With standards set high, the 1999/00 campaign was seen as a disappointing one for Fulham as we finished some way off the promotion contenders. Ninth place was nothing to be ashamed of, by any means, but the bubbling ambition at the Cottage meant everyone craved better.
And so Mohamed Al Fayed made the decision to bring legendary France midfielder Jean Tigana to the Club as Manager. It was a masterstroke. Fulham began the 2000/01 season in scintillating fashion, winning our first 11 games of the season and scoring more than 30 goals in the process.
The strength of our side was immense for a second tier outfit. Captain Chris Coleman and Andy Melville marshalled the defence expertly, with Steve Finnan and Rufus Brevett providing the width either side of them. The central midfield trio of John Collins, Sean Davis and Lee Clark combined tenacity and flair, while each was also capable of threading a pass through the eye of a needle.
Up front there was a young Frenchman leading the line – his name was Louis Saha. Fulham fans knew little about the striker aside from a brief loan spell he’d had at Newcastle United in his career, but a goal on his debut set the pattern for what was to come that season. He was ably supported by the already established Barry Hayles and the on-loan Luis Boa Morte. Between the three of them, they would score 72 goals that season.
By Christmas, Fulham had a 10-point advantage over second place Bolton Wanderers, and our goal difference was 20 better than our nearest challengers. Boxing Day saw the visit of Watford – a team who looked as though they would be real challengers to our aspirations in the early stages of the campaign – and they were torn apart at the Cottage. A Saha penalty got us underway, before Hayles’ hat-trick stunned the Hornets and Andrejs Stolcers’ naughty flick rubbed salt in the wounds. It was going to take something really special to stop the juggernaut that was Fulham Football Club from reaching the Premiership.
The season was tainted a few days into the New Year, though, when Coleman was involved in a serious car crash. He suffered multiple injuries to his leg and the severity of the situation was immediately apparent. Sadly, he would not play another professional football match.
His teammates did him proud through the remainder of the campaign though. The first match after his accident saw Fulham narrowly defeated by Manchester United in the FA Cup, before a run of just one defeat in seven league matches saw us maintain our 10-point lead at the top of the table.
Three consecutive victories in March then put us in an unassailable position, as we enjoyed a magnificent 17-point gap between ourselves and those below. The only side who looked remotely like threatening our crown was Graeme Souness’ Blackburn Rovers, who had three games in hand.
They won two and drew the other of those games in hand to close the gap – to an extent – on the Whites ahead of a crucial clash between the two sides at Ewood Park. Souness also chose to raise the stakes ahead of kick-off with his assertion that, despite Fulham’s position in the table, Blackburn were the division’s strongest team. The Whites would famously go on to win that grudge match in front of the live Sky cameras and, although it didn’t officially secure promotion, we had one foot in the Premiership.
We had to wait just three days for confirmation, with Boa Morte’s 85th minute winner at Huddersfield Town rubberstamping our status as a top-flight Club for the first time in 33 years. All that was left to secure was the title – an accolade that was duly achieved in our following game against Sheffield Wednesday (although we did require another stoppage time strike from Davis) when we drew 1-1.
It was a party atmosphere all summer in SW6, and anticipation for the new campaign swelled even further when the fixture list was announced. First up: Manchester United at Old Trafford.
With just three summer signings in the starting line-up, Fulham stepped out at the Theatre of Dreams completely fearless as we prepared to take on a United side who gave a debut to new £19m man Ruud van Nistelrooy. It was the Whites who made the boldest of starts and Tigana’s men were duly rewarded as early as the fourth minute when Saha beautifully lobbed his compatriot Fabien Barthez after being put through by Davis’ brilliant pass. It was apt that our prolific frontman from the previous season would be the player to open our account in the Premiership.
David Beckham equalised on 35 minutes after the home side had been awarded a contentious free-kick, but Fulham were ahead soon after half-time through that man Saha once again. A quick-fire double from van Nistelrooy ended up winning the game for United, but Fulham could hold their heads high after matching the country’s best for the majority of the match. The Whites were back in the big time.