From the past or present, we catch up with a different Fulham personality. This week, it's Great Escapee Paul Stalteri.
Fulham have had many teams over the years that fans think of with great fondness. There’s the 1975 side that played a record number of matches to reach a first-ever FA Cup Final, Micky Adams’ promotion heroes of 1997 who set Fulham on a pathway to the very top, and, of course, the UEFA Europa League stars who took us to Hamburg against all the odds in 2010.
One such example of individuals who have also gone down in Fulham folklore are the escapees from 2008 who ensured we avoided relegation from the Premier League on the final day of the season. Paul Stalteri was only at Fulham for 14 matches, but the fact that he was part of that side means he will be forever held in regard by fans who went through the emotional rollercoaster that was the 2007/08 season.
Signed on loan from Tottenham Hotspur on 31st January, Stalteri became a mainstay in the side, playing all but one of our remaining fixtures, and despite only being at the Club for less than four months, it’s a period in his career the right-back remembers kindly.
“Although I was only there on loan, it was a situation where from day one I was accepted within the team, within the dressing room,” Paul tells fulhamfc.com. “I like to think that, even though it was a short time, I had a good relationship with the fans, too. I think they appreciated what I brought to the Club.
“Even though I was there on loan it felt like it was my team and it was my Club, so it was a real moment of pride for me when we stayed up. That remains a big highlight and a big talking point for me in my career, helping to save Fulham from being pretty much relegated with five games to go.”
Those five games at the end of the season – of which we famously won four – are vividly remembered by Fulham fans. But every single point that we scrapped and fought for that term proved crucial as we only stayed up ahead of Reading by virtue of our goal difference.
One match that could have led to a very different future for Fulham was Blackburn Rovers away in the March. Our hosts had taken the lead just before the hour mark – but it was a source of huge contention after Morten Gamst Pedersen had all but assaulted Stalteri in the penalty area to allow himself a free header to put his side into the lead. It’s a decision that still rankles with the Canadian.
“It was a cross that came in and it was one of those ones that was, without a doubt, a blatant foul,” he recalls. “If I remember rightly it was Pedersen who swept my legs under, then took me out on top, and then it was a cross with an open net.
“I was just sitting there and the referee completely didn’t see a thing – I think he was just looking at the cross and nothing in the middle of the play. When you see the replay you can see what an unfortunate goal it was to concede, but luckily enough we struck with a free-kick towards the end of the game to equalise and draw 1-1.
“So we took a point out of it but theirs was definitely a goal that shouldn’t have counted. The Manager Roy Hodgson felt the same and the players felt the same, but it was one of those things.”
A win over Everton followed that debatable match in Lancashire, but the following three outings only yielded a solitary point as Fulham’s seven-year stay in England’s top flight was seemingly coming to an end.
But an away victory over Reading sparked the most unlikely of recoveries. Defeat by Liverpool may have followed, but we took maximum points from our remaining clashes with Manchester City, Birmingham City and Portsmouth to ensure we’d live to fight another season.
“It was fantastic,” Paul admits when discussing that season finale. “Especially seeing as three of those wins were away from home. I don’t think Fulham had won three away games in a season for a long time, let alone three games on the bounce away from home. So it was pretty phenomenal considering what our last fixtures were at that time.
“When we were down 2-0 against Man City and we came into the dressing room at half-time, we were pretty much relegated. I think if we’d lost that game it would have been one of those situations where we might have struggled and maybe would have been relegated. But we turned that game around to win 3-2 and that gave us that last belief that we had a legitimate chance of staying up because, let’s face it, at half-time, two nothing down, away from home, we were relegated at that moment.
“Then the Birmingham win was a massive result because it allowed us to keep it in our own hands against Portsmouth away on the final day. But, in saying that, it was a situation where I felt the Manager did a fantastic job in keeping the players on the ground because, although the fans were incredible and Craven Cottage was on a buzz, it wasn’t finished yet.
