IT HAS taken 32 years for top-flight football to return to Craven Cottage, that quaint little ground on the banks of the Thames, but it returned with a bang last night. Fulham defeated Sunderland in the FA Barclaycard Premiership and, amid a crescendo of noise from their joyous supporters, it was hard to remember that the club lay in eighth from bottom place in the third division only five years ago.
A goalless, if entertaining, draw might have been all the home fans had to cheer but for two goals in the closing 20 minutes. Steed Malbranque latched on to a poor clearance by Thomas Sorensen, the Sunderland goalkeeper, and gave Barry Hayles the chance to score with a low shot, then Louis Saha ran through alone and saw his half-hit shot deflect off George McCartney and divert past Sorensen. At the end, "Diddy" David Hamilton was beside himself on the public-address system.
At kick-off, as the aircraft droned overhead on their descent into Heathrow, the Sunderland players could have been forgiven for thinking that they were about to play in an early round of the FA Cup. Terraces, steeply banked and full to capacity, confronted them, a throwback from days gone by and antique structures that will hang around for a while yet until Fulham demolish and rebuild the Cottage.
It created a good atmosphere, anyway, the shouting, sweating bodies on a sticky evening in West London banding together to generate a raucous feel. A home drummer kept up a constant beat and, thankfully, Mohamed Al Fayed, the Fulham chairman, desisted from his usual pre-match ritual of walking around the pitch, twirling his scarf and waving in a regal manner.
However, the Fulham players gave him something to twirl about. They roared at Sunderland from the start, with Malbranque, the chunky midfield player, and Bjarne Goldbaek, his main ally, tearing into and through the defensive cover. Saha and Hayles weaved every which way, wreaking havoc.
Their finishing, though, was poor. Goldbaek drove at an empty net after gaining possession from Sorensen's miskicked clearance, but had taken too long and Stefan Schwarz nipped back to block it. Hayles headed wide from a Rufus Brevett cross, then Saha, scorer of both goals in the 3-2 defeat away to Manchester United on Sunday, guided an effort narrowly past an upright. Sunderland had enjoyed slices of good fortune, but when Fulham became too adventurous, they broke with poise and purpose.
Kevin Kilbane raided often along the left wing, though he will not want to remember his attempt in the 33rd minute when he ran on alone, tempted Edwin van der Sar from his line but drove weakly across the face of the goal.
Two minutes from the interval, Sunderland fashioned another opportunity, this time from the cross of Bernt Haas. Lilian Laslandes showed commendable agility for a big man but, although Van der Sar had to watch the effort closely, it flew high and wide. Earlier, a volley from Kevin Phillips had ended up on the same part of the terraces, Gavin McCann's superb centre deserving better.
Fulham try to play the beautiful game of pass and go, as decreed by Jean Tigana, their manager, and are rarely alarmed by opponents' near-misses. They regroup quickly, without an apparent care, and always have the experienced John Collins to call on if they need to take a breather.
Sunderland emerged from the interval refreshed, pushing forward with more purpose. Phillips, still sluggish, had another chance but shot weakly at Van der Sar. Next to err was Hutchison, who failed miserably to capitalise on Kilbane's good work. The ball ran loose to Hutchison, 25 yards out, but his pathetic attempt threatened the corner flag more than the net.
WHEN you've waited 33 years for a taste of the high life, what's another 70 minutes bursting for a goal?
It felt like a lifetime for Fulham's anxious fans last night, until Barry Hayles crashed in their opener in the club's first home match back in the big league.
And Louis Saha made the points safe and grabbed the man of the match performance with a second goal five minutes from time.
The strike by the Hayles, courtesy of a slip by Sunderland goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, ended his team's frustration after they had endured a dozen near-misses in the first-half.
It was a stylish way to end the wait too, Steed Malbranque capitalising on a poor clearance to set up a darting exchange of passes which finished with Hayles crashing in the winner on the run from 10 yards out.
