From the past or present, we catch up with a different Fulham personality. This week, it's former striker Barry Hayles.
Today, if a team in the npower League One were to announce that they had just purchased a player for £2m, more than a few eyebrows would be raised. For it to happen in the third tier almost 15 years ago was unheard of - apart from at one club.
With the 1998/99 campaign under way, Mohamed Al Fayed’s revolution had well and truly begun. Chris Coleman and Paul Peschisolido had already arrived the previous season for seven-figure fees, while the likes of Maik Taylor, Rufus Brevett, Geoff Horsfield, Peter Beardsley and Steve Finnan were added to what was fast-becoming a formidable squad.
November 1998 saw another multi-million pound arrival in the form of Barry Hayles; a man who had found the back of the net for fun throughout his short career – initially in the non-League with Stevenage - before scoring almost 40 goals in just over a season for Bristol Rovers.
Coming from a humble background – he combined football with carpentry before he turned professional – Barry admits that it was something of a shock to the system when he was suddenly being referred to as a £2m striker.
“Initially it was hard to come to terms with,” he tells fulhamfc.com. “It took me a bit of time to settle in, so it was a little bit difficult at first.
“When Fulham came in for me I didn’t have any hesitations, though. I wanted to come, 100 per cent. Having recently turned down an offer from the other Bristol club, it was good to come back home seeing as I’m from London. It worked out perfectly.
“However, having been worth literally nothing a few years prior to that, then being bought for £200,000 [by Bristol Rovers], then a year and a half later being bought for £2m, was very pleasing but very surprising.
“Initially, I didn’t settle in as well as I would like to have done. But once I’d settled and the fans saw my style of play, and that I always gave my all, then I think that won them over.”
Barry is perhaps slightly harsh on himself when he discusses his debut season at the Cottage. He may have arrived with a hefty price tag, but he notched nine times for the Whites before the end of the campaign and played his part in a side which waltzed to the (old) Division Two title.
He matched that total the following term, but it was the promotion-winning season of 2000/01 that saw Hayles engrave his name in the memory of every Fulham fan who was lucky enough to witness the campaign whereby we secured our return to the top-flight.
Fulham smashed in 90 league goals that season, with Hayles grabbing 18 of them and making up one third of a devastating attacking trio that also included Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte. Between them they scored a remarkable 72 goals, and Barry agrees that they certainly made up a fearsome frontline.
“The three of us had a great understanding,” he says. “The Manager [Jean Tigana] chopped and changed us around a bit but, no matter who he played, we tended to come up with the goods. That was pleasing and that’s what you need and that’s what any team needs to be successful.
“We were all different sorts of strikers - we all had our own style of play. Some people would say mine was trying to knock down doors! Boa had his pace and that ability to pick a pass, while Louis had pace, strength in the air and his ability to finish really clinically.”
He continues: “That side that won promotion was a great team to play in. Having brought in the Manager and his style of play, it suited a lot of players and we did really well. The training was good and we brought that onto the pitch and it showed. We had a good squad and a good togetherness - that was a big part of it all and it was a fantastic feeling reaching the Premiership.
“That was the best team I played for and the best squad I played in. We had the best style of football of all the teams I played in. No disrespect to any of the other teams that I represented, but it was just a pleasure to play for that Fulham side. The formation suited the players and there was a lot of ability in that team. It was a pleasure to be a part of it.”
Fulham began life in the top-flight in an assured manner. Having run Manchester United excruciatingly close at Old Trafford on the opening weekend, we secured our first win days later as Hayles gave Craven Cottage its first-ever Premiership goal in a 2-0 win over Sunderland.
“When the fixture list came out and you see that the first game is against one of the top teams, you know you’re in for a tough time,” Hayles recalls. “But we went there and did so well. We may not have taken any points from the game, but we did well and that gave the boys so much confidence because we knew they were one of the better teams in the country and we still gave them a good run. So that was a good start and it gave us confidence ahead of the rest of the fixtures.
“I was really hungry ahead of the Sunderland match so to go and score was very pleasing and a proud moment for me. I’d never played at that level before so I wanted to prove that I could cut it. Football is always a case of ‘can you play at this level, can you play at that level?’ I actually ended up as top goalscorer in my first season in the Premiership for the Club, so that was very pleasing on my behalf as it showed that I could compete and that I was capable of playing at the highest level.”
One of his 12 goals that season was an equaliser in arguably our most eagerly anticipated fixture as we hosted Chelsea in the first top flight SW6 derby for more than 30 years.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had given our local rivals the lead before Hayles popped up in the second half to fire home the equaliser and send the home crowd into raptures as we secured a 1-1 draw.
“I remember scoring that goal against Chelsea,” he reflects. “The cross came in and I think Louis Saha jumped and headed it. It hit the post and it was running away from the goal and I just managed to put it in. I showed ‘good technical ability’ according to John Collins! He said it was a hard finish but I made it look easy so it was pleasing for a player of his calibre to say that.
“We knew how big a deal it was – it was absolutely massive. We understood what it meant to the fans and, even now, I always look out for when Fulham play Chelsea and hope that we can turn them over.”
With things going well for Barry, he suffered a huge setback in the following campaign when he was the victim of a freak accident at the end of October 2002. He ended up missing most of November through until April – but things could have been much worse for the powerful forward.
“It was touch and go whether or not I’d ever play again,” he explains. “I had a severe neck injury and had to have an operation which kept me out for three-quarters of the season.
“It was caused by a celebration. Boa Morte jumped on my shoulders after we’d scored in one of our European matches. He kind of slipped a disc and then from that night I couldn’t move my neck for the next few days. I rested it and then it was a case of seeing a specialist who said I could either rest up and then have the op, or just pack the game in and hang my boots up. Boa was very apologetic when it became apparent how serious it was.”
Thankfully, Barry made a full recovery and was even back ahead of schedule, playing in every match of Chris Coleman’s then-temporary five-game reign at the end of the season as the Whites secured another year of Premiership football.
Coleman’s achievement landed him the role full-time and he went on to lead the Club to their highest-ever league position of ninth in the 2003/04 season. For Hayles, though, the campaign wasn’t his most prolific and it proved to be his last in the white of Fulham.
The form of Louis Saha in Coleman’s preferred lone frontman formation limited Barry’s opportunities, although there is one match from the season that he looks back on with great affection.
A gargantuan fan of Tottenham Hotspur, Hayles almost singlehandedly tore his boyhood team apart early in the season as the Whites secured a surprising 3-0 victory at White Hart Lane.
“Personally, it was a great day for me but it was a great day for the Club as well,” Barry states. “It was one of those comprehensive away performances and it was just pleasing on a personal note to get two goals and set up the third one. It was a great day. It’s most definitely one of the proudest performances of my career.
“That was my final season with Fulham and it was gut-wrenching to leave but I look back on my time at the Club with 100 per cent positivity. During my time at the Club I’d given my all and I’d had a good time - winning two championships in the process. When you win things and you’re playing with the players that we had in that squad, especially considering where I’d come from initially, you can only look back on it with fond memories.
“It was definitely one of my best times in football and I’m still in contact with a few of the boys. I’m in touch with Sean Davis and Zat Knight and I occasionally speak to Louis Saha on twitter.”
Still an avid follower of all things Fulham, the popular 40-year-old continues to play football with non-League Truro City. It’s uncertain times for the Cornwall club at present (they just about avoided extinction earlier in the season) but Barry is happy doing what he does best out on the football pitch.
“We’ve had a few problems but I’m still enjoying it,” he said. “I always want to get out there and win games. That’s what keeps me fired up. I’ve remained in London though - I live in Beckenham so it’s a little bit of a commute on matchdays!
“Still being local, I’d love to come back to the Cottage again before the end of the season. It’d be great if I could get down for a midweek game. I’ve been back on a few occasions and I had a great reception each time so I like to think the fans appreciated what I had done.”