On 12th December 1898, the modern Fulham Football Club was born. It was on this date that the group which began as a church side, St Andrew's of West Kensington, 19 years earlier, joined the fast-growing ranks of the professional game. This historic move was marked by the Club's first-ever professional signing the same day, J H Love from Trowbridge.
Like most small clubs of the era, Fulham had a nomadic existence in their early days, using many grounds (such as Roskell's Fields next to Parsons Green Station and the Ranelagh Ground close to the Hurlingham Club) before they settled at Craven Cottage in 1894. The site was, however, in such a state of disrepair that no football could be played for two years. The first match took place on 10th October 1896, a London Senior Cup tie against Minerva, which Fulham won 4-0. In December 1888, the St Andrew's moniker was dropped and the Whites became Fulham Football Club.
Tired of meaningless friendly matches, Fulham sought regular competition and in 1892/3 joined the West London League, winning it at the first attempt.
Just before turning professional, in 1896/7, Fulham entered the Second Division of the London League. Their colours in those days were red shirts with white sleeves and shorts, a clear imitation of Woolwich Arsenal, then the only London club playing in the Football League. With crowds regularly around the 2,000 mark, the Club had a dismal debut at this level, finishing next to bottom. The following season, strengthened by some new signings, they were unbeaten but had to settle for runners-up spot.
In 1898/99, the Club took the major step of becoming members of the Second Division of the Southern League.
There was a need for the Club to cast its net wider for players than immediate locality. As a result, crowd favourites like George Tutthill arrived from Wellingborough, whilst George Sherran and Hoppy Hopkinson were signed from The Army, although both were despatched to South Africa and the Boer War shortly afterwards.
Billy Ives was another popular player of the day but, in October 1898, he emigrated to New Zealand. Almost 90 years later, his London League medal found its way back to the Club.
Fulham's Play-Off jinx began at the turn of the century, when promotion and relegation was decided by end-of-season Test Matches. In 1899/1900, Fulham finished runners-up to Watford, but were denied promotion when they lost the Test Match 5-1 to Thames Ironworks (later West Ham United). Despite being Second Division champions in both 1901/02 and 1902/03, Fulham again missed out on the First Division.
Despite losing the Test Match in 1903, the Southern League authorities recognised Fulham's potential and told them that if they could raise a first-class team by the end of May 1903, they would be admitted to the First Division, effectively the Third Division of the Football League.
To raise the necessary money, Fulham became a limited liability company and issued shares to the public. With the extra funds, the Club signed a clutch of well-known players, such as goalkeeper Jack Fryer, who had played in three FA Cup finals for Derby County, Harry Fletcher, Billy Orr, Ted Turner and Jock Hamilton.
A year later, Fulham brought in their first full-time Manager. In Harry Bradshaw, they appointed someone with a wealth of experience, most recently with Woolwich Arsenal, who took the Club over the final mile to the Football League within three years. His tenure was marked by a huge turnover of players, a major rebuilding of the ground (including the Cottage itself and the Stevenage Road stand) and considerable playing success, in particular, reaching the Quarters and Semi-Finals of the FA Cup and twice winning the Southern League.
Bradshaw's Teams were built around a mean defence – only 15 goals were conceded in 34 league games in 1905/06 in the first of two Southern League title wins.
With a second Southern League title under their belt a season later, Fulham applied with confidence to the Football League in 1907, and it was no surprise when they replaced Burton United. The adventure, which began on park pitches less than 30 years earlier, now moved on to the national stage.