These days at Craven Cottage, they can announce the pounds .3.3m signing of Sylvain Legwinski and get little more from the crowd than a collective, "Hmm, sounds interesting".
This is the club that used to give players a bowl of cornflakes on the team bus to away matches because they could not afford to stop for lunch. Still, they do not have much time for wallowing in nostalgia now.
Sure, DJ Diddy David Hamilton did the pre-match messages and it was one of those golden summer evenings by the Thames that make the old place so wrapped in romance.
But no one in the Premiership is going to stop to admire the view, least of all hard-headed coach Jean Tigana. Fulham are determined to be taken seriously in the top-flight and launched themselves at Sunderland from the start of their first home Premiership game.
Tigana's team love to attack and Hayles made his presence felt after five minutes, narrowly failing to meet Rufus Brevett's cross.
Six minutes later another quick-fire break set up Saha to plough through a crowd of defenders and fire a 20-yard shot just wide.
Faced by a side full of running, spirit and adventure, Peter Reid could only watch as his Sunderland team hardly had time to settle.
Their one glimmer of hope early on was in the eight minute, from an uncharacteristically sloppy back-pass by the otherwise impressive Brevett.
Kevin Phillips could not get to the ball` before Edwin van der Sar cleared.
Saha was eager to show his two goals against United were no flukes and Hayles, surging past Stefan Schwarz, set up his next chance in the 18th minute. Malbranque nursed the ball forward to Saha for another searching shot from 20 yards.
By then, the Frenchman was a fizzing bundle of energy and danger. Two minutes later he crashed a shot just above the bar after a clever one-two in the box with Hayles. The follow-up from the corner was a strong header which whizzed just over too.
And it was not long before an elegant run from deep by Malbranque set up Saha for another narrow miss.
In between, Phillips stabbed a rare Sunderland opportunity wide from five yards, neatly encapsulating his team's lack of potency for most of the first-half.
But for all their energy and purpose, Fulham had not got the goal they deserved.
There was more frustration to follow when defender Alain Goma headed a corner inches wide. Then, in the 43rd minute, Sunderland which gave Fulham a real scare.
Bernt Haas scurried down the right to cross and Lilian Laslandes twisted his big frame to aim an over-head kick just past van der Sar's right-hand post. It was a chance that had been looking likely to come as Fulham's desire to get forward, full-backs and all, often left them thin at the back.
But as Sunderland were coming back into the game, Sorensen's slip with 20 minutes left handed Hayles the chance to crash in Fulham's first top-flight goal at home for 33 years. Saha's second was the icing on the cake.
After 33 years during which they were forced to look into the abyss of non-League football and face the living death of homelessness, Fulham were last night able to celebrate their first victory in the promised land of the Premiership.
Showing patience and polish they proved their thrilling debut at Old Trafford on Sunday was no fluke. Not, however, that they were able to do so without a helping hand, or rather, foot.
It belonged to Thomas Sorensen, the Sunderland goalkeeper whose 70th-minute error, the latest of a blundering start to the campaign for goalkeepers, sent Fulham on their way.
After his wayward clearance led to Barry Hayles scoring his first Premiership goal, Louis Saha, who had also missed a series of first-half chances, scored his third in two matches to seal victory six minutes from time.
"It was important to get a win,'' said Andy Melville. The Fulham captain added: "Although our performance was good at Old Trafford it was very disappointing not to get at least a point. It left us very disappointed and we had to pick ourselves up.''
Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, said: "We possibly had the best chances of the first half and I didn't see a goal coming in the second until we made the mistake which changed the game. Thomas had held his hands up. All goalkeepers make some mistakes. It's just one of those things.''
On a balmy Thames-side evening, the match had begun in an atmosphere redolent of times past with terracing on three sides. Craven Cottage had filled up early as fans sought to secure favoured places rather than arrive at the last minute as is the custom at all-seater grounds.
An announcement reminding Sunderland fans they were in a non-smoking area broke the sepia spell as did the realisation that, by dropping Jon Harley, Jean Tigana was only using £12m worth of his £24m summer investments.
