Fulham fans today can be broadly divided into two groups; the BAFs and the AAFs. The AAFs are those who have come on board since 1997, the After Al Fayeds, and have known nothing but good times. The BAFs, or Before Al Fayeds, can go back to a darker time, when the Cottage was sparsely populated, the Team was sliding down the divisions and the Club’s existence was threatened.
Yet even in the bad old days, there were personalities who made the journey to the Cottage rewarding and helped us keep the faith. It's not doing him an injustice to say that Jeff Eckhardt was one of the best players in a poor side, whose ability, attitude and commitment to Fulham’s cause helped lift the spirits of the supporters even when the going got really rough.
Now aged 47 and living in Newport, Jeff speaks in the same forthright and direct way as he used to play. He has had a 30-year involvement in football at all levels and has strong but well thought out opinions on most aspects of the modern game. He also has a very refreshing perspective on his own career.
For Sheffield-born Jeff, it all began with United, his home-town club and the side he and his family supported. He can still reel off the names of his early heroes, like Len Badger, Alan Woodward, Tony Currie, et al.
“I didn’t get signed up at 15 or 16 and so stayed on at school for A Levels,” Jeff explained. “I used to go to Bramall Lane and train with the juniors. Then, one day, the first team took a number of the reserves away to a game and I got a game for the reserves, against Coventry City. They had some big names in their side but I did well and in the end was offered a two-year contract. Ironically, the six lads who had apprenticeships at 16 were laid off.”
He was signed by Martin Peters but made the breakthrough under Ian Porterfield. “Unlike many managers, he had this policy of getting older players to room with the younger ones on away trips and in 1985/86, I roomed with Ray Lewington, who had joined us from Fulham,” he recalled. “And Ray always knew he would be a manager and promised me that I would be his first signing.
"I was on holiday in Tenerife when I read that Lew had gone back to Fulham as Manager and my girlfriend said that he’ll call me. Sure enough, I'd been at home a couple of hours when Ray phoned and asked, ‘How do you fancy it?’
“At the time I didn’t. I was in the first team, playing well and enjoying my football. But the following year, November 1987, I got dropped and when Lew asked again, I said yes. I figured that if Fulham were prepared to pay a fee for me then they were going to play me, and I wanted to play. So at the age of 22, I left home and went to the big city. I got the train to Kings Cross and it was the day of the Kings Cross disaster.
“I had six fantastic years at the Club. They were not the Club’s glory years,” Jeff admitted. "But I loved it; the football and the lifestyle. But as I got older, I realised that perhaps I had been operating in a comfort zone at the Cottage. I was Captain and knew I was going to get picked every week and took it for granted. When I was at Cardiff in my thirties, I had a manager, Frank Burrows, who pushed me and got more out of me than any other manager.
"He was very direct, and a bit scary. There was no nonsense with him and nobody messed him around but I had a great respect for him. I wish I had played for him earlier in my career.”
Managers liked Jeff because of his versatility. At the Cottage he played at full back, the centre of defence, midfield and up front. “I even had 20 minutes in goal once for Stockport County,” he pointed out. “I suppose I preferred midfield or up front because there was more freedom. At the back, one mistake could cost you the game but in midfield or up front there was always a chance you could make up for any mistakes.”
Jeff is at a loss to explain why his time at Fulham ended with relegation.
“There were some good players at the Cottage when I was there. Jim Stannard, Glen Thomas, Gary Brazil and Simon Morgan could all have played at a higher level. We had some weaknesses of course but so did all clubs at that level.
"Perhaps it was about management, and not getting the best out of what was available. Perhaps also we lost confidence in ourselves. There was no point using the behind-the-scenes uncertainty as an excuse. The players were never really aware of what was going on.”
After 270 games and 25 goals for Fulham, Jeff’s career took him back north to Stockport and then to South Wales, with Cardiff and Newport.
“I suppose going to Stockport was the worst financial decision I ever made but the football was good. I'd scored twice for Fulham at Edgeley Park and when we were relegated Danny Begera came in for me. There were a lot of changes at Fulham that summer and it was time for me to move on.
"With Stockport I went back up to the [old] Second Division and had two seasons there by which time I was 33. Although I didn’t want to go, Cardiff City signed me on a three-year contract after which, remarkably, I signed two further two-year contracts. There was never a dull moment and in my time at Ninian Park I think I had eight managers.
“My last appearance at the Cottage was as a Cardiff player, a Friday night match in January 1997, a game that was televised live by Sky. And I scored, but for Fulham. Still, we won 4-1 which was Fulham’s biggest defeat of the season. I remember a moment during that game when I went to the Riverside Stand to retrieve the ball for a throw in and one of the Fulham fans said, ‘Nice to see you again, Jeff.’ Where else would that happen but Fulham?
“I eventually lost my place at Cardiff and was coaching the youngsters but with a year or so still to run on my contract I wanted to play. We had a cup game and a number of players were injured. I wasn’t fully fit but figured with a break the following week, I could get through it. So I said I was fit.
"We lost, I had a poor game and it was my last match for Cardiff. So I went non-League with nearby Newport County. It was a bit of a culture shock dropping down a level or two, but there were some big matches, like a cup tie against Blackpool. And then until last summer, I was managing in the Welsh League. Now, after every Saturday for 30 years, I have decided to call it a day. I watch football on television but I have no direct involvement.
“I have kept some contacts from the old days. I went to George Wood’s 60th birthday recently, a small private party for football people. I get a Christmas card from Lew and I’m so pleased for him the way his career has developed. It’s great to see him with the England squad, and he deserves it. Everyone I know says what a good coach he is and nobody has a bad word to say about him.”
Today, Jeff plays golf (the Celtic Manor, home of the 2010 Ryder Cup is nearby) and runs his own tiling business. “I went to college and learnt the business with a big firm and two years ago went out on my own. I know there has been a recession on but I have only been without work for two days in those two years so I can’t complain. I often get recognised by supporters when I’m working in their homes, even without my hair, which is flattering but also a bit embarrassing.
“I watch the football on television but don’t miss it. Some of the antics of the modern players, the diving in particular, really winds me up. I watched in the summer the Olympics and loved the spirit shown by so many of the athletes. It was the same with the Ryder Cup a few weeks ago and you can’t get more professional than golf.
"The behaviour of some of the Barclays Premier League stars could end up turning people away from the game. And I won’t even mention the money. This is not an old player being resentful. I just wonder how such staggering salaries for 90 minutes work a week can be justified to hard-pressed supporters.”
Having said all that, Jeff still has enormous affection for Fulham and is delighted with our progress. “It's hard to believe that this is the same Club that just about kept its head above water in the early 1990s. But I'm very pleased for the supporters who were so fair in my day that they would applaud a good goal by the opposition. And I would love to come up and bring my nine-year-old daughter along. She knows I used to play football but I’d like to show her where I had so many happy years.”