When Malcolm Macdonald finished his playing career, he took the advice of former Fulham boss Alec Stock when he stepped into management at the Cottage in 1980.
Stock, he says, “taught me the greatest lesson of my life” as a player at Luton Town when he was setting his targets for the coming season; a lesson Macdonald would look to instil in his own players in later years.
“I’d just signed for Luton, played a few pre-season friendlies, and got myself as fit as I possibly could,” he told the official website. “The way that Alec had mixed the teams around in pre-season meant no-one had any idea who would be in the First Team so, on the Friday morning before the first game of the Third Division season, Jimmy Andrews [Luton coach] pinned the teamsheet up and I saw I was in. Then he tells everyone who didn’t make the cut to go home and got us to sit in numerical order around a set of three benches.
“We waited for Alec and he comes down, looks around, and said: ‘Here we are at the start of another season. The good people of Luton will be coming to watch you play football, so the least you can do is reward them for their loyalty by sealing promotion.’ As far as I’m aware, before then nobody had ever talked about promotion before the start of the season! Alec wanted to broach the subject and ensure us players were focused on it, which was remarkable. After we all duly nodded our heads, he said: ‘Good, I’m glad you agree, because now I’m going to tell you how to do it.’
“He laid out a plan that included not losing more than nine of our 46 games that season and to not concede more than 36 goals. Then he started going along the line and giving us all targets. When he got to number nine - the veteran forward Laurie Sheffield - he gave him a target of 18 goals. I thought I would get less than that as a younger player, but it was 30! I was so worried by the prospect of reaching that target and, after failing to score in the first game, it was even worse. Once I scored my first one it was a big relief!
“At the end of the season we needed a draw against Leyton Orient to go up. We set out to defend and it finished 0-0, but I finished the season on 29 goals. I went over to Alec at the end of the game and said: ‘Well done on getting us promoted because you said you would, but I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to reach your target.’ He replied: ‘No worries, old son, as long as everybody has a go for their target then it all works out in the end.’ The next season, he did the same teamtalk ahead of the new campaign and came to me and said: ‘Macdonald: 30. And don’t forget you owe me one!’
“The lesson to me was to never set medium targets because you will end up average. If you’re going to set one then make sure it’s ridiculously high and see how close you can get. When I went to Newcastle United, they asked me what my goal target was and I said ‘the same one as Alec Stock set me at Luton: 30 goals.’”
After a playing career that saw Macdonald score 193 goals in 381 appearances and forge a reputation as one of the most dangerous forwards of his era, he arrived back at Fulham in November 1980 to take over as Manager, just four years after Stock had been in charge in SW6. Stock had taken the Club to one of our greatest achievements - the FA Cup Final in 1975 - but by the time Macdonald arrived we were in the Third Division and he was tasked with getting us back up.
“That philosophy I learned under Stock stayed with me throughout my life and taught me a huge amount,” he said. “In fact, when I arrived at Fulham I did something very similar – telling the players I expected them to gain promotion next season. Les Strong turned to me and said: ‘Bloody hell, it’s like listening to Stocky all over again!’ But it was a unique thing I felt and was of such value to all of them. With that philosophy, upon the foundations that were laid by Bobby Robson early in my playing career, it gave me that hunger not to be beaten.
“I tried to structure it a bit differently, because if you do it the same way then it’s not going to have the same impact. What I did was question what the players wanted to achieve as a unit. There were individual targets to be met, but there were also group targets. It was interesting to get the back four together with the goalkeeper and find out what they felt was achievable.”
After finishing in mid-table in his first year, Macdonald set his sights on the Second Division and made it clear what was expected.
“The greatest thing I learnt from Stocky was to meet promotion right in the face from the beginning,” he said. “All others managers that I’ve known have never spoken about it at that early stage; it was almost as if there was a hoodoo over it. But I wanted players to confront it, to treat the game not just as 90 minutes but as a fraction of the platform for success for the whole season.
“There were a lot of players who I didn’t think were good enough when I arrived, so it was about building a team to be good enough to get promoted the next season. I felt that I had the nucleus of the side having pruned the squad down and some of the kids were bursting through. The one position I was struggling with was the left side of midfield – I brought in Peter O’Sullivan on a free transfer from Brighton & Hove Albion and it was probably one of the most beneficial deals between manager and player ever. I said ‘you get us promotion and, at the end of the season, you can go and make your money.’ He formed a great partnership with Les Strong down the left and he had this effect on the team that made everyone feel four inches taller.”
Promotion was achieved in 1981/82, but one of the standout performers was defender Roger Brown who well exceeded his targets by scoring 12 goals.
“I gave him a target of six,” said Macdonald. “I would have been delighted if he had scored six, but he completely blew that away. He was the most defensive minded player at the Club, but he started thinking about the game in a new fashion that season. It was a more expansive fashion; he gave himself a new lease of life and wanted to make an impact in attack as well. He would defend to set up an attack and he was looking at every moment of the game in a different light to how he had previously.”
However, Brown was just one part of a squad that Macdonald moulded into promotion chasers in the Second Division the following season. They were fuelled by the knowledge that their Manager was not going to keep anyone around who was not “fighting for the Club” and that ensured a fourth placed finish, narrowly missing out after four defeats in our last five games.
“It was really close,” Macdonald added. “But we had got to where we were with basically only three forwards. We had Gordon Davies; Dean Coney and Dale Tempest were apprentices when I arrived. In January I tried to bring in somebody who would give the side a few goals and liven up the forward line but - after almost signing Queens Park Rangers’ Tony Sealey - we didn’t bring anyone in and missed out on promotion by the skin of our teeth. With a striker that could have stuck three or four goals in and given us fresh impetus, we would have held off the chasing pack but instead we got pipped at the post.”
In the end, the First Division proved just out of reach, with a dramatic game against Derby County on the final day of the campaign proving the Club’s undoing. Losing 1-0, and needing a win to guarantee promotion, Derby’s ground was invaded by home fans with 78 seconds left to play and was abandoned. “I will never forget, with about 20 minutes left, having to stand 10 yards onto the pitch to see around the encroaching crowd.” he said. “We needed a goal as we were 1-0 down, but on the far side Robert Wilson got the ball, turned, and as he did so somebody leapt out of the crowd and smashed their foot across his thigh. It was so off-putting for the players and they never had a fair playing field.
“Even when the police said the ground had been cleared, the referee wouldn’t take us back out there. We lodged an appeal to have the match replayed, but we lost it and had to stay where we were, which was a great shame.”
The following season the Club, clearly shaken by events in Derby, began badly but rallied to secure a mid-table finish. Macdonald would not be there to see out the end of the season as he left in April 1984, but he remembers his time in SW6 fondly: “It was one of the most powerful groups in terms of camaraderie that I have ever come across. When Roger Brown died, people came from all around to pay tribute and everything at the Club was always done in the best way possible. If we had managed another promotion it would have been incredible, but then I always did aim high.”