Banish the Blues

Saturday 13 April 2002

FROM THE GUARDIAN

As Fulham lick their lips at the prospect of putting one over their high-rolling neighbours in tomorrow's FA Cup semi-final, the club's owner Mohamed Al Fayed yesterday warned Chelsea that he has much longer-term domination of west London in mind. Whatever happens on the Villa Park pitch, Fayed made it clear the real battle between these SW6 clubs will continue in earnest off the pitch.

"Chelsea are a great club with great traditions," he conceded, "and I admire what Ken Bates has achieved over the past 20 years. Ken is a good friend of mine and we joke with each other a lot when we meet. But Chelsea have ruled the roost in west London for too long. Now it is our turn."

The sheer fact that Fayed's team are competing against Chelsea for a Cup final place - which in turn for Fulham carries the unprecedented prospect of Europe - is evidence of how successfully the downtrodden neighbours of SW6 have gentrified themselves. Throughout their 95 years in the league Fulham have rarely been in the same class as Chelsea, finishing above them only five times.

They have not so much lived in the shadow of Chelsea as in total darkness. The Cottagers' 1975 FA Cup final defeat by West Ham is the nearest they have come to a piece of top-class silverware, and their best league finish of 10th was 42 years ago. But now, with Fayed's money and his manager Jean Tigana's vision, Fulham believe they can generate a real and lasting rivalry for the first time.

"It is no secret that I want to turn Fulham into the Manchester United of the south," Fayed said, "and I have put in place a business plan that will fulfil all our dreams. When that happens, we will be bigger and more successful than Chelsea. It is not going to happen overnight, but it could start happening tomorrow. Beating them in the semi-final would be a good start."

So determined is Fayed to realise this ambition that failure en route will not be tolerated - as Tigana knows.

"Every chairman puts pressure on the manager to succeed," said Tigana. "In France, King Louis XVI had his head cut off in the French Revolution. It's the same with managers - that's the game. This is the first time as a manager that I've lost many, many games. And when we lose, I find it terrible to sleep."

Not that Bates, Chelsea's equally flamboyant chairman, will be be losing any sleep over Fulham just yet. His club have a substantial advantage whether we are talking team building or empire building, the latter underpinned by five cup successes in the past five years, including the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1998.

Bates has turned Chelsea into a global name. But as phenomenal as their success has been, it has been built heavily on the corporate fan and the "new money" supporters who flock to winning causes. If that bubble bursts, Fulham's more homely appeal - deliberately honed - might see them garner more of the support from traditional fans in the area.

Already Fulham boast of a 17% increase in season-ticket holders with SW6 addresses, who could presumably afford Stamford Bridge prices. They have attracted numerous financially excluded Chelsea supporters - Blues fans without a gold card.

Ironically, while Chelsea give the impression of buying everything at Harrods, the club actually owned by the Harrods boss have formulated a very different marketing strategy. According to Fulham's sales and marketing director Juliet Slot: "Our brand values are friendly, accessible and, hopefully, progressive. We also have a low-pricing policy. We believe a quick buck is a long-term loss because if fans think they are being ripped off, while they will still buy tickets for the match they won't spend any more money with you.

"We have invested heavily in the local community, both to win fans and new players. We do free coaching in schools and every kid gets a certificate, free membership of the Fulham family, and becomes part of the Fulham dream.

"They can also come to seminars and learn the 'Jean Tigana way'. Jean has been very supportive, and every month we take 200 kids to the training ground to meet the players."

While Chelsea boast of their £1m-a-year executive suites and a celebrity fan base that appears to have been compiled from the pages of Who's Who, Fulham are committed to cheap season tickets. They aim to keep their prices in the bottom 10% of whatever division they are in, and have actively sought to bring in more female fans. Some 21% of the Craven Cottage home crowd is female - 7% above the 2001 Premiership average - and Fulham boast England's only professional women's side.

Shaun Gore, who played at the Cottage between 1985 and 1991 before crossing Bishops Park to become Chelsea's football-in-the-community chief, can understand the particular attraction of his old club. "Fulham were always a small club who needed someone with a lot of money to build them up. Now they have found him in Al Fayed, they have grown quite quickly and I believe they will turn more and more commercialised.

"But it would be fantastic if they could also retain their homely balance because that has always been part of their attraction. I could have joined Arsenal or West Ham as a kid but Fulham made me feel special, even if I did start out washing Malcolm Macdonald's Jag.

"But we are just as keen as Fulham to generate new fans. We slowly eat away at kids who come on our courses and hope to turn them into Chelsea supporters for generations to come. There's a lot of work involved that people don't see."

The existence of two wealthy, high-profile chairmen has helped to crank up the local rivalry, though where Fayed has missed a trick in his personal beauty contest against Bates, up to now, is by playing truant from the quarterly meetings of Premiership chairmen, which tend to be heated affairs.

Fayed has yet to attend one of the meetings, though he did thoroughly upstage everyone by turning up for last year's AGM in his helicopter and then flying off again 25 minutes later, claiming to have more important business. Bates, meanwhile, not only has an exemplary attendance record, he has wielded enormous influence both in the Premiership and at the FA in recent years, which has also helped to raise his club's profile.

Where Fayed and Fulham have made significantly swifter progress than Chelsea is in the updating of facilities. While Chelsea have taken 20 years to finish off their stadium, a state-of-the-art Craven Cottage should be ready for occupation the season after next. In between Fulham will share Queens Park Rangers' Loftus Road ground. And Chelsea cannot leave their inadequate Harlington training base until they get planning permission for their proposed new one, while Fayed's money has already secured the magnificent Motspur Park.

Fulham, of course, are still not sure to keep a place in the Premiership, though that will be forgotten when they step out tomorrow for a contest that goes far beyond a football match. And though a groundbreaking win for Fulham might not cause a tremor in the penthouse suite at Chelsea Village occupied by the chairman, it might just result in a wistful tug of his beard.

Four times when Fulham missed the boat

1905 - Losing ground at the start
Chelsea would never have existed if Fulham had agreed to rent the vast new ground built by Gus Mears at Stamford Bridge. But they declined, so Mears formed his own club. Rejected by the Southern League (with Fulham among those voting against their application), Chelsea were instead admitted to the Football League without having ever played a match. Within two years they were playing in front of huge crowds in the First Division. It would take Fulham until 1949 to reach that level.

1961 - Fulham briefly fuel wages explosion
Promoted Fulham were 10th in 1960 - eight places above Chelsea -in between two Cup semi-final replay defeats (1958 and 1962). After the maximum wage was abolished in 1961 they made Johnny Haynes the first £100-a-week player, but in general the board's financial caution inhibited progress. Chelsea went down in 1962, having lost Jimmy Greaves the previous year (1962-63 is the only season the Blues have been in a lower division), but their revival under Tommy Docherty was swift and Fulham were down again by 1968.

1975 - Ageing stars at the Cottage
Second Division Fulham briefly out-glamoured their neighbours by luring the former England captain Bobby Moore - later to be joined briefly by George Best and Rodney Marsh - and reaching their only Cup final (Chelsea have now played in six). Although Chelsea were relegated the same season amid a gathering financial crisis and nightmarish hooligan problems, Fulham were unable to capitalise.Two years later their three stars were gone and they dropped into the Third Division at the end of the decade.

1983 - Glory dashed at the last
"They're entitled to their brief moment of glory," said the new Chelsea chairman Ken Bates as Fulham missed promotion to the First by a point while Chelsea nearly fell into the Third. In Fulham's last match at Derby, invading fans curtailed the game. "As far as I'm concerned the final whistle still hasn't gone," said Fulham's Gordon Davies years later.