From the past or present, each week we catch up with a different Fulham personality. This Sunday, it’s Darren Freeman.
With his sea of flowing locks, Darren Freeman was one of the most recognisable men at Fulham in the mid to late 90s.
The forward – who was comfortable playing as a striker or in a wider role – was a crowd favourite at Craven Cottage having performed a pivotal role in the successful Micky Adams era. He was one of the many grafters brought in by Adams as we secured promotion from the (old) Third Division in 1997, just one year after sitting in our lowest ever position of 91st in the Football League.
“Micky brought in a great bunch of lads and the togetherness was fantastic,” Darren told fulhamfc.com. “The team morale was really, really good.
“He was quite a young manager, I think he’d actually played that season, but, as I say, he’d got a great bunch of lads together and we really kicked on. When you consider that it was Micky’s first full season as a manager, it’s incredible what he achieved. He went about his business and did his job fantastically.
“Micky had done his homework and his man management skills were fantastic – he got the best out of players individually and created a team. The fans really got behind that team and I think people underestimate what that can really do.
“We achieved massively that year and everyone played their part. The fans did their bit, Micky did his bit and the players did their bit. I think if you get all those factors coming together then you’ve got a magic potion.”
The Whites finished that season in second position as Wigan Athletic pipped us to the title on the old ‘Goals Scored’ ruling (frustratingly, we actually had a superior Goal Difference), with Freeman grabbing the winner on the final day at Cambridge United. It was a goal that, for a while, was set to win us the league, until the Latics took the lead against Mansfield Town in the second half. It was cruel on Fulham, but promotion was a dream for the players and fans nonetheless.
“I remember that game clearly in my mind - it was a really hot day,” Darren recalled. “The keeper came out and I did a stepover to beat him and score. That put us 1-0 up and we needed that to win the league but Wigan ended up finishing above us. I remember it so clearly, as if it was yesterday.
“You look back at those days and it’s pretty unbelievable. I’m just a normal lad really who’s been lucky. Micky had a lot of faith in me and I feel very privileged to have achieved my goals and my ambitions from when I was a kid, and to be a part of Fulham was the icing on the cake.
“We were paid to do a job but, when I look back at it, it was a dream come true and I don’t think you realise until later on in life how important it was. Fulham, to me, the fans and the whole Club, it was just a special time for me.
“You’ve got memories and that’s the one thing nobody can take away from you. We like to think that we played our part. It’s very difficult to get a team together and I think we created a good momentum and togetherness and the results just sort of continued from there.”
The 1996/97 Fulham side went down in history that season as they started us on a journey that would lead all the way to the top flight, with a few stops across Europe to boot.
It was the final season before Mohamed Al Fayed took the Club over, and so Adams needed to be inventive in the transfer market. He brought players in on a shoestring budget - Freeman being one of the first - who would fight for the shirt and graft for their teammates. It was a group that Darren relished being a part of.
“Micky knew what he’d get from me,” he said. “I always give 120 per cent. I know I wasn’t the greatest player in the world but I was a passionate player. Whenever I played, whatever position I played, I always gave my all. I was the sort of player who wore my heart on my sleeve. That’s what I believe in - at the end of the day, if you work hard then everything else will come. Micky knew what he’d get out of me and I had a great relationship with him.
“I still speak to Micky quite a lot actually. I’m a manager now so I’ve contacted him a few times about players. He gives me advice as well which is great to have someone like him to bounce ideas off. Me and Chippy [Richard Carpenter] speak every now and again - and Watto [Paul Watson]. I’ve spoken to Robbie Herrera a couple of times, and Rodney McAree, so I still speak to a couple of the lads.
“We still keep in touch and we reminisce about the old days. We’ve all often said that it would be great to get a reunion together and try and get a game somewhere – I think that would be the ultimate. One of my dreams would obviously be to come back at Craven Cottage and have a game there.”
After playing 38 times during the 1996/97 campaign, the following season was a testing period for Freeman, with injury limiting him to just nine appearances.
“It was a tough time,” the 39-year-old admitted. “I had ripped cartilage and I ended up having about 20 knee operations - I was out for nearly the whole season. I was in a bit of a bad place then because I’d had quite a good season. I kept trying to come back but every time I came back my cartilage would rip a bit more and I was having operation after operation after operation.
“They took all the cartilage out of my knee so I was in a pretty bad way. It was a grim time for me but it’s a learning curve in football and I accepted that I’d have to have it out. I had to play the rest of my career with bone on bone which obviously isn’t ideal.
“The surgeon said to me that I shouldn’t be playing full-time football and that I probably wouldn’t play again, but I’ve got a never-say-die attitude and I just got on with it.”
That injury-plagued season proved to be his last at Fulham and, following spells at Brentford and Brighton (before a period in non-league), Freeman prematurely hung up his boots.
He’s now forging a reputation as a talented young manager, with his Whitehawk FC team climbing the football ladder at a rapid rate. The decision to go into management was inspired by his father - a man who Darren looked up to with great esteem.
“Unfortunately my Dad passed away four years ago,” he said. “He was my agent and my biggest fan - he was everything to me. Before he passed away he said to me that I should get back into football and maybe get into management.
“It was something that hadn’t really crossed my mind but since I began I haven’t looked back. I’ve tried to take little bits from each manager I played under and put them to good use. We’ve just gone up three divisions in four years and I’ve got a great bunch of lads with a real togetherness – it’s exactly the same as Micky had when we got promoted.
“We’ve gone from the county league into the Conference South this year which is a magnificent achievement. I’m grateful for the values that I’ve picked up being a footballer and I’ve used them in my capacity as a manager.”
With the Whites now an established Premier League side, younger fans may find it hard to envisage their team scrapping in the fourth tier against the likes of Darlington and Lincoln City, but that was the case almost two decades ago.
Mr Al Fayed’s input at Fulham will never be underestimated, but neither should the contributions of the boys of ‘97.
“Fulham have gone on and done fantastically well now,” Darren said. “And I like to think that we played our part in that. It’s just nice to have been a part of a great Club where we had a successful few seasons.
“It’s a Club that means a lot to me, in my heart, and a lot of that is down to the fans - they were unbelievable. The fanbase is massive now and it was unbelievable to be a part of - it’s just fantastic and I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.”