It may only have been August by the time Italian side Bologna visited West London, but we already had nine competitive fixtures under our belts in the 2002/03 campaign, owing to the gruelling UEFA Intertoto Cup schedule. With the incentive of a UEFA Cup First Round spot to play for, Jean Tigana had fielded his strongest side in each of the previous seven qualifying matches against FC Haka, Egaleo and Sochaux, in addition to the First Leg of the Final; a 2-2 draw in Bologna. A late Sylvain Legwinski goal in that tie had made Fulham the favourites to progress, and the boys didn’t disappoint as Junichi Inamoto’s hat-trick ensured a 5-3 aggregate triumph. His first was a drilled effort after playing a one-two with Facundo Sava, and although Tomas Locatelli had equalised for the visitors, the Whites were back in front just after half-time through Inamoto’s scorching volley. Three minutes later and he secured the matchball having capitalised on some suspect defending in the Italian box to secure himself cult hero status on what was his first start for the Club.
Tottenham arrived in W12 exactly 11 years ago knowing that three points would see them leapfrog North London rivals Arsenal to top the Premiership table, and that’s exactly what looked like happening by the time referee Mark Halsey blew his whistle to signal the end of the first half. Spurs had built up a comfortable 2-0 lead through a powerful Dean Richards header and Teddy Sheringham’s sweeping effort, while the Whites’ hopes had been dealt a further blow by an injury to Louis Saha. We were an altogether different proposition in the second period, though, as our midfield took the game by the scruff of the neck. First, after Sean Davis’ shot was blocked by Chris Perry, Inamoto gobbled up the loose ball and slammed home to maintain his impressive early-season form. For the best part of 20 minutes we searched for an equaliser, and it eventually came when Steed Malbranque dispatched a penalty following a foul on Barry Hayles. There was plenty more drama to unfold, however, as Legwinski collected Sava’s pass in the area before crashing an effort past Kasey Keller deep into stoppage time to send Fulham up to eighth in the table with a game in hand on the sides above.
Fulham’s first point against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side since our return to the top flight could have been all the sweeter, but some controversial mind games by goalkeeper Fabien Barthez denied the Whites all three points. Fulham had started brightly and took a deserved lead 35 minutes in when nobody was able to deal with Rufus Brevett’s cross and Steve Marlet gleefully converted. Although United upped their game in the second half, their equaliser only came courtesy of a mix-up in the Fulham defence when Zat Knight and Abdes Ouaddou collided, allowing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the opportunity to fire beyond Edwin van der Sar. The Whites were presented with an opportunity to restore the lead shortly after, though, when Laurent Blanc wiped out Marlet in the penalty area – the defender was fortunate to only be handed a yellow card as he appeared to be the last man. Up stepped Malbranque to take the kick, but his compatriot Barthez was busy clinking his studs against the post. He then proceeded to stroll to the other post to do, well, nothing. Malbranque’s teammates and fans urged him to put the ball into the empty net as the whistle had been blown, but the midfielder was too sporting for his own good. Barthez was eventually booked but the eccentric keeper had the last laugh as he dived to his left to palm away the spot-kick and deny Fulham a famous win.
Our first win against the formerly known ‘Top Four’ came when Liverpool visited in November 2002. Similarly to the Spurs match six weeks previous, the Reds would have gone top of the league had they left West London with a win, but they came up against a dogged Fulham outfit that was boosted by the return of Davis who had been out with a fractured toe since the 1-1 draw with United. The Academy graduate immediately made an impact as his 30-yard shot was only parried by Jerzy Dudek, with a grateful Sava on hand to slot home with just five minutes played. Davis tried his luck from range once more on 38 minutes and this time it eluded Dudek in the Liverpool goal, although he was unsighted by a deflection off Sava en-route. Gerard Houllier threw on Steven Gerrard and Milan Baros at half-time to try and salvage something from the game, and they were back in contention when Dietmar Hamann smashed in an unstoppable free-kick from distance. The two-goal lead was quickly re-established though, as Sava drilled home a left-footed effort from the edge of the box in the 68th minute. With Alain Goma sent off for a second yellow card just minutes later, the Whites were in for a nervy finale, made all the more nail-biting when Baros converted John Arne Riise’s cross four minutes from time. But we held on to secure an important three points against a strong Liverpool team that also boasted Michael Owen and Danny Murphy in the starting XI.
Jon Harley scored only once during his time at Fulham, but it’s a strike that he’s since described as the most special of his career. Following the recent departure of Brevett to West Ham United, Harley was competing with Pierre Wome for the left-back spot, and he went someway to enhancing his credentials with a sweet, dipping, bending strike that flew into the back of the net from at least 35 yards. It was almost certainly the best goal we scored during our two-year residency at Loftus Road. Earlier in the game, Gareth Barry had given the visitors the lead with less than three minutes on the clock after he’d collected Dion Dublin’s pass. But their advantage didn’t last long, as Malbranque netted from the spot 11 minutes later after Man of the Match Luis Boa Morte had been taken out, before Harley’s stunner secured the points on 36.