“The point he drilled into us right after the game in the dressing room was that business wasn’t yet done and that we still had another game to go, although I think the fans just had that belief that after all those fantastic results there was no way we were going to throw it away on the last game of the season.”
The tension building up to that final day trip to Fratton Park was sleep-depriving. For the first time, our destiny was in our own hands; win, we’re safe, fail to do so and we’re almost certainly a second-tier side once again.
“People at the Club are relying on you, employees are relying on you,” Paul explains as he discusses the anxiety ahead of that game. “When teams go down, certain positions change at clubs and certain positions get let go. There was a lot of pressure in terms of not just the fans and the team itself, but within the Club – people’s livelihoods were at stake.
“We approached the week the same as any other week. We trained the exact same schedule with the same routine, even though we knew it was the biggest game of the season. The history of the Club was riding on it, the fans were riding on it and the players ourselves were riding on it.
“Games don’t get any bigger than that but we just made sure we went out there and just played the game. That was the focus and the thought going into the whole week. It’s a match that we still needed to play, nothing else. If you start thinking too much about it, then I think the moment will pass you by and you might not come up with the result that you need.”
But Fulham did get the result we needed on that sweltering day by the south coast, as Danny Murphy rose highest to glance home Jimmy Bullard’s 76th minute free-kick to score one of the most famous goals in our history.
Stalteri had done what he’d been brought in by Hodgson to do – help Fulham stay up – but a permanent move to SW6 never materialised, much to the frustration of the player.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” he admits. “We spoke with Roy and had a couple of meetings right after the season and I know Roy was keen to try to get something done, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. Throughout the summer I think Tottenham were asking for a high fee and Fulham didn’t really want to pay it and they eventually moved on, and that’s just the way it went.
“At that moment I was a little bit disappointed because we were trying to get a deal done and I would have loved to have moved over there on a permanent basis because I had such a wonderful time. I thought the Club was great, the fans were fantastic, and the team had a great group of guys as well. The three, four months I was there were fantastic, it’s just at the time I would have loved to have made the move a permanent one.”
Now located back in his home city of Toronto, the recently retired Stalteri maintains a firm interest in Fulham matters. Not just because of his stint as our first choice right-back, but also due to a couple of his former Spurs colleagues now plying their trade down by the banks of the Thames.
“Martin Jol was the coach who signed me at Spurs,” he explains. “We had a good relationship – he’s moved on a few different places since then but I think he always loved the Premier League and loved living in London. I know he’s been at Hamburg and he’s even been back to Amsterdam with Ajax, but even though he used to talk about how Ajax was a dream club for him at Tottenham, I think he liked the Premier League more than anywhere else. It’s good to see Fulham doing well and it’s good to see Martin doing well, too, as he’s a good guy.”
He continues: “Dimitar Berbatov is someone I played against him for a number of years in Germany and then I played with him when he came to Tottenham. He was one of those guys who, at the time when Spurs were looking into buying him, they asked for my opinion on him several times, and I told them to go for it and buy him yesterday! He was at the top of his game at that time for Leverkusen and I always admired him as a player – he’s fantastic.
“He did great at Tottenham and he’s doing well for Fulham this year so I thought it was a great pick up. I couldn’t believe he went for such a cheap price – I was looking at some of the moves in the summer and three or four million for Berbatov, when some of these other guys are going for 10 million, is brilliant. I know he’s a bit older and it was on the back of a season where he hadn’t played that much, but the quality of the player is still there so it was a great bit of business.”
The long-term effect of the Whites’ survival in 2008 is immeasurable, and while Stalteri ended up enjoying his relegation battle here owing to the favourable outcome, he’s pleased to see that there hasn’t been another one since.
“That was a huge season for Fulham to stay up,” he states. “From then on they’ve just become stronger and stronger, and pretty much haven’t been in a relegation battle since that season. I watch the current side on television and I follow results all the time.
“Any club I’ve played with I follow the results and Fulham is definitely one of those ones that I continuously keep my eye on. It’s a great football club to be a part of, and I think all the guys there know that too.”