You don’t hear too many tales of footballers putting their life on the line, but in former Fulham centre-half Jeff Eckhardt’s case it was almost true. Fortunately things weren’t as bad as first feared, and as he explains, the incident in question certainly saved him from a yellow card or two.
“It was the second to last match of the season,” he recalls, “A crunch game away at Cardiff. We were both fighting relegation and whoever lost would pretty much be doomed. It was a hell of a game. Anyway, just before half time they scored to go one up, and I started to get this fluttering in my chest and a lot of pain. I went down and the referee came over and asked what I’d done - I said, “I don’t know, I think I’m having a heart attack!” So I was taken off and at half time they gave me all these ECGs. Basically the doctor said I was fine and that I was probably just having a bit of a panic attack – probably caused by thinking that we were going to get relegated!
“So I went back out for the second half. It was an aggressive game anyway because both sides had to win and I steamed into about four of their guys one after the other. After each one I’d be on the ground and their player would be rolling around hurt because I’d really caught them, but the referee would come over to me and ask if I was ok!
“I remember fouling Mark Kelly. I’d knocked him over for about the nineteenth time and the ref came over to me again and asked if I was alright, and Mark jumped up and said, “**** him! It’s me that’s hurt – he’s been kicking lumps out of me all day!”
“I would definitely have got booked or sent off that day, but the upshot was I played on and I was alright, thank goodness. We drew three-all in a game that went backwards and forwards, and we stayed up whilst Cardiff went down. I never really knew what was wrong with me… indigestion probably!”
A stalwart performer in his seven years at the Cottage, Eckhardt was known for his typically whole-hearted displays. He was a good header of the ball, an excellent tackler, fast, brave and, as he proved many times, extremely versatile, playing in just about every outfield position.
“I played centre-half when I first went to Fulham,” he says, “Probably for the first two seasons and then I started to slowly move forward. It wasn’t necessarily my favourite position, but I always felt centre-half was where I was best. I knew the position inside out and I did what I had to do which was head the ball, kick the ball, and kick the opposing centre forward! But in terms of enjoyment, you can’t beat getting forward and scoring goals.
“I played up front a few times for Fulham and a fair bit for Stockport as well. I got a hat-trick for them – I’ve still got the match ball. It was against Lincoln and after I’d scored the hat-trick, our goalkeeper got injured and I went in goal. I didn’t get beaten, so my claim to fame is scoring a hat-trick and keeping a clean sheet all in the same match!”
Stockport was the next stop after Fulham for Eckhardt. After a couple of seasons there it was on to Cardiff where a two-year contract turned into a six-year stay. And then it was Newport County for three years.
“I thought that was it then,” he says. “But I ended up going to Merthyr Tydfil for two seasons. Then I thought that was it again, but I ended up coaching at a club in the Welsh League called Risca United. When the manager there moved on, I took over and because I got annoyed at people not doing what they should, I started playing again.
“So at the age of forty-one, I’m player-manager of Risca and still running around like a young kid. I’ve been very lucky with injuries, I think my mottos of “Get your retaliation in first”, and “It’s better to be sent off than carried off”, have stood me in good stead!”
Eckhardt always had a great rapport with the fans during his time at the Cottage, something amply demonstrated by one of his enduring memories.
“I remember going back to Fulham with Cardiff,“ he says. “It was on Sky, we won 4-1 and I scored an own goal! Anyway, I went to get a ball down by the touchline and one of the fans there shouted, “Nice to see you back Jeff!” Isn’t that lovely? I’m playing for the opposition, we’re 3-0 up, and he says something like that. But then he went and spoiled it by saying, “Pity you didn’t bring your hair with you!”
The Club was going through turbulent times during Eckhardt’s stay, but even so, the team came tantalisingly close to promotion in 1989, losing only to Bristol Rovers in the play-offs.
“It all revolved around the one incident,” Eckhardt remembers. “We were one-down after the first leg and after about 50 minutes Michael Cole had a free header. Instead of burying it, he looped it over the bar. They went straight down the other end and got a penalty. Then Scotty lost his head and volleyed somebody. So instead of it being 1-1 and us on top looking for the winner, in the space of three minutes, we were losing 2-0 and down to ten men and then the game was gone. The other two goals were irrelevant by then. We were playing three at the back and pushing people up. It was all very unfortunate.
“But I loved my time at Fulham and it’s fantastic to see the Club doing so well now. In fact, my CV is looking pretty good at the moment. With Fulham and Sheffield United in the Premiership and Cardiff pushing for promotion from the Championship, anyone would think I’d had a glittering career!”
Born: Sheffield 7/10/1965
Debut: 21/11/87 v Rotherham United (A) 2-0
Last Match: 7/5/94 v Swansea City (A) 1-2
Signed from: Sheffield United, November 1987 (£50,000)
Transferred to: Stockport County, July 1994 (£50,000)