“I wasn’t a skilful player, but I was very committed to the cause and I enjoyed every minute of my time at that great Club.”
That quote could be attributed to any of a number of Fulham players over the years, particularly members of our teams that spent time battling in the depths of the Football League.
In this instance, though, the man in question is one Neil Smith. Or Smudger, as he has been known throughout his career – and his life, for that matter.
Smith was a robust central midfielder who was about as committed as Dimitar Berbatov is nonchalant. Sure he got on the wrong side of the referee a few times (he racked up 10 bookings in his debut season at the Cottage) but his hunger and work ethic made him an instant hit with the Fulham faithful.
Signed by Micky Adams ahead of the 1997/98 season, Smith soon found himself in the uncomfortable position of seeing the Manager who brought him to the Club replaced.
“It was a big concern because obviously Micky had done a great job and he wanted me to come in to fill a midfield role and then he left,” Neil told fulhamfc.com. “That wasn’t because we were doing particularly badly or anything, it was because Mohamed Al Fayed wanted to bring in his own people.
“Then all of a sudden you’re thinking, ‘well, I’ve now got to make these guys want to keep me.’ Because obviously I knew that Ray Wilkins and Kevin Keegan were going to want to bring some big names in and that I’d have to compete against them. That was always in my mindset but I wanted to compete and get in the side, rather than just leave.”
Keegan offered him a way out of the Club - but leaving without proving himself was never an option for Smith.
“I remember having a conversation with Kevin,” he recalled. “He said, ‘look, you might not start.’ I asked him why and he said he was going to bring his own players in and these players were going to be the future of the Club.
“All I asked for was a chance; I said, ‘well, you give me a chance and I’ll take it.’ He said he’d get me another club but I was determined to prove to them that I was good enough to stay.”
Smith certainly did do enough to stay as he went on to make 52 appearances for the Whites as we reached the Play-Offs in the (old) Division Two.
“We probably let ourselves down against Grimsby Town [in the Play-Offs],” Smith admitted. “So some might say that year was a letdown but obviously the following year was just a dream come true.
“Playing all those games; we beat Southampton and Aston Villa in the FA Cup and then we were at Old Trafford. We played Liverpool in the League Cup after we’d knocked Southampton out of that one too.
“These were all top-flight teams. We just had these cup runs and it gave you a taste of what it could be like at Fulham if everything went right.”
The cup runs were undeniably fantastic for third-tier Fulham but the highlight of that season was landing the Club’s first trophy for some 50 years as we won the league at a canter.
“It’s always going to be special in my eyes,” Smith said of his title-winning campaign at Craven Cottage. “That season we were meeting up with Michael Jackson!
“When I signed from Gillingham, if you’d told me that Michael Jackson would be walking into the changing room, Mohamed Al Fayed would be the Chairman, the Manager was going to be Kevin Keegan and that I’d be playing with Philippe Albert and Peter Beardsley, I’d never have believed it.
“So when I was told I could leave the Club, I was thinking ‘why the hell would I want to leave this place?’ I wanted to be part of it.
“In fairness, I was never going to be a massive name or massive legend like some of the people who have played there before, but, in my little world, when I watch Fulham on television, I can say that I was part of the building blocks that got them to where they are now.
“I can look back on my time there and say I was a champion – we won a championship when I was there. Not many people can say that in any walk of football.”
The Al Fayed revolution was really beginning to gather pace in the 1998/99 campaign as our Chairman went about honouring his promise that we’d be a Premier League side within five years of his takeover.
For Fulham fans who had lived through the dreary times of relegation and potential extinction, what was happening at their Club as the turn of the century approached was really quite remarkable.
“All of a sudden people like Chris Coleman, Kit Symons, Steve Finnan, Rufus Brevett and Paul Peschisolido were joining,” Neil explained. “Then there were internationals like Beardsley and Albert joining. The Club was a massive pull for them and they were happy coming down to the [old] Second Division.
“Having them as teammates naturally made you a better player, I believe. You had all these good players, but none of them were big-timers, they all wanted to help and they all wanted the same thing. It wasn’t competitive about what people were earning; it was just a great, great team spirit.
“That was brought in by Ray to start with and by Kevin but I think the major player of that was Chris Coleman. You had all these big names coming in but he made the ones that were already there feel part of it too. It wasn’t a ‘them’ and ‘us,’ it was a togetherness.
“I think the team spirit that we had that year was one of the best I’ve ever known. We were winning, the wives and the girlfriends were all out together as well – it was a really good family club in that respect.”
He added: “But, in fairness, the atmosphere was great when I first joined too. There was already a massive team spirit there with the likes of Richard Carpenter, Darren Freeman, Paul Watson, and Simon Morgan, who was obviously the leader of those.
“That spirit could easily have gone. I was in the middle because you had all these names already there so I then joined and tried to get in with them, and then you’ve got all these big name signings coming in. But the blend was fantastic and the team spirit would win you games before you’d even run out on the pitch.
“You weren’t just playing for Fulham, you were playing for your mates. That’s what they were in the end, they were your mates. I keep in contact with some of them now and it’s brilliant, it’s like I never left them.
“There were so many characters at the Club at the same time – you were never lonely in the changing room, put it that way. There was always someone to have a laugh and a joke with and there weren’t any cliques. Everyone was in it together.”
Our final game of the 1998/99 campaign - a 3-0 triumph over Preston North End – signalled the end of Smith’s Fulham career, with the combative midfielder representing the Whites on 90 occasions across two seasons. Not a statistic to be sniffed at considering he was told he was unlikely to be first choice, soon after arriving in SW6.
“I remember having the conversation with Paul Bracewell, who had taken over as Manager, and it was a big shock,” Neil said when asked about the circumstances surrounding his departure.
“I was told they were getting rid of me and someone else was coming in. I said I wanted to stay and fight for my place but Paul told me that the man coming in was Lee Clark who was going to cost millions of pounds. I actually took it as a compliment that they were going to pay that much to replace me but I just felt it was a little bit rushed.
“I didn’t want to go to Reading but Tommy Burns sort of sold me the club. I wanted to be at Fulham but I didn’t want to just stay in the Reserves for a year because I wasn’t going to be given a chance.
“We’d just won the championship so I really wanted to kick on but the target was to get into the Premier League so I totally understand that he had to bring in bigger stars. I still think there was a chance that I may have surprised him, but we’ll never know.”
There is no resentment from Neil, though and, from speaking to him, it’s clear that his two years at Fulham still hold a special place in his heart.
“People ask when was the best time of my career and I say that promotion year,” he admitted. “Not just on the pitch but off it too, it was brilliant. And the supporters were, honestly, fantastic in my time there – I can’t thank them enough. My only regret was that when I left it was sort of out the back door and I didn’t get a chance to actually say thanks to the supporters for my time there, because they were fantastic.”