After making a positive start to the 2002/03 campaign, Fulham had begun to find it hard to string victories together and, following a run of just one win in seven, Tigana was dismissed as Manager. Former Whites captain Chris Coleman took the reins in a caretaker capacity and, assisted by Steve Kean, steered the Club clear of relegation by winning three and drawing one of the final five matches. His first game in charge was a daunting one, as third-placed Newcastle United were the visitors. Sir Bobby Robson’s team were under the cosh for big chunks of the first half, but they took the lead late on when Alan Shearer headed in Hugo Viana’s corner. Coleman – a renowned motivator – then gave his first half-time teamtalk to great effect, as the Whites came out on the offensive. After going close through Davis and substitute Elvis Hammond, Andy Griffin was dismissed for the Magpies, with the equaliser following six minutes later. Legwinski picked the ball up a good 35 yards from goal and unleashed a phenomenally well-struck effort with the outside of his right boot which whistled beyond Shay Given and curled in via the post. The Whites were well in the ascendancy by this point and former Newcastle favourite Lee Clark was on hand four minutes from time to drill home a deserved winner for his side.
Few could have imagined the legacy Brian McBride would create for himself at Fulham, but he certainly endeared himself quickly to the supporters when he grabbed the winner on his debut against Spurs. He wasn’t the only debutant in the thick of the action, though, as Ian Pearce started at the heart of defence following his move from West Ham and was adjudged to have handled inside the area with 18 minutes gone. Robbie Keane dispatched the subsequent penalty but Fulham pulled level in first-half stoppage time through a penalty of our own; Malbranque confidently converting after Spurs midfielder Michael Brown had felled Boa Morte. Coleman sent McBride on just before the hour mark as he sought to win the game, and the United States international took less than 10 minutes to open his account for Fulham. Pearce was again involved as his diving header from Davis’ corner was kept out by Keller, but McBride was on hand to stab home the winning goal for his new side.
A feeling of dread enveloped the Fulham faithful when the teams were announced ahead of kick-off when United visited nine-and-a-half-years ago as, little more than a month after his high-profile transfer to Old Trafford, Saha was named in the starting line-up against the Whites. Every Fulham fan had the same inevitable feeling: Saha would score that afternoon. He almost did so in rapid style, when he fired wide with less than 10 seconds played, but it wasn’t long before he did haunt his former club. With 14 minutes gone, he latched onto a fine throughball from Cristiano Ronaldo and showed the raw pace and power that had so endeared him to the Fulham supporters to bear down on goal before crashing an unstoppable effort beyond Van der Sar. The Whites refused to buckle, though, and after Legwinski had hit the crossbar with a header, Boa Morte beat Roy Carroll with a powerful effort after good link-up play with McBride.
If you’ll excuse the inclusion of a Fulham loss in this feature, there’s no denying that this Monday night clash was an absolute classic – even if we would have happily swapped it for a scrappy 1-0 victory. Andrew Cole had given Rovers the advantage midway through the first half, but the Whites equalised within three minutes as new signing Collins John nodded in after Martin Djetou had hit the crossbar. The Dutchman then put his side ahead as half-time approached with a clever volley – (it was his fourth goal in less than 70 minutes in a Fulham shirt following his brace against Leicester City in the previous match). Blackburn came out after the interval with a gung-ho mindset, and promptly levelled the score through Jonathan Douglas, before a wicked Lorenzo Amoruso free-kick gave them the lead two minutes later. A wonderful effort by Boa Morte made it 3-3 on the hour mark as the winger collected a pass from John and, having advanced almost the full length of the pitch, clipped a sweet finish past Brad Friedel. Both sides then had chances to take all three points, with the visitors just edging the contest when Jon Stead’s effort evaded Van der Sar with a quarter of an hour remaining.
Malbranque penalties have been a recurring theme so far in this feature, and that was the case once again in our penultimate game at our temporary home. The Whites had followed up the defeat by Blackburn with a useful point at Anfield, still harbouring hopes of a potential UEFA Cup spot. London rivals Charlton were next up and, with the Addicks’ reputation for ending seasons notoriously poorly, it was a game we knew we should win. But it was Charlton who enjoyed the better chances in the opening stages, with Fulham relying on Van der Sar to keep the score level until we were able to nab the first goal. Boa Morte was brought down by Dean Kiely in the area and although the goalkeeper wasn’t shown a red card for the offence, he was unable to prevent Malbranque from scoring from the spot after putting him the wrong way. The Frenchman then went close to scoring a wonder goal having dribbled beyond an army of red shirts before hitting his shot too close to Kiely. Coleman introduced Davis to the action at half-time, and it proved to be an inspired decision as the midfielder hit a sublime second to make sure of the points. After his initial control of Boa Morte’s square pass had seen the ball spin up in the air 25 yards from goal, Davis watched it drop before hitting a dipping volley into the corner of the net. We won four out of a possible nine points from the three remaining matches after this victory – it wasn’t quite enough for a European place, but it was still record breaking as we finished ninth; our highest ever top-flight placing at the time.