In 1967, while still a top-flight club, the Fulham board took the decision to build a stand along the river side of the ground. Up to that point, the only seating at Craven Cottage, as it had been since 1905, was in the old Stevenage Road Stand. It was a decision that was to have huge ramifications for the Club that extended well into the 1990s.
The first problem was that by the time the stand was built, we had dropped out of the (old) First Division. In fact we slipped into the Third Division before it was completed, but had climbed back to the second tier by February 1972, when the stand was officially opened. This was reflected in our gates. From the season when the stand was proposed (1967/68), to the season it was opened (1971/72), our average attendance had halved: from 22,203 to 11,147. Not only would the stand be harder to fill but the capital cost would prove harder to repay.
This was not on the Club’s mind when Portuguese giants Benfica were invited to mark the opening of the stand on 29th February 1972. Managed by an Englishman, Jimmy Hagan, Benfica were reigning Portuguese champions, had appeared in five European Cup finals (winning two) and in Eusebio had one of the outstanding players in world football. We, on the other hand, were struggling near the foot of the (old) Second Division and were in danger of an immediate return to the Third.
The occasion and the opponents attracted an above-average crowd of 15,646 – including England manager Sir Alf Ramsey - and we played well above ourselves, producing a rousing performance to win 3-2.After 20 minutes we led 2-0, the first coming from Steve Earle, who outpaced the Benfica defence to score with a fierce low drive, and the second a glancing header by Roger Cross from Earle’s centre.
It was the young Jordao, an 18-year-old son of a post office worker from Angola, rather than the great Eusebio who caught the eye for the visitors, and he set up a goal for Diamantino on the stroke of half-time. Our two-goal advantage was restored in the second half when a shot by Cross was sliced into his own net by Coelhio but a brilliant volley by Eusebio set up an exciting finish - after a season-ending injury to Jimmy Conway - in which our defence, with new goalkeeper Peter Mellor impressing,held out.
The Daily Mirror’s Steve Curry wrote that Fulham fans “cheered wildly” as their team “overshadowed their more illustrious counterparts” even though it was Jordao who had stolen the limelight. Still, it was brief relief from a dismal season which eventually saw us stay up by the skin of our teeth. Though the new stand was well overdue, the cost implications soon began to bear down on the Club and, long after the stars of Benfica had passed through, Fulham were still on the road to recovery.
Images courtesy of Ken Coton.