Ian McCulloch for Fulham Today...
With Saturday's game against West Ham fast approaching, it's only natural for supporters of a certain age to turn their thoughts to that fateful day twenty-six years ago when Fulham reached Wembley and an FA Cup Final for the first and only time in its history.
West Ham 2 - Fulham 0. It still hurts even to write that. I've carried a lot of ghosts around with me since that day. In particular, if I let myself think about it, two overriding memories have always stood out.
First was the misery. Everybody said that the getting there was the thing, don't worry about the result, just enjoy the day out. Well I couldn't - I was abject. To get so close to actually winning something, to really put Fulham on the map, and then to fall at the last hurdle, I was inconsolable for a long time afterwards.
The second was that it was a really dull game. In my mind neither side did much, nothing of note happened, and Fulham lay down and died.
Those memories were so strong that I almost went into denial about the result - my brain wiped all thoughts of it from my memory. I didn't watch the highlights on the television, I didn't read anything about it, I refused to talk about it. For me, it was as though it never happened.
Until a few years ago that is, when Fulham and West Ham replayed the Cup Final in 1995 as part of the Fulham 2000 fund-raising efforts, and despite Peter Mellor once again opening his legs to gift the Hammers a goal, this time the Whites were victorious. With some of my demons slightly exorcised, I did actually sit down and watch the video of the match. And you know what? Fulham weren't half bad. To my surprise, we weren't the negative, chocking side of my memory, but a fluent, skilful, nicely balanced team that with a modicum of luck could have gone on to win the Cup quite comfortably.
In what does have a fairly familiar ring to it, Fulham had several chances to win the game, most notably from Lacy and Mitchell, looked to be completely in control and then fell to two sucker punches. In what was described as the cleanest Cup Final ever, when Les Barrett set off on a mazy run down the middle, he was brutally hacked down on the edge of the penalty area just as he looked like he was through. Things being slightly different in those days, there wasn't even a hint of a booking, let alone the sending-off that the incident deserved. West Ham had very little to offer, but were perhaps just a little bit more professional than we were.
After seeing it again, I must confess that I don't feel quite as bad as I used to, but what I have now is just one more match to add to that endless catalogue of games that we should have won, that we deserved to win, but ended up as gallant losers.
Anyway, when people do talk about the game, the in's and out's of why we did or we didn't, there is one vital fact that tends to get overlooked. I think that the real reason that we lost the Cup Final occurred back in October of the same season when Fulham beat West Ham 2-1 in the third round of the League Cup.
Don't forget that West Ham were in the old First Division, and Fulham a mediocre side in the Second. The game went exactly the way it should have. West Ham came out expecting to win the game, pushed forward and played some nice open football. Fulham played it tight, hit on the break and thwarted the Hammers by a combination of superb organisation, determination and resilience. (The fact that the floodlights failed for twenty minutes in the second half may also have helped to break up West Ham's rhythm somewhat!)
So when we met again in the Cup Final, West Ham had learnt their lesson. In complete contrast to some of the other Finals of that time where First Division sides had come unstuck against lower opposition by playing open attacking football (Sunderland-Leeds; Southampton-Manchester United), West Ham played Fulham at their own game and looked more like a Second Division side themselves. It didn't make for a great spectacle, but it worked, and it's difficult to argue against their tactics. I think that if that had been the first time we had played them that season we would have won - simple as that.
My final memory of that game was turning round for a last look at the pitch as I was leaving the stadium, and seeing the massed ranks of the West Ham fans destroying everything in sight. It was a sad end to a sad day. We haven't had many opportunities of getting out own back since then, but my recollection is that on the couple of occasions that we have played them at their place, we've turned them over. This may be another case of my brain's sad penchant for self-disillusionment, but if I'm wrong, please don't tell me, I'm happy to wallow in the memory that we stuffed 'em.
I don't know whether many of our current crop of players will know about Fulham's one and only Cup Final appearance, but I hope they do, and I hope they realise how important Saturday's game is. There are lot of us out there with a lot of old ghosts that need putting to rest!