The largest-ever Craven Cottage crowd came unexpectedly in October 1938 for our London derby against Millwall in the (old) Second Division. We had made a splendid start to the 1938/39 season with six wins and two draws in the first nine games seeing us top the table.
A week earlier we had beaten Manchester City 5-3 at Maine Road, with centre forward Ronnie Rooke scoring four times. The south London Lions were also going well; they had been beaten just once in eight games, had won the previous four matches and were only two points behind in third place. Clearly, it was the divisional ‘Match of the Day.’
No-one was, however, prepared for the invasion of SW6 that took place that day. As the programme was to report a fortnight later: “For the first time in the life of the Club, it recorded the largest gate of any club in the whole of the British Isles, despite the fact that many important and interesting games were staged elsewhere.”
Our gate of 49,335 that day comfortably exceeded the biggest attendance in the top flight (39,174 at Highbury for the visit of Grimsby to Arsenal) and was much higher than the previous Cottage record of 43,407, set when Spurs were the visitors in December 1932.
An extra ingredient that day was that it was our first home match after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s now notorious Munich Agreement with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. The deal appeared to stave off the threat of another world war and the national sense of relief which enveloped the country was reflected in attendances at sporting events, cinemas and theatres.
The extent of the interest in this match caught the Club on the hop, however. Gates were closed at 3.15pm, some 15 minutes before kick-off, with thousands still outside. It was reported that many people burst through the gates at the Cottage end and the attendance could well have been above 50,000. Even one of Archibald Leitch’s famed crush barriers gave way under the pressure.
For all the problems, the match passed without serious incident or crowd trouble. It was a thriller, worthy of the occasion, in which we scored all three goals. The visitors took the lead in the 38th minute when Fulham skipper Mike Keeping headed into his own net. It was midway through the second half before we equalised: Viv Woodward heading a John Arnold free-kick into the net. Another Arnold free-kick set up the winner, scored by wing-half Jim Evans after goalkeeper Pearson had parried the original effort.
This win consolidated our position at the top of the table, but it proved to be the season’s peak. Like Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler, our hopes started to evaporate shortly afterwards and in the end we finished in mid-table.
Only a couple of times since, however (Easter matches against Spurs in 1951 and Manchester United in 1967), has that attendance record been seriously threatened and it was, as the programme recognised at the time, “a red letter day in the history of the Fulham club.”