Sunday 14 April 2002

As one of the stars of the west London schoolboy team, the young Alan Mullery had most of the capital's professional clubs interested in securing his signature. The chance to go to the same workplace every day as his hero, England's captain Johnny Haynes, was a powerful argument in favour of Fulham, and it took only one Saturday afternoon at Craven Cottage to convince him that this was the club to join.

"I was given a ticket to sit on the track round the pitch and watch the first team," he recalls, 45 years on. "There was an empty seat next to me, and with the game going on, the Fulham No 11, who I only later learned was called Tosh Chamberlain, came and sat next to me. He said, 'I haven't seen the ball for 20 minutes', crossed his legs, grabbed a cigarette from a fella on the terraces and started having a smoke.

Next thing, Johnny Haynes hits one of his inch-perfect 60-yard balls to where his winger should have been. Haynesy gave him the biggest rollicking I'd ever heard. So Tosh stands up and takes one last drag, stubs his fag out and shouts back, 'When I'm standing out here you don't want to pass it, and when I'm having a fag, you give me a pass'. That was Fulham. And that was when I knew I had to join this football club."

Welcome to the house of fun. Like the England World Cup winner George Cohen, who was alongside him last Wednesday evening at a function entitled "Forty Years of Fulham Greats", Mullery believes there was a special atmosphere about the place, still to be found in these last few days before the terraces are belatedly replaced and Craven Cottage is dragged kicking and laughing into the 21st century.

"As George says, it was always a family club, from the groundsman's wife Maud, to the chairman, Tommy Trinder. They were all the same type of people..." - "Comedians!" Cohen butts in - "Yeah, and some were funnier than Tommy Trinder."

Chamberlain clearly came into that category, his antics adored by the rather bohem-ian SW6 crowd who patronised the enclosure in front of the main stand, idolising Haynes while cheerfully abusing those who failed to reach his formidable standards: "When the Rabbi (Jimmy Hill) wants the ball, give it to him, Cohen!" Honor Blackman was among the stars of stage and screen who would sit on the wooden seats; she revealed on This Is Your Life that she only went "to look at Alan Mullery's legs".

There were two FA Cup semi-finals, in 1958 and 1962, both embarked on as underdogs and both lost after a replay. The first was against a Manchester United side risen from the ashes of Munich only two months earlier and willed on by just about every neutral; Fulham should have won the first match but lost 5-3 in the replay at Highbury.

Four years later it was Burnley, the League runners-up, at Hillsborough, with Tottenham or United waiting in the final. Mullery, who had joined Cohen in the side by that time, still remembers a foul on Fulham's centre-forward Maurice Cook late in the game that went unpunished, allowing the fine Burnley side a second chance, which they took 2-1.

By 1975, and a winning semi-final at last against Birmingham City, Cohen had long gone, after 459 appearances followed by two years as youth-team manager. Mullery, having stayed for five years from 1958, then spent eight seasons at Tottenham, returning in 1972 as captain of the side that, with Bobby Moore behind him, staggered all the way to the final against Moore's old club West Ham.

The occasion was quintes-sential Fulham: the morning of the game spent painting white lines on the players' boots to pretend they complied with a long forgotten agreement to wear a particular brand; cutting down over-sized shinpads in the dressing room with a hacksaw after the usual ones were left behind; and a goalkeeper (Peter Mellor) with non-stick gloves, gifting the afternoon's two goals to West Ham.

The new era of Mohamed Al Fayed and Jean Tigana seems a little foreign, in more ways than one. As for tonight, Cohen, now a matchday host at the Cottage, believes that Chelsea may be vulnerable at the back. Mullery, used to watching both teams in his role as a pundit with Sky Sports, is as wary as the Fulham defence needs to be of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen. He insists that, whatever the result: "To get to the semi-final and stay in the Premiership is a fantastic season for Fulham." And he is confident that Steve Marlet will not stomp off for a cigarette during the game.