In the first of a two-part Memory Lane special, Luis Boa Morte discusses the unusual lengths he went to in order to secure his move to Craven Cottage 13 years ago.
Luis Boa Morte’s name is synonymous with English football. Making 429 appearances for Arsenal, Southampton, Fulham, West Ham United and Chesterfield, spread across 15 seasons, it’s his adopted country that has given him the best years of his sporting life.
Having agreed his move to Highbury several months previous, Boa Morte arrived in North London in the summer of 1997, ahead of what was set to be a landmark campaign for Arsenal.
With Arsene Wenger further bolstering his squad with the additions of Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars, ambitions were high going into the new season, although nobody could have predicted the success that was to follow as the Gunners pipped Manchester United to the Premiership title, and also defeated Newcastle United 2-0 in the FA Cup Final.
Boa didn’t play in that match but he picked up a league winner’s medal at the end of what was a whirlwind start to his career in English football, having featured regularly in a squad that boasted the likes of Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, David Platt and Ian Wright.
“I first came to England when I was 19 and everything was new to me,” Luis told fulhamfc.com. “To come to Arsenal where some of the players – most of them actually – were my idols, and then to suddenly be next to them training and to be playing alongside them, it was something really different and it was like a dream coming true. To come over to English football, I was living the dream.
“As soon as I got here in England, we won the Double with the League and the FA Cup. It was brilliant to win all that in my first year seeing as the year before I was playing in Portugal’s equivalent of League Two, so it was definitely something amazing for me. I was buzzing to have the feeling of being the first Portuguese to win the Premier League.
“Then the first game of the following season I came on at Wembley when we beat Man United 3-0 in the Charity Shield, so I was part of something very special at Arsenal.”
Despite his success, Boa Morte was almost always utilised from the bench by Wenger and, with the arrival of Fredrik Ljungberg pushing him further down the pecking order, he sought a move away in an attempt to find first team football.
Having taken quickly to the English style, he remained in the Premiership with Southampton, although his time on the south coast was chequered owing to a managerial change midway through the 1999/00 season.
“I decided to make the move because it was difficult at Arsenal as I was only playing a few games,” Boa explained. “It was a really good team with really good players and it was tough to break in.
“I managed to play in quite a few games but of course I had ambitions to play football regularly to improve my chances of playing for the national team, so that’s why I made the decision to move to Southampton.
“I had the chance to go to Bordeaux or St Etienne, but I didn’t see myself away from English football again, even though it only would have been on loan. I preferred to go to Southampton permanently. Then, when I was down there, things were going according to plan until Glenn Hoddle came in.”
Dave Jones was the manager who lured Luis to The Dell and, up until Jones was placed on gardening leave in January 2000 by chairman Rupert Lowe, he had featured pretty regularly for the Saints.
But it can be awkward for a new signing when the man who brings them to a club leaves soon after, and that proved to be the case for Boa Morte, with new manager Hoddle giving him just 126 minutes of game time throughout the remainder of the season.
“Dave Jones was going through some problems in his personal life so the chairman let him go to concentrate on the issues he was having,” Boa recalled. “He hired Glenn Hoddle and, when he came in, things turned completely.
“I only played [started] one game under him. Fair enough, managers have their own players and their own style of play and all that, I don’t condemn that, but as soon as the season finished I think he should have let me know straight away that I wasn’t part of his plans, so that I could sort out my life in a different way.
“But no, he kept me there until the third week of July. Of course, teams in the Championship, or Division One as it was then, start getting ready just before July. So that was really hard for me – going from being at Arsenal and winning the Double to being at Southampton and not having a team.
“At the time, my agent was trying to speak to some teams but everyone had a full squad and I didn’t have anywhere to go. So suddenly I was under contract with Southampton but I wasn’t wanted by the manager, so that wasn’t any good for me.”
What happened next is the perfect anecdote to reflect Boa’s passion for football, as well as emphasising his keenness to join Jean Tigana’s growing revolution at Fulham.
“I knew that Tigana had just moved over here,” he said. “I decided to get on the phone and called Wenger and he spoke to Jean Tigana and asked him if I could come to Fulham – and Tigana agreed for me to come.
“I knew for sure that they would know each other so I just called Wenger and asked him if he could speak to Tigana, and he did that. In the 16 years that I’ve known him, me and Wenger have enjoyed a very good relationship.
“We talk quite a lot and he always makes me feel welcome if I’m going through a bad patch. He always lets me come over if I need any help with anything so he was like a second dad to me when I came to England.”
With Tigana agreeing to the meeting, Boa Morte joined up with his potential new teammates across the Channel as the Whites continued with their pre-season schedule.
“My first week with Fulham was on trial in France,” he recalled. “I went with the team to France and for the week or 10 days that we were there, it was really successful for me, and Tigana liked me.
“I was definitely more than happy to drop down a division to be part of what was happening at Fulham. Not that I had much choice anyway because I was under contract but didn’t have a club, so sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward.
“I knew at the time that Southampton was in the Premiership and I’d be dropping a level to come to Fulham, but the positive side of the thing was that if we had a good season then we’d find ourselves promoted to the Premiership, and that’s what we did.
“It wasn’t a problem to drop a division because I thought that maybe the following year I’d have taken two steps forward, and that’s what happened.”
A season-long loan was agreed with Southampton and Boa Morte took his place in the Fulham frontline alongside Barry Hayles and fellow new arrival Louis Saha. The trio went on to become one of the most prolific strikeforces in the Club’s history, notching 72 times between them as the Whites won Division One with ease.
Boa Morte was responsible for 21 of those goals, but the modest wideman is quick to attribute his side’s success to a collective effort throughout the squad, the strength in depth of the playing staff, and the qualities and tactical nous of the Club’s management.
“We had a very good team,” he admitted. “The Manager of the team, then every single section of the field we had very strong players, very good players.
“Tigana and Christian Damiano [Assistant Manager] were really patient because when they got here there were some players who weren’t really good on the ball, and they spent a lot of time with those players. Then, by the end of that time, they were really good players on the ball.
“Come the end of the season we all were laughing because we had a very good time and had played really well. It was all good and, at the end of the day, it was a very good season and everyone was pleased with the work we’d all put in. We came out of it with very few defeats, so it was really good.”
With promotion to the Premiership secured, Tigana set about strengthening his squad to compete at the highest level. As Boa Morte had proven to be one of the stars of the 2000/01 season, his arrival on a permanent deal was paramount.
However, his performances hadn’t gone unnoticed and Southampton were keen for him to return to The Dell following the expiry of his loan deal. It was not an easy transfer to complete, but Boa’s relentless desire to become a permanent