One area he has not yet strengthened but is actively seeking to do so is in attack.
Lyon's reluctance to sell Steve Marlet has given the men in possession, Saha and Hayles, the chance to stake their claim and both began intent on proving their worth.
Saha's quick feet and Hayles clever movement caused constant problems for a Sunderland defence including the rookie defender George McCartney. The striking pair's understanding was obvious as they carved out a string of chances for one another.
Their finishing, however, did not match their approach play. Chances being either saved, blocked, or, more often simply missed. Fortunately for Fulham, Sunderland's strikers were no better. Lilian Laslandes, Kevin Kilbane and Kevin Phillips in front of the watching Sven Goran Eriksson all missed good chances on the counter-attack.
Gradually, as Gavin McCann and Stefan Schwarz gained a foothold in midfield, the game tightened up and chances grew sparse at both ends. Only a header by Alain Goma, and an overhead kick by Laslandes, went close to breaking an increasingly sterile stalemate.
But then Sunderland self-destructed. McCartney laid a ball back to Sorensen on his weaker foot and, trying to pass the ball out rather than fly-kick, he gave it to Steed Malbranque. He swiftly played return passes with Hayles before setting up the former non-League striker for his first Premiership goal.
As Sunderland pushed forward in search of an equaliser, Saha should have settled the issue only to mis-kick in front of goal. Any fears Fulham fans had that this would prove expensive were allayed three minutes later as the Frenchman saw his shot deflected in off the luckless McCartney.
There was time for Edwin van der Sar to show the value of his signing with a flying save. Then Fulham fans went off to celebrate their first top-flight victory since 1968 presumably with champagne from Harrods.
As welcome-back parties go this was perfect. Thirty three years after the stadium had last staged a top-flight fixture, goals from Barry Hayles and Louis Saha ensured Fulham's first Premiership win and suggested they will hardly be among the stragglers this season.
After Hayles had capitalised on a poor clearance by Sunderland's goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen to score in the 70th minute, Saha added a second with a low shot which took a deflection off George McCartney. "Fulham are back," chimed the fans.
After losing only narrowly at Manchester United on Sunday, Fulham must have felt confident of recording their first win. Certainly there was an excited, raucous atmosphere beforehand but surprisingly, in such circumstances, Fulham's chairman Mohamed Al Fayed declined to carry out his usual pre-match walk around the pitch, huge black-and-white scarf in hand. But it is a fair bet Chairman Mo felt a glow inside as cries of "Al Fayed" filled the air with those of "Ooh, Aah Tigana".
When Fayed took over the club in May 1997, shortly after promotion to the Second Division, he announced he wanted Premiership status within five years. Having achieved that ahead of schedule he has set his sights even higher.
"It is my belief that Fulham Football Club can become one of the biggest football names in the world," he wrote in the programme. "I want to achieve great things on the pitch both domestically and internationally, and under the maestro Jean Tigana I am confident that we can fulfil these desires."
Within 10 minutes Rufus Brevett was involved in chances at both ends as Fulham's neat, quick passing game met the determined, physical challenge of a Sunderland side who are increasingly capable of slick football themselves.
It was from his cross that Hayles sent a header wide. Then, at the other end, a misunderstanding between Brevett and Edwin van der Sar presented Kevin Phillips with a chance, Andy Melville's fine tackle denying the striker.
Although Sunderland occasionally looked dangerous on the break, not least through Kevin Kilbane on the left flank, Fulham were dominating a game which moved at a relentless pace. Sean Davis's defensive qualities and simple distribution complemented the thrusts of Steed Malbranque from midfield, and Saha and Hayles were combining well up front.
Much of Fulham's interplay was impressive, and the athletic Saha was causing considerable problems for a defence in which the 20-year-old centre-back McCartney was making only his second Premiership start.
