Our best-known players - Johnny Haynes, George Cohen, Tosh Chamberlain, Tony Macedo and Alan Mullery - not only progressed through our junior ranks, but were also born and raised within a few miles of the Cottage. To that list can be added the name of Johnny Key; an old-fashioned flying winger, who was born in the Borough and went to school in Hammersmith before signing professionally for us in 1956. He went on to make 163 league appearances for Fulham, all but six of which were in the top flight, plus another 18 in cup competitions. In his 181 games, he scored an impressive total of 37 goals.
Now just turned 75 and in retirement, John recalls those days with great affection.
“At school [Latymer Upper] I was as keen on athletics as football,” he explained. “I had won the Southern AAA long jump championship and was a pretty good sprinter. I was also playing for Fulham juniors, along with Tony Macedo, John Doherty, Brian O’Connell and Stan Brown. I was offered professional terms and was just 18 when I signed in May 1956.
“My First Team debut came out of the blue. I was doing my National Service in 1957/58 and was at home on Christmas leave. I was training and playing in the midweek Metropolitan League side that Beddy [Jezzard] managed. There was a Third Round FA Cup tie at home to Yeovil Town at the beginning of January and Tosh Chamberlain was injured. I was told that I was playing in that game, even though I hadn’t even played a reserve game.”
We won that tie 4-0 and John was too modest to mention that he joined the select band of Fulham players who scored on their debut. There were a few league outings the following season - the memorable promotion year of 1958/59 - but we’d signed Graham Leggat from Aberdeen that summer who was proving a huge success on the right wing.
“I played when Graham was injured or on international duty in that promotion year,” John said. “But the following season Beddy was able to play both of us. I remember we beat Nottingham Forest 3-1 at home early in the season and most people thought I had a pretty good game. So I held my place and when Graham was fit again he moved to centre forward or even the left wing, where he was just as effective.
“Looking back, everyone says what a happy, friendly club Fulham was at that time, and that’s because it really was. We had some big names, Johnny, George, Mullers and so on, but no egos. Everyone got on well together and our team spirit was an important factor in keeping us in the top flight. And I do believe that the best players of those days would have stood out in today’s game. Players are stronger, fitter and more athletic now but they’re not necessarily more skilful. Haynes was a genius who would have been a star in any generation.
“My instructions were always to stay out on the wing and hug the touchline. He would be able to put the ball in my path from the other side of the pitch. He just did it instinctively. And people often forget that he scored goals as well. He was remarkable.
“Although we never won any major trophies, they were good years. My own favourite memories were when we beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 at home in January 1965 and I scored twice, and a few years earlier when we won 5-2 at Blackpool in October 1960. We also had a great run in the spring of 1963. At the beginning of March we were next to bottom of the table – only Leyton Orient were below us. Then we won eight on the trot; still, I think, the Club’s best-ever winning sequence in the top flight. On a Saturday in March we beat Manchester City 3-2 at Maine Road, stayed up over the weekend and then beat Manchester United 2-0 at Old Trafford.
“We kept virtually the same team for every game, and we did it without the injured Johnny Haynes. I think Pat O’Connell scored in both games and we finished the season above both United and City. I don’t think that has happened again.
“Then I remember once before a cup tie we had our usual stay at Worthing. Beddy had gone and Arthur Stevens was in charge. We were sitting around and Bobby Robson started to shake his head. He didn’t say what had upset him, only that we would all find out sooner or later.”
What Robson was referring to was the appointment of his manager at West Bromwich Albion, Vic Buckingham, as Beddy’s successor. Viewed in the context of our entire history, Buckingham, despite some very strong competition, has a strong claim to being our worst-ever Manager.
John was much too polite to be so critical but he did acknowledge that things changed at the Cottage.
“His training sessions involved us running round and round the track at Hurlingham, which was boring and unimaginative,” he said. “He also had a huge clear-out very quickly and I was one of the first to go, along with Jim Langley, Rodney Marsh, Pat O’Connell, Bobby Keetch, Maurice Cook and Graham Leggat. But, if I’m honest, he did me a favour.”
From the Cottage, John moved to Highfield Road, where Coventry City, managed by Jimmy Hill, were on the rise.
John is full of praise for our former Chairman: “As a player, I thought he was really under-rated. He did more than just run around a lot. He certainly was very fit and had lots of energy but he was also very shrewd tactically and he helped me a lot as a player when I was starting out. I used to like having him at inside right. As a manager, he was excellent. Alan Dicks was his coach and the training sessions were interesting and fun. In my first season, we won the (old) Second Division title and I scored in the crucial final game, a 3-1 home win over Millwall.
“I also scored the first-ever First Division goal at Highfield Road in a 2-2 draw against Sheffield United. I actually miskicked it and I remember the United keeper Alan Hodgkinson was not very complimentary.”
When Hill left Coventry and was succeeded by Noel Cantwell, John came back to London, signing for Orient in March 1968. It was not a good move.
“It was a disaster,” he admitted. “I only played a handful of games but injuries were starting to take their toll. I had an Achilles tendon problem which flared up early in my time at Brisbane Road. I was 30 or 31 and the injury would take at least a year to sort out. I knew it was time to call it a day, and I was ready to retire. I had no special qualifications and had a wife and family to support. So I did some coaching in schools while I did ‘the knowledge’. It took me a year and a day to make it and I was a black cab driver until I retired 10 years ago. It’s something a lot of former players do. At Fulham, Dave Metchick, Pat O’Connell and Fred Callaghan all later became cabbies.”
In middle age, John and his family lived in the same road as Jezzard, his old manager. John became a keen tennis player and once reached the semi-final in a father and son tournament: “We came up against Terry Dyson, who joined Fulham from Spurs in my last season at the Cottage, and his son. The prize was a trip to Spain but unfortunately we lost.”
Today, his interest in football is as keen as ever and his memory of his time at Fulham as clear as a bell: “Although I don’t go to matches much anymore, I’ll watch any game on television, not just the Barclays Premier League. There’s so much to admire about football these days, the skill and the fitness. And the television coverage is so good. But there’s a lot I don’t like, particularly the diving and the elbows. To say a player needs to use his elbows for leverage is nonsense. When you watch the great headers of a ball, like Tony Hateley or Wyn Davies, they never needed to use their elbows to gain extra height. Those sorts of antics do spoil the modern game.”
He retains his enthusiasm for Fulham and is delighted with the Club’s progress. As a natural winger with bags of pace and an eye for goal, he would have fitted easily into Martin Jol’s style of play, although he is much too discreet to make any such claim. But his involvement with Fulham goes beyond watching us from the comfort of his armchair. He’s very proud of the fact that his granddaughter Zoe works for the Club at Motspur Park.
“She joined exactly 50 years after I did and we talk about the Club a lot,” John said. “She’s as happy there in her role as I was in mine and I’m delighted the family link has been maintained across the generations.”
Talking to John, and others of his generation, it’s clear that football was fun and that Fulham was a special place. This is in marked contrast to some modern professionals who claim not to like the game very much and for whom playing is just another day in the office. Those of us old enough to remember those heady days in the First Division half a century ago are pleased to learn that the players enjoyed it as much as we did.