In the concluding part of his Memory Lane feature, Sean Davis discusses his time in the top flight, his departure from the Club, and his desire to once again establish himself as part of the Fulham family.
The 2001/02 campaign was the most eagerly anticipated in our recent history, as generations of Fulham fans looked forward to watching their side play top-flight football for the first time.
It was 33 years since the Whites had competed in the highest echelon of English football, and the excitement in the build-up to our opening match – which happened to be against the reigning champions – was palpable.
“It didn’t really sink in that we were in the Premiership until we played the first game,” Sean recalled of his first taste of action among the country’s elite. “That match was, obviously, away to Manchester United where we were unlucky not to get a point.
“It was a fantastic start for us and I think that game for Louis Saha sealed his move to United in years to come because he absolutely abused their defence. We had a very good team with a lot of experience but also a lot of young players as well. It was a fantastic side to play in.”
Fulham lost 3-2 that afternoon but impressed in defeat, twice taking the lead through the aforementioned Saha. The first came after just four minutes after the Frenchman had been found by a magnificent lofted through-ball from Davis.
“It wasn’t a bad assist!” Sean admitted when reminded of his pass. “I saw that recently actually. Fulham played on Sky and they were showing some clips of us before the Premiership and then the first game in the Premiership and I saw the goal and thought ‘I look young there!’ I think I still look exactly the same, although my missus would say different!”
We didn’t have to wait long to get our first points of the season on the board, though, as a clash at Craven Cottage just three days later proved very prosperous indeed.
“The next game after United was Sunderland and that was an important one,” Sean said. “It was 0-0 for ages and then Barry Hayles scored after doing a little one-two with [Steed] Malbranque and we ended up winning 2-0.
“That was a massive game because it was the first match at the Cottage in the Premiership. I remember Bazza smashing it in which was obviously a good feeling because I was good friends with Barry – and we’re still close now. It was a good game as well.”
Our inaugural Premiership campaign eventually proved to be solid rather than spectacular, with Jean Tigana’s side finishing in a respectable 13th place in the table.
The following season was more turbulent, as the Club ground-shared with Queens Park Rangers but, while Sean admits the situation wasn’t ideal, the midfielder still recalls some matches from our temporary home with fondness.
“We played one season in the Premiership and moved to Loftus Road after that,” he recalled. “That was a disappointment because, obviously, we all wanted to play at Craven Cottage as that was our home.
“I remember a few games at Loftus Road that spring memories. The game when we were 2-0 down to Tottenham Hotspur and came back to win 3-2; that’s one that stands out. When we beat Liverpool was another one – I think it was 3-2 – because I was injured and then I came back on. I had a shot, it got saved and Facundo Sava scored.
“Then I scored with a deflection – well, I count it as my goal, even though it came off Facundo. You remember the better games you play in and I thought I’d done well in that game. There are quite a few matches that stand out. We beat Bolton Wanderers at home around the Christmas period when I scored and then we went to Dublin for our Christmas party so that was a good day!”
Davis had become one of the first names on the Fulham teamsheet – initially under Tigana, and then again when Chris Coleman took over. It was a blow, therefore, when the star appeared to be on his way to Merseyside after the Club reluctantly accepted a bid from Everton in the summer of 2003.
The former England Under-21 international had handed in a transfer request a matter of weeks previously, but, in hindsight, he was relieved that the deal broke down.
“Everton failed me in the medical,” he explained. “Then a few months later I scored past them in the FA Cup! It was a weird one really but, when you have a medical, you have a scan and a lot of things show up. Sometimes things show up but there’s nothing really there and that was the reason I failed that one. To be honest, I’m glad I failed it – I wish I had failed all the medicals so I could have stayed at Fulham for my whole career. But that’s just the way it goes.”
We would only see Davis in the white of Fulham for one more season, though, as Tottenham came calling in July 2004. And while Sean is reluctant to use terms such as ‘regret’ when discussing his departure from the Club, he readily admits that he may have done things differently if he could have his time again.
“I don’t have regrets, as such, about leaving,” he said. “Tigana was instrumental in my career and he left and a lot of the other players were leaving and then Spurs came in. It was never about money, to be honest, it was just about maybe trying something different.
“I don’t regret it but obviously looking back now, if someone said ‘would you go?’ I’d probably say no. If I could do it again I’d probably be one of those players who stays at the same club throughout their career because the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, like I found.
“Fulham was probably the only club – Portsmouth was close to it – but Fulham was the only club that really had that family feel. They looked after you and they loved you and they made you your own. If I was to turn the clocks back now then I wouldn’t go but, at the time, I felt it was the right move for me.
“It was as much to prove something to myself and to have a change of atmosphere. I’d been at Fulham a long time so I wanted to see if I could play at a higher level. I’m not saying that Tottenham are a much bigger club than Fulham but, at the time, it felt like that.
“But I don’t think you can live with regrets – at the time I felt it was right but if someone asked me now if I could go back in time, would I still move? I’d definitely say no, I would have stayed at Fulham for my whole career.”