Four chances had come the Frenchman's way inside half an hour as his movement stood out but three times his efforts were off target, once because of a deflection, before he forced a save out of Sorensen.
Alain Goma came closer still, sending a header inches wide of Sorensen's left post from a corner, though by then Sunderland had demonstrated the threat they pose on the counter-attack. Phillips volleyed wide from a cross by Kilbane, who shortly after shot wide, and before the interval Lilian Laslandes came close with a spectacular bicycle kick.
After a first half of such speed and excitement it was no surprise that things initially went off the boil after the break. The Fulham fans, though, were in no mood for silence. Given that their team finished 17th in the bottom division as recently as 1996 that was understandable.
Saha did force Sorensen into a low save but despite the sterling efforts of John Collins in midfield, the spark seemed to have disappeared from Fulham's game and Sunderland were looking increasingly comfortable when Sorensen's poor clearance from a backpass enabled Hayles to break the deadlock.
The Dane presented Malbranque with possession and two quick interchanges of passes created a chance which Hayles took with minimum fuss.
MOVE over Arsene Wenger. Make way Claudio Ranieri. There's a new kid in town and he's aiming to become the Premiership's best foreign boss.
Jean Tigana is the name and Fulham's delirious supporters have every cause for optimism with the Frenchman at the helm.
Second-half goals from Barry Hayles and Louis Saha secured the club's first Premiership points as Craven Cottage celebrated the return of top-flight football after a 32-year absence.
A sell-out crowd saw a compelling performance from a team with no doubts about their ability to survive at the highest level.
England boss Sven Goran Eriksson was among the spectators and the suave Swede will have been impressed by the speed with which Tigana has conquered our game.
Fulham, with Tigana's leadership and Mohamed Fayed's cash, are a club going places.
Fayed has forked out £20.3million since Tigana's team clinched the First Division championship in May and is ready to bankroll a further £10m for Lyon striker Steve Marlet.
No one could accuse the Harrods owner of keeping a low profile yet he was noticeable by his absence this time as he cleared the stage for his team.
Latest signing Sylvain Legwinski was introduced to the fans after completing his £3.3m move from Bordeaux yesterday.
But the new boy will know he has a fight on his hands just to get a game after watching his team-mates take Sunderland to the cleaners.
And hero Hayles has no intention of relinquishing his place, despite the imminent arrival of Marlet.
The former Stevenage and Bristol Rovers striker might not capture the headlines like strike partner Saha but what he lacks in technique he more than makes up for with heart.
Hayles set Tigana's Army on their way after 70 tantalising minutes but the breakthrough owed everything to the misfortune of Sunderland keeper Thomas Sorensen.
The Danish international made a mess of a routine clearance and scuffed the ball straight to the feet of French midfielder Steed Malbranque.
Fulham's most impresssive performer exchanged passes with Hayles and watched in admiration as his team-mate drove home to raise the roof.
Saha, though, was not going to let anyone steal his thunder.
His two-goal display at Old Trafford had confirmed his status after he topped the country's scoring charts last season with 32 goals.
The former Newcastle cast-off teased and tormented Sunderland's struggling defence all night.
He wriggled his way through time and again to send shots raining down on Sorensen's goal from all angles. With five minutes remaining, his persistence finally paid off when a low drive took a touch off George McCartney's boot to deceive the wretched Sorensen.
Three goals in two games. Anyone want to bet against him being the country's top scorer again this time?
You would certainly back him ahead of Kevin Phillips on the evidence of last night.
The Sunderland marksman squandered a glorious early opportunity when, unchallenged, he volleyed wide from Kevin Kilbane's low cross into the six-yard box.
He was also denied by a vital last-ditch block from Fulham skipper Andy Melville.
But, on the whole, Phillips did nothing to suggest Eriksson was wrong to exclude him from all six of his England squads so far.
With the 22-man World Cup party to face Germany being named on Sunday, Phillips should not hold his breath.
Tigana knows there will be much tougher tests in the coming months. But Fulham are up and running and the promise is high.