All revved up

Thursday 4 April 2002

Ian McCulloch continues his look behind the scenes at Craven Cottage...

The sight of the Reverend Gary Piper parading his ball-boys around the pitch on match-days is a sight that has become almost as familiar as the Cottage itself. Supporter for fifty years, Club Chaplain for fifteen, the man is an institution at Fulham.

Most Clubs have Chaplains these days, but what exactly do they do? Fulham Today caught up with Gary to get all the low-down....

How long have you been supporting Fulham, Gary?

My Uncle took me to my first game, and I guess it must have been about 1950 - they played Portsmouth in what was the old First Division, and it was in the fifties that I then started going regularly. In those days we had Robson, Jezzard and Haynes playing up front, Ian Black was in goal, Robin Lawler was at left back, Tom Wilson at right back, Jimmy Hill at half back - great players.

My favourite all-time team would have to be the side of the late-fifties/early-sixties; it was such an exciting time for us. I remember when we reached the Cup semi-final in 1958; we were 2-1 up just before half time but Manchester United equalised when my beloved Jim Langley was off the pitch injured, and then we lost the replay the following Wednesday afternoon 5-3 at Highbury.

Then in the following season we got promoted to the Old First Division. It was very different to now - when we went up we only bought one player! Alf Stokes it was, and he only played half a dozen games. It was so exciting to be there, I remember we lost the first game away 4-0 to Blackburn Rovers, and then we were at home to Manchester City, and we were all agog to see them because they had players like Dennis Law and Bert Trautmann, and we beat them 5-2. It was fantastic.

Then the following Saturday, we beat Blackpool, who were without Stan Mathews to everyone's disappointment, 1-0. Johnny Haynes was injured in that game, and ended up playing on the wing because there were no substitutes in those days.

Then a couple of weeks later we played Wolves who were the League Champions, and even without our star player we beat them 3-1 in what was one of the most exciting evenings I have ever spent at a football game. Unfortunately they got their own back when they beat us 9-0 a week later!

How long have you been Club Chaplain now?

That's a good question! Officially I go back to the days of Alan Dicks, but I had been around really since the time of Ray Lewington. I used to be asked if I would speak to players or visit them in hospital, that sort of thing - so I was really unofficial Chaplain from then.

So what does being Club Chaplain involve?

Quite a number of things really. Firstly it's to be with the players, to be a listening ear for them. I'll spend a lot of time with those on the injured list - it's not so bad now because we've got a big medical team, but I remember in the early days, Stacey North, for instance, was off injured for a whole season and there really weren't that many people around to work with him or for him to talk to.

I'm there for anyone to talk to - the players are just like everyone else, they have bereavements and worries about their families, that sort of thing. But it's not just the players; I'm there for the staff and supporters as well.

I'm also there for any emergencies, for example when Mathew Fox was killed, the Club asked me to get involved.

So I get involved in a whole range of things really; it's from one end of the scale like spreading ashes on the pitch right the way through to the other as there is a least one player who has had his children baptised at my Church!

Has your role changed with what's happened at Fulham over the last five years?

It's pretty much the same. In some ways, as there are more and more Club Chaplains around it becomes easier, because when players come to Fulham now they are familiar with the concept.

It's changed in that we now have a much bigger squad, so there are more people who are going to be fed up and disappointed because they're not in the team. And it's more difficult because I don't speak the same language as a lot of the team - and I'm not talking about Lee Clark here!

Do all Clubs have Chaplains then?

Not all Clubs. I think there are getting on for seventy Clubs in England who have them, and there are one or two in the Scottish and Irish leagues - so we're definitely a growth industry!

What have been the highlights of your time at Fulham?

Obviously the big moments for me have been the promotions and the success of recent years. Other highlights have been that night against Wolves; seeing them walk onto the pitch at Wembley in 1975 - I remember my eyes filling with tears; seeing George Cohen playing in a World Cup Final.

But I would say that when we got promoted from the Second Division, and we actually went up as Champions, and watching Fulham parading around the pitch with a Cup for the first time, was the most incredible experience. In my time we'd always gone up in second or third place - so that was a huge, huge highlight for me.

Another big highlight was meeting my boyhood idol Jim Langley. There was a reunion of the players who were around when I was a boy, a few years back, and Tosh Chamberlain, who's a member of my Church, introduced me with the words, "Here Jim, you're never going to believe this, but this is my vicar and you are his hero!" I'm not sure which one of us was most embarrassed at the time.

