With Barclays Premier League football returning to the Cottage on Saturday (12.45pm) after a three-week absence, we caught up with former Fulham and Stoke City keeper Mark Crossley to get his thoughts on the clash between two of his former sides.
Norm – as he was affectionately known throughout his career – was Tony Pulis’ first signing when he joined the Potters on loan in the 2002/03 season, before going on to spend four years in SW6. They’re both periods that he looks back on kindly.
“I absolutely loved my time at Fulham – absolutely loved it,” Mark told the official website. “I wanted to move to London just to experience it. I lived in a lovely little village called Kingswood and I made some great friends down there.
“Everything about the place – the Training Ground, the Chairman – it’s a fantastic Club. I have really, really fond memories of my years at Fulham. I absolutely loved it.”
When he was drafted in by Pulis in March 2003 (he’d already played one game on loan earlier in the season), Stoke were well and truly in a relegation dogfight in England’s second tier. It was a battle that would go all the way to the final day of the season – with Mark playing a huge role in the outcome.
“They were struggling at the bottom of what is now the Championship,” Mark recalled. “I was at Middlesbrough and I wasn’t playing at the time – ironically I was number two to Mark Schwarzer – and I was getting a bit frustrated with the lack of games.
“Tony Pulis rang up Middlesbrough to see if he could get me on loan and they agreed to it with a 24-hour recall clause inserted. As it happened, I ended up keeping seven clean sheets in 11 games and we stayed up on the last day of the season.
“When I came in, things didn’t look good. You could sense an atmosphere – the club was in trouble and on the brink of relegation. All I can say is that it was a masterstroke from the manager – not just to bring myself in, but to bring other experienced players in – and that’s the reason Stoke stayed up, because of that bit more experience in the dressing room.
“I built up a really good relationship there with Tony Pulis and I’m still in touch with him now - I text him at the beginning of every season to wish him good luck. I think he’s done a fantastic job there, to be honest.”
Crossley became a hero in Staffordshire in the short time he was there, but City could not agree terms on a permanent deal and the Wales international instead made the move to Fulham.
“I knew Chris Coleman, who was Manager at the time, and he said that if Maik Taylor goes to Birmingham City would I want to come to Fulham?” Crossley explained. “I told him that I really wanted to go somewhere that I was going to play and he said, ‘look, come here. Edwin van der Sar’s not going to be here forever, he’ll eventually go to a top club. All I can guarantee you is that you’ll get your chance.’
“And, true to his word, I got my chance, but I just suffered through bad injuries and it didn’t work out. So Chris let Maik leave because he wanted to play and I replaced Maik, basically. It all happened in the space of about 24 hours! My medical took longer to complete than the transfer!
“I think my medical at Fulham was about two days. But you can understand why – I think it should be done like that because there’s plenty of folk who have signed for clubs on long-term deals who’ve gone on to have problems with knees and backs and things like that. The medical staff at Fulham were absolutely fantastic – they were first class.”
Crossley has continued to keep tabs on both sides since he left Staffordshire and South-West London respectively, and he confessed that he’s been slightly underwhelmed with the performances of the two clubs during the current campaign.
“I think they’ve both been a little bit inconsistent this season,” he admitted. “I’m sure they both feel like they could have achieved a little bit more. I think Fulham will have expected to do a little bit better and I think Tony will have expected to maybe do a little bit better as well.
“Looking at the season as a whole, there’s some good points and some bad points but, without being too harsh, I think they’ll both feel as though they’ve underachieved.
“But it’s to both clubs’ credit that they’re a force in this league now, there’s no doubt about it. At the beginning of the season, if you’re discussing with a pal who you think will get relegated, Stoke are never mentioned anymore. It’s the same with Fulham – Fulham are an established Premier League team as well.
“On Saturday, Fulham will have to deal with the aerial presence and the power of Stoke, and they’ll need to soak up the pressure from them being slightly direct. If I was going to make a prediction, I think I’d have to sit on the fence and go for a 2-2 draw.”