Build up to Walsall

Wednesday 13 February 2002

From Fulham Today's Ian McCulloch

There can't be many Fulham supporters who hold much in the way of antagonism for Walsall, in fact, I suspect that most of us have quite a soft spot for the Saddlers.

It dates back, of course, to the fateful day in 1987 when Marler, the property developing owners of Fulham, announced their plans to merge the Whites with Queens Park Rangers. It was during an emotional match against Walsall on 28th February that the fight back started.

The result, a two-two draw, was unimportant. What was significant was the coming together of two sets of fans and players who were able to put aside their traditional rivalries in a moving demonstration against a common evil. Walsall had been fighting their own battle against merger proposals with Birmingham, and their empathy and understanding was more than evident.

The Fulham supporters staged a peaceful pitch invasion at half time, and with the opposing fans applauding each other, the players of both sides came out to mingle with the crowd.

It was a very Fulhamish demonstration. Despite the anger and the bitterness, there was no trouble and no aggravation. But it served its purpose - it woke up the footballing world to a small club's plight. The support that Fulham received, from all quarters, was amazing, and instrumental in delaying the plans that would have killed off this great club once and for all. As was demonstrated at the recent game with York City, the true football fan has a compassion and a caring for the game as a whole that transcends all of the efforts of the moneymen. Desperate as they are to turn football into a spectacle only for the very rich, with barely a handful of clubs fighting for the prizes in front of a television audience, the real supporters just won't go away.

Fulham have become one of the privileged elite, but as Mohamed Al Fayed showed with his wonderful gesture to the York fans, we are lucky to have a Chairman wealthy enough to bankroll the club, but with the same instincts and emotions as those who stand on the terrace.

A bond was created with Walsall that day that has remained ever since. Ironically, it was the Saddlers who had to leave their traditional home, Fellows Park, to move to the Bescot Stadium in 1990.

More recently, Walsall were the side who ran Fulham closest as the Whites stormed to the Second Division Championship in 1999. Although finishing fourteen points behind in second place, the Saddlers were a team who played fine football, and their low budget side was in stark contrast to Fulham above them and Manchester City below them who they pipped to the second automatic promotion spot.

Since then they have become something of a yo-yo team, being relegated the following season and then coming straight back up. This season they have languished in the lower reaches of the division, and are currently in 22nd place. Having recently replaced talented manager Ray Graydon with Colin Lee, the Saddlers good run of form came to an end on Saturday as they went down to a three-nil thumping at home to Sheffield Wednesday.

Lee has made four signings since taking over: Martin O'Connor and Marcello have been brought in from Birmingham until the end of the season, David Holdsworth's loan spell has been extended, and former Wolves midfielder Steve Corica has been signed from Japan.

On the injury front, Don Goodman and Gary Birch are both out, while Corica is struggling to gain match-fitness. Carlos Andre has suffered a knock but should be fit, and Frenchman Frederic Biancalani is available again after suspension.

It should be an excellent game on Saturday and hopefully the good spirit between the clubs still holds strong. But with a last-eight place beckoning, all feelings of bonhomie from the Whites must be put aside for that crucial ninety minutes.