Back in 1961, a fresh-faced 16-year-old called Rodney Marsh arrived at Fulham and began to excite the fans like no other player had ever done. Blessed with the most extravagant skills and a personality to match, he was built to entertain. And entertain he did. For the next five years the faithful stood and watched in awe of his outrageously prodigious talent.
It didn’t take long for the buzz to start that something special was happening down in the Reserves. Pretty soon the second string were attracting thousands of spectators each week instead of the usual one man and his dog. They were there for one reason and one reason only - to watch young Rodney strut his stuff. Excited as the fans were to watch him, Marsh was just as thrilled to be there.
“As a young kid of 16, it was like giving a donkey some strawberries,” he laughs. “I just loved it. I loved absolutely everything about it. For the first three years at Fulham I could do nothing wrong. I don’t know what it was, I just played some magic football. I remember huge crowds turning up at Reserve games. The enclosure would always be packed and I’d always make sure I played close to that side so that I would be close to the crowd - I’d switch wings at half-time!”
He hit 51 goals in total for the Junior and Reserve sides in the 1962/63 season, and one for the First Team on his league debut - a 1-0 win over Aston Villa at the age of 18. His next season was to be cruelly cut short, however, after he suffered an horrific injury while scoring the winning goal against Leicester City that broke his jaw and left him deaf in one ear. But the following year, fully recovered, he took the (old) First Division by storm, scoring 17 times in 41 games.
Things would turn sour, though, when a new Manager pitched up at the Cottage. “That was a very, very sad time for me,” says Marsh. “I was really in my element before that - Bedford Jezzard loved me as a player, Arthur Stevens the coach loved me. And of course, Vic Buckingham came in and he just didn’t like me at all. Even though I was still scoring loads of goals and still playing great, he thought I was a clown. He said I was entertaining the fans too much!”
There’s an oft-told tale about a Reserve game against Birmingham City where Marsh had been displaying his full range of party tricks. At half-time, Buckingham really laid into the forward, telling him: “If I wanted players to go out on the pitch and entertain, I’d go to Billy Smart’s and sign two clowns.” Marsh replied: “You’ve got a First Team full of them. What do you want two more for?” Their relationship never recovered.
“I remember another incident,” says Marsh. “At home to Nottingham Forest I notched one of the most magnificent goals I ever scored. I went straight over to Buckingham, went down on my knees and waved my hands at the crowd right in front of him, as if to say, ‘is this what you think a clown is doing!’
“The fans gave me a standing ovation and the following week he called me into his office - it all went downhill from there!” A transfer to Queens Park Rangers for peanuts soon followed.
Marsh would be back, though, reappearing at the Cottage with George Best in 1976. The pair of showmen certainly brought back the entertainment, if not quite the success everyone was hoping for. But for a little while, with attendances soaring, the two tackling each other in games to try and get the ball, and the entire team playing with a smile on its face, it really looked like the good times might be returning.
“To be honest,” says Marsh. “It was probably just two years too late to have really worked, but it certainly was very special. Every time I think about that time I get a lump in my throat because of Bobby Moore. I got crocked quite quickly after a really bad tackle at Southampton - my ankle ligaments went. But up until then it was fabulous, lots of fun and lots of laughs and the team played some great football. But ultimately it couldn’t last - it was more like a showbiz XI than a football team.”
Marsh is now based in Tampa, Florida, having returned to the city where he made such a tremendous impact with the Rowdies soccer team back in the 70s. He runs a property company there with his son, but still does plenty of media work in the UK, and finds time to get back to Fulham on a regular basis.
“I get together with Les Strong,” he says. “And we have a chat about the old times. I love it, I love going back. Fulham’s in my blood - that’s just the way it is.”