the Championship. Despite the glamour and potential riches of the Premier League, the top flight comes with its own drawbacks, and perhaps lacks the sociability and authenticity of the second tier. While Fulham fans obviously want the club to be as successful as possible, there is also considerable fondness for the camaraderie of Championship football; for away days to Huddersfield, Wolves and Ipswich in all their unpretentious glory. "Personally, I quite like the fact that the glamour has been slightly taken away, and that the football is centre stage again" Sammy says. "Fans aren't turning up here just to watch Cristiano Ronaldo – they're turning up to watch Fulham."
Of all the football clubs in London, Fulham probably have the fiercest competition for supporters. With the corporate beacon of Stamford Bridge so close by, there are many kids in south-west London who will now inevitably decide to support Chelsea over their less decorated adversaries. On top of that, the club also shares a catchment zone with Brentford and QPR, meaning that even those of a lower-league disposition will not necessarily be drawn to Fulham. That is part of what makes Fulham so unique, however. Supporting the club takes a certain mindset and a natural affinity with Craven Cottage. For those who appreciate the simple things in life, watching football in so handsome a setting is a privilege in and of itself. In terms of the actual football, supporting Fulham is never going to represent an easy association with success, and accordingly is about as far from tedious posturing as one can possibly get.
This is all fundamental to Fulham's identity, as has been quietly revitalised in the aftermath of relegation. Gone are the customary Premier League tourist fans, and left behind are the people who love the club for what it is. Fulham are not the slickest nor the most successful club in London, and may well have a mixed few years ahead of them on the pitch. Still, no other club lays claim to the striking architecture of Craven Cottage, to football on the river, and to a fanbase quite as affable as theirs. Fall for all of that, and there are few other pleasures in life which compare to a trip to Fulham on a Saturday. Fall for the club's distinguished charms, and Craven Cottage soon begins to feel like home.