There was a definite air of optimism around Craven Cottage as Fulham approached the successful 2000/01 promotion campaign.
The Club’s rapid rise through the divisions had temporarily stalled with a ninth-place finish and a points tally some way adrift of the Play-Off positions the previous May. Paul Bracewell had been relieved of his managerial duties at the end of March, and Karl Heinz-Reidle and Roy Evans had seen out the season on a caretaker basis.
But that summer, in an impressive coup, Mohamed Al Fayed managed to secure the services of Jean Tigana, a man who had helped make up one of the most dynamic midfields of all-time in the France national side of the 1980s.
After spells in charge of Lyon and Monaco, Tigana came to Craven Cottage with plenty of experience, and fresh ideas, creating a real buzz, and no shortage of positive feeling.
“We’d had a decent season the year before, but we had drawn 16 of our 46 games, matches which we possibly should have taken more from,” recalls Symons, the centre-back who had joined from Manchester City two years earlier.
“But then Jean Tigana came in and completely changed our style of play. We had a good pre-season, and there was a real attacking philosophy. We all thought that a successful season could lie ahead, but I don’t think any of us knew exactly to what extent. But from the start the aim was promotion and nothing else would have been good enough.”
Indeed, although the Chairman was already ahead of course on his stated intention to take the Club to the Premier League within five years of his 1997 arrival, there was a growing feeling that even that seemingly most ambitious of aims could actually be achieved in less than the original stated timeframe.
“It was quite exciting,” says Symons of the mood at the time. “You could tell from the money that the Chairman had spent that he meant business. A lot of good players had come in so everything was gearing up towards top-flight football.
“Players like Chris Coleman, Lee Clark, John Collins, Luis Boa Morte and Louis Saha were too good to be playing in that division and there was a real sense that this group of players were capable of something very special.”
And a record breaking 11 wins from the first 11 games certainly justified that belief.
“It was a sign of our intentions – a fantastic start,” said Symons. “It was such a joy to be a part of that and it was amazing how things progressed. We made our intentions clear, and it was up to the rest to catch us.”
But such a blistering start could never quite be maintained all season, and although the team maintained their top spot for practically the entire campaign, there were other clubs who had designs on reining us in.
“It got quite close at the end,” remembers Symons. “We were top, but Blackburn Rovers weren’t that far behind. Graeme Souness [Blackburn manager] was in the papers saying that Fulham might be in front, but they were definitely the better team, and a rivalry built up from there.
“So when we beat them at Ewood Park in early April we really thought the title was ours to win. They went 1-0 up and then we had Rufus Brevett sent off, but Louis Saha pulled us back on the stroke of half-time. We took that momentum into the second half and really got at them, then Sean Davis snatched a winner at the death.
“That was the moment for me. I think even the Manager thought it. We all saw him dancing along the touchline – before that he had never really shown any kind of emotion. That was a great night.”
Fulham eventually finished 10 points clear of second-placed Rovers having sealed the title with four games to spare. New records were set for the most wins, fewest defeats, the highest points total, best goal difference and the highest individual goalscorer, but what made such achievements come so naturally to that team?
“Two things really, the style of play and the players we had,” believes Symons. “We had Sean Davis at the base of the midfield and he would spray the ball around everywhere. It was a very flexible team, because when the opposition would put a player on him he would move out to the left or right and then John Collins would come in and do the same job. If someone went tight to him, we had Lee Clark. There was such fluency to that side. Then we had the three up top too, and they scored for fun.”
Our swashbuckling, free-scoring triumvirate ended the season with a combined total of 63 goals in the League alone; 18 each for Barry Hayles and Boa Morte, and a breathtaking 27 for Saha.
“Louis’ performances were the best that I had ever seen from any one player over the course of a season - he was phenomenal,” assesses Kit.
“He would beat people for fun and showed such great individual skill, but it was the way he scored his goals - he made it look so easy. What he did that year will be remembered here for a very long time.
“But it was far from just ‘the Louis Saha show’, there were fantastic individual contributions all over the pitch. It’s fair to say that we didn’t have any problems scoring that season and Barry and Luis certainly got in on the act too. We all know how important goals are in this game and that took us a long way.