After a disappointing season-and-a-half at White Hart Lane, Davis made the switch to Portsmouth where he helped them avoid relegation and reach the FA Cup Final during a three-and-a-half year stay. From then on, though, things became bleak for the tireless midfielder.
He moved to Bolton on a free transfer in 2009, but only made four appearances for the Trotters in three years. A loan spell at Bristol City last year allowed him to make another three run-outs, but continued trouble with his knee made up Sean’s mind. He retired at the end of the 2011/12 season.
“It’s difficult, I’m not going to lie,” he admitted, when asked about life after football. “It’s helped by the difficult three years that I had before. I signed for Bolton and was injured for three years there. I did everything to get back and it just wasn’t right.
“On my side of things, I never left any stone unturned – I gave everything and never worked so hard in my life, but it just wasn’t meant to be. That made it a bit easier because if I’d have been playing for three years and then got one injury – bang - and was then out then it would have been harder to take.
“But I was injured for three years and played hardly any games in that time so I kind of knew that it was coming. I always had a little light there but now, being retired, and knowing that I’m never going to play again, it is difficult.
“You miss the day in, day out things, like the banter. The banter at home with the missus isn’t the same! So you do miss the banter and you miss having that focus, having a goal. I think the main thing for me now is to try and get a focus and a goal.”
The goal he is currently working towards is back home in South-West London. Having come through the Fulham Academy himself, Sean is keen to help our current crop of young stars in any way he can.
“Hopefully I can maybe do a bit of work with the Academy and help the young lads,” he said. “Not so much coaching but trying to help the Academy in any which way possible really.
“I’d like to do anything where I can reaffirm myself with the Club - I’ve still got a lot of friends there. I’ve spoken to the Academy Director, Huw Jennings, and he might have me talk to a few of the younger lads and, hopefully, we can get a few more local lads coming through the ranks now because, apart from Matt Briggs, I think I was the last one to come through.
“I don’t think there have been any other lads coming through from the Battersea or Fulham area so I’d love someone to come through and experience what I experienced, because you can’t take that away.”
The man who made just under 200 appearances for Fulham has already undertaken a different role at the Club since he retired from the sport, hosting several hospitality events on matchdays.
“The hospitality stuff I’ve been doing for the Club has been great – it’s fantastic,” he admitted. “I’ve done a few of the games and just to go back and to talk to people about football and my experiences and just literally being around the Club again has been great.
“I’m doing the Boat Trip for the Manchester United game so I’m looking forward to that and, hopefully, I can keep doing that for years and years to come.”
Davis is the only man to play for Fulham in all four divisions of the Football League – hopefully nobody will ever have the opportunity to match his feat – and he admits the progress of the Club has been nothing short of spectacular.
“I remember being so jealous watching Fulham play in the UEFA Europa League Final,” he recalled. “I was sitting in my house and I was obviously proud that Fulham were there but, at the time, I was thinking that if I’d have only stayed, I could have been there playing.
“It was kind of mixed emotions watching that but the Club has progressed so far. I remember when I was first at Fulham, we used to train at the BBC fields across the road from where the Training Ground is now and then we moved to the Priory Lane/Bank of England training ground.
“Then you see Motspur Park get built into what it is today and it’s fantastic. And it’s great they’re still at Craven Cottage – I think it’s one of the best grounds in the Barclays Premier League for history and atmosphere. It’s good and I’m proud to be a part of that and to have come through the ranks with all the different managers. For Fulham to still be in the Premier League now is fantastic.
“It makes what we did in 2001 even more special. It would have been sad if we’d gone straight back down after getting promoted. But a lot of that must go down to the Chairman – the amount of time and effort and money he’s put into the Club has been fantastic.
“The Club’s still running well and isn’t in massive debt and it’s a good family Club so the Chairman, the staff and the people down there have done a fantastic job in keeping it in a good, stable position.”
Davis has experienced more highs and lows than most footballers. While he enjoyed three promotions, an England call-up and hero status at Craven Cottage, he also saw his career end prematurely – any sportsperson’s worst nightmare.
So with the majority of his ‘highs’ coming at Fulham, the list of career highlights he reels off is none too surprising.
“There are so many good moments and so many memories – it’s hard to just choose one,” he explained. “The memory of going to Carlisle United away in 1997 was amazing. I wasn’t even on the bench, but I was just happy to be there when Roddy McAree scored that famous goal to guarantee promotion.
“There was obviously myself scoring against Blackburn Rovers in our Division One promotion year. The fans still sing about that I think – I’ve heard them sing it a few times. My main highlight would probably have to be that whole season of getting promoted.
“When Tigana took over, he brought a whole change to the Club and he moved it forward in terms of facilities and how you go about training, how to look after yourself and the way you play football and the way you conduct yourself.
“I think that season, being around those players – the likes of Chris Coleman, Lee Clark, Andy Melville, Rufus Brevett, Louis Saha, Steve Finnan – all those great players who went on to achieve so much, especially Louis Saha and Edwin van der Sar who went on to play for Man United and Steve Finnan who played for Liverpool. So I think that season will probably be the biggest highlight in my career.