But really, I just enjoy being part of the Club as Chaplain. And one of the things I must say is how impressed I have always been by the professionalism of the players at Fulham, even in the old Third Division days.

Have you any funny moments you can share with us?

There are a lot of things that I can't repeat in public unfortunately. But there was one absolute gem, which was when a supporter came running down the terraces to talk to me. I was taking the ball-boys round the pitch, putting them in place before the game, and he said, "Oi, Gary, you're the rev right?" and I said "Yes," and he said, "My brother's just died," and I said, "I'm sorry to hear that, " and he said, "The thing is, we wanted you to do the funeral, but the undertaker couldn't get hold of you, so he found some other vicar, but he's a QPR supporter! We don't want that!"

Anyway, I did do the funeral, and we went into the Chapel to the strains of "Viva El Fulham"!

There was another wonderful moment when we played Tranmere Rovers in the Cup a few years ago, and they had their centre half, Challinor, with the enormous throw, who was responsible for their first goal.

I'd said to the ball-boys beforehand, whatever you do, don't wipe the ball before you give it to him, which was what they did at Tranmere. Jokingly, I'd said perhaps I should issue you with a bucket of water to dip the ball in, and they'd all laughed. But then in the second half of the game, they had a throw-in and Challinor went to take it, and I saw him wagging his finger at the ball-boy before he took it.

So I went over to see what had happened and the ground staff round him were killing themselves laughing, and the ball-boy said that Challinor had been swearing at him. And when I said what for, he said that he'd held the ball under the tap that was nearby, and had given him a soaking wet ball!

Of course you look after the ball-boys on matchdays. How did that start?

It all began with the Junior Black & Whites, of whom I was chairman when that was first started in 1985. Organising and looking after the ball boys was part of that, and it's carried on ever since. I really enjoy doing it and it's nice to be involved, although I do appreciate it when I go to away matches and I can just sit and watch the game.

There have been huge changes at the Club since you first started watching Fulham. How do you see the future?

At this particular moment in time I'm sweating on our Premiership future! Although having said that, I'm pretty sure that we won't go down.

I think it will be a wonderful achievement if we can establish ourselves as a Premiership Club. In the old days when we went up to the First Division, everybody felt that we were in with a chance of winning the League Championship, and in the 1960's something like seven different teams won the title. Now, you look at it and realistically it's a three-horse race, and there's a gap between them and the other teams.

To establish ourselves as a good Premiership side, and find a way of bridging that gap is the real challenge. I think that gap is very sad for English football - it was much better when an Ipswich Town could come through and win the Title as they did in the early sixties - football was better for that.

I would also like to see us producing our own youngsters. Manchester United are largely where they are because of the efforts of home produced players, so it would be nice if we could emulate that. It would be good to give youngsters here the opportunity to say, yes we can make it in professional football.

When I first became Chaplain, I used to go down to the training ground, which was the Fire Brigade sports ground at Banstead. It was somewhere I'd been to as teacher because it used to be an old school sports ground owned by the Inner London Education Authority, with changing rooms and showers built for kids.

To go down to Motspur Park today and see the fantastic facilities that they've got now is such a contrast. Instead of one physio, you've got a whole team of physio's, masseurs, trainers, doctors, it's just an amazing transformation. And most incredible of all, the training pitches are flat!

And you see your role continuing in this transformation?

I hope so. It doesn't matter how big a name you are, you are still a human being and you still suffer from the same things as everybody else. Obviously, the Chaplain is the representative of the Christian faith within the club, but the big thing is that you're there for everybody, and you're treating people as human beings. So if there is a junior player who is never going to make it, he needs to be told that he is just as important as Steve Marlet. And the player who is injured and is worried about his career and the papers have stopped writing about him, he needs to be told that how important he is as well.

Work is often measured in terms of what we do, and if someone is a professional footballer and they can't do it for whatever reason or they can't do it at the level they want to, then it's important to make them see that they're not diminished in any way as a human being. People will always need that, no matter what they do or what level they do it at.

Fulham Football Club has always been spoken about as being special. It's when you meet people like Gary Piper and see the love that he has for the Club and for those around him, that you realise that it's the people that make Fulham so special. People like Gary are the backbone of this great Club and have been for many years - long may it continue.

When not at the Club, Gary can be found at his Church: St Mathews, Wandsworth Bridge Road, Fulham. Services at 10.00 am and 6.30 pm.