Cult Hero

Saturday 27 July 2013 09:00

Fulham have had more than their fair share of characters over the years, players that for one reason or another have left their mark on the Cottage faithful. Ian McCulloch reveals our most colourful cult heroes...

What does a footballer have to do to become a cult hero? Well, he could score the goal that takes his team to their one and only FA Cup Final - that would do very nicely for starters.

And if he’s also a brave, exciting centre-forward with a really good eye for a goal, and spectacular ones at that, well, that should just about seal it. So step forward John Mitchell, striker extraordinaire, with a goal that will surely rank as one of the most significant in the whole annals of Fulham history - and also one of the scrappiest!

“I’ve seen it on TV a few times since and I’m still not sure where it hit me!” laughs Mitchell as he reflects on his last-minute strike that won the Semi-Final replay against Birmingham City back in 1975.

“There was a ball over the top, and I just about got a toe-poke on it. Next thing I knew, the keeper’s on top of me and the ball’s come back and hit me on the, I don’t know, chest, knee, shoulder, stomach - somewhere! Then I’m on my hands and knees watching the ball roll agonisingly slowly towards the goal, and I’m thinking, ‘they’re going to clear it.’ But it just kept rolling and rolling and eventually it just got over the line. And really I’d just taken a gamble to get forward hoping it was one of our guys on the ball - if I hadn’t gambled I wouldn’t have got there. And that was that - we went back to the halfway line, they kicked off and the game was over - next stop Wembley.”

Of course, it was very much a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous, because if that goal was scrappy, the one Mitchell scored in the first game was as good as it gets - a glorious dipping volley from outside the box that beat the goalkeeper all ends up.

“As soon as I hit it I knew it was in,” he says. “I caught it perfectly. We should have won that first game; we were much the better side. And the second game we probably should have lost, but we hung in there - when you’ve got people like Bobby Moore and Alan Mullery holding it together, keeping the young lads calm, then you’ve always got a chance.”

Has anyone ever looked happier in a Fulham shirt after Mitchell’s stunning volley? Arms outstretched, a grin almost splitting his face in two as he gallops over to the delirious Whites fans - he celebrated in style.

“There was a lot of emotion that came out there!” he admits. “To come back from a bad injury and score in a Semi-Final - there was a big release. The Fulham fans had been so good to me, even during the bad times, it was only right that I ran towards them to celebrate the goal.

“Bobby Moore and I did an interview on the Big Match the next day and I had a cut on my nose that they had to cover with make-up before I could go out in front of the cameras.

“It was Alan Slough who did it. I’d jumped into the crowd, and everyone’s going mad, and then Sloughy comes in, jumps on me, and catches me in the face!

“So I came away covered with blood, although not one picture shows it. But it was fantastic. There was so much joy on the Fulham fans’ faces - they hadn’t had a lot to cheer about down the years. It was just a magical moment.”

These days Mitchell is a successful businessman. Perhaps it was his bravery, his willingness to put his head in where it hurts or just being, as he puts it, ‘a stupid centre-forward’, that prepared him for life in the commercial jungle. Whatever the reason, he’s been very good at it - his current project is a $500m development that will bring professional football to the Tampa Bay area in the US, complete with state-of-the-art stadium, sports medicine facility and residential academy.

He’s a busy man, but still finds time to visit the Cottage, and clearly looks back on his time in SW6 with tremendous affection.

“Of course,” he says. “And why not? I played with the greatest player of all time, George Best; I played with the likes of Alan Mullery, Bobby Moore, Rodney Marsh; I played against Pele on my 21st birthday - who I nutmegged. I didn’t mean to, but it went through his legs so I’m claiming it! I played in the FA Cup Final; I scored the goals in the Semi-Finals.

“Although I was disappointed with the injuries I had during my career, I loved every moment of it. Fulham is just a special Club - a lovely Club with lovely people.”