“We generally scored team goals, that was the thing. Although those three banged them in, there was a feeling that everyone played their part. A lot of those goals were from pass and move football, real two-touch, high-tempo stuff. As a defender, our job was very simple: stop the opposition and give the ball to the midfielders.”
On the subject of defenders, having been a mainstay for the previous three seasons, Symons’ involvement in the Division One championship team only became a regular occurrence as a result of some terrible misfortune to one of his best friends. Captain Chris Coleman’s career was tragically cut short with a broken leg sustained in a car accident.
“He was my best mate and someone that I looked up to, so I found it very difficult,” said Symons. “Up until that time I hadn’t played an awful amount of games, but suddenly with him ruled out, I was back in the team.
“That was a strange scenario for me, but it made me want to do even better, for him really. Of course, it was a great shock and it eventually put an end to his career – which was devastating. He was such a big personality and a born leader.
“In a weird way it kind of galvanised the team, though, and there was a strong sense of unity. It was the sour note of what was an otherwise unforgettable campaign.”
And with emotions at the Club still in turmoil, Kit was immediately thrown into the action for what turned out to be a close-run home FA Cup Third Round tie against Manchester United, and what transpired to be an early indication that Fulham were ready to compete with the best.
“Following Cookie’s car crash, the build-up to that game was hard,” he says. “I was supposed to be involved in a Reserve game and then I found myself up against the top team in the country.
“It was a great cup tie, and we could well have caused an upset – we definitely gave it a good go. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored early, but then Fabrice Fernandes equalised with a lovely free-kick to send Craven Cottage crazy. We had some good chances, none more so than the one that fell to me late on - I still remember it so vividly.
“A corner got flicked on at the near post and I ghosted in at the back. If anything I tried to be too precise. It went a whisker wide of the post after one of the Neville brothers did just enough to put me off.
“It was a golden opportunity to win the game, and although I have a fantastic rapport with the Fulham fans, to this day they still remind me about it. It was a low point for me, and then Teddy Sheringham came off the bench. I just knew something would fall to him.
“It did and he won it for them with a minute to go. It was disappointing, but we showed that we were ready for top-flight football. We knew that if we did go up we would do alright. That game gave us a lot of confidence.”
Three months later promotion was achieved with a 2-1 win at Huddersfield Town, and the title secured at home to Sheffield Wednesday a few days later. After a 33-year absence, and some dark days which threatened the very existence of our great Club in the meantime, Fulham were back in the English top flight, and what’s more, with a swagger and confidence that suggested they had every intention of staying there for some time.
“It was a wonderful moment,” says Symons of the promotion success. “A great occasion for the Club and the fans.
“From the moment I arrived in the summer of 1998 reaching the Premier League was the big talking point, and a couple of seasons later we had achieved what we set out to do. It was incredible and the celebrations were good fun. It was quite surreal when you thought about what we had done, especially when you considered that not long before the Club had almost gone out of business.
“For the fans it was the moment they had dreamed about - the previously unthinkable had become a reality.”
And 12 years later, we’re still there, established as one of the most respected clubs in what is considered by many to be the world’s best league.
“Twelve seasons in the Premier League is a massive achievement and what the Club has done since that promotion is great,” says Symons. “Okay, it’s been a bit hairy on occasions, but that’s to be expected. We have come through some scrapes with relegation and they have made us stronger.
“No-one has a divine right to be in the Premier League, it’s the strongest league in the world, but Fulham are now an established top-level club and, aside from Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, they’ve been there the longest. When you look at it like that, it really does hit home.”
In his current role as Under-21s Manager, having also served as Under-18s Manager, there’s every chance that Symons could have a further hand in the Fulham story by shaping the stars of tomorrow. Whatever heights the Club reach in the coming years, he will always be able to take pride from his involvement in our elevation back to English football’s top table.
“I love it,” he exclaims with clear satisfaction. “I tell everyone that I had two promotions in three seasons here, which is something I’m really proud to have been part of. After two relegations in two years at Manchester City I arrived at Fulham lower than a snake’s belly, so to be involved in something so special was incredible. I just have such great memories from my days as a player here, and to come back as a coach has been brilliant. Although I was away for several years, I still felt very much part of things.
“Of course, I think the players from those days can say they played their part, and I do take satisfaction from that. What we achieved stands as one of the proudest moments of my career and it’s a period that I will never forget.”