When a 37-year-old Peter Beardsley joined Fulham in November 1998 on a free transfer from Bolton Wanderers following a loan deal, the Club were just about to embark on an unforgettable journey, albeit one he would not play a full part in.
Following the takeover by Chairman Mohamed Al Fayed, the Whites had pushed for promotion during the 1997/98 season and finished the season in sixth place – sneaking into the Play-Offs on goal difference. The former England forward played in the last eight games of the season and helped us over the line, but manager Ray Wilkins was sacked just before the first-leg of the Play-Offs and Beardsley’s former Newcastle United teammate Kevin Keegan, who had been working as the Club’s Chief Operating Officer, was brought in to replace him.
“I came here on loan initially, under Ray Wilkins who was manager at the time,” Beardsley recalled to Fulham’s official website. “We got into the Play-Offs and unfortunately lost to Grimsby Town [Beardsley scoring from the spot in a first-leg 1-1 draw; before missing the 1-0 defeat away from home].
“The following year obviously we were under Keegan and I remember it being a really special time. I had an unbelievable time at the Club. My wife and two children used to watch the games from the Cottage and it was brilliant. Everything about the Club was top class.”
Under Al Fayed and Keegan’s direction, Fulham were on the rise and attracting a player of Beardsley’s class – he had won two league titles, one FA Cup and had made 59 appearances for his country – suggested that we would be able to make the step up.
“The finances, when you look at football now, have changed a lot,” Beardsley added. “Fulham are part of the big league now and obviously it made a difference in terms of getting there [to the top flight]. People say it’s a small club, but it’s a special club. Down at the Cottage, on the riverbank, it’s a special location for the stadium and everything about the Club is special.
“Mr Al Fayed used to come into the dressing room. Never to say anything, or to interfere, but he’d just come in after we lost and say ‘Don’t worry lads, start again on Monday. You can’t change what’s just happened, but you can change the future’ - that kind of thing. He was an unbelievably positive person and the fact that he’s still involved in the Club is a special thing for them.”
Fulham would not have to wait long for promotion: it arrived in Keegan’s first full season as the side swept all before them to claim the Division Two title with 101 points. Beardsley, though, had left by the time the celebrations could begin - opting to move to Hartlepool after making 13 starts before Christmas.
“Kevin was honest with me and told me that I wasn’t going to play every week,” he said. “To be fair to Kevin, I could have stayed, but to be honest I would have felt like a fraud, in the sense that I would not have been playing my part. I would have been sat in the stands. I had a chance to go to Hartlepool United and help keep them in league, which was my aim when I left Fulham. I got a chance and I took it.”
In leaving when he did, Beardsley missed out on one of the greatest moment in Fulham’s history as they wrote their name in the record books that summer, but the Club still holds a special place in his heart.
“Kevin was very honest with me from the start and I have no regrets about leaving when I did,” he added. “I still have the medal and I could go straight and get it for you now as it’s in the same place in the house and I look at it every day. I’m very proud that I was part of the team that got promoted and it was a great time to be a part of the Club. Everyone was top class to me and the ones who were there initially with me - the likes of Chris ‘Cookie’ Coleman, Rufus Brevett and Kit Symons - were all a different class. I have a lot of really good friends there and if I had the time over again and if I was offered the same opportunity then I would do it all again.
“I lived with Kevin in one of Mr Al Fayed’s flats opposite Harrods and we used to come down on the train from Newcastle on Monday morning - I got on at Newcastle and he did at Darlington – and then we’d stay down there basically until Saturday. My wife would come down on the Friday night if we were playing on the Saturday and then we’d all get the train back up to Newcastle after the game.
“I learnt a lot from Kevin. Obviously he was having meetings with Mr Al Fayed a lot of the time and it was like having my own personal chauffeur. He took me everywhere and the lads were a different class and deserved all their success.”
As Fulham prepare to take on another of his former sides, Everton, this weekend, Beardsley also remembers his time at Goodison in a similar vein; despite the fact he joined from local rivals Liverpool. It is a move that few have managed successfully over the years due to the fierce rivalry between the red and blue of the city, but he recalls that it was not such a problematic transition.
“I went from Liverpool to Everton and it was easy for me as a person, but a lot of people who were unsure said it could be difficult,” he said. “I never had any stick and the Evertonians made me feel so welcome; I had two brilliant years there.
“I’m lucky to have played for a lot of great clubs in my career. But I have to say that two of the very best were Fulham and Everton. I would call them ‘friendly clubs’ in terms of how they look after their players and fans, and their history, and I wouldn’t swap a day at either club. Even now when I go back, I’m treated with so much respect by both sides and it’s an incredible feeling.”
Fulham’s record at Goodison Park is not a good one – we have never won there in 21 games – but Beardsley believes that the Whites could get a draw on Saturday.
“I’m really delighted that Fulham have Martin Jol as manager,” he said. “He is top class. I really love the Club and look for their result every week as the job he has done has been incredible. The players he has brought in, like [Dimitar] Berbatov who is a superstar, have been great and his knowledge of the world game is impressive. I’ve always loved him when he was at Tottenham and Ajax; he plays football the right way and everything about the Club is going the right way.
“When you look at Fulham going to Tottenham and winning, when you look at them heading up to Newcastle and being unlucky to lose in the last minute, I think the Whites could get a draw. Everton will be disappointed to have lost last weekend [1-0 to Sunderland] and their hopes of Europe have been dented, but I think both sides will be happy with the draw – and it would be a great result for Fulham given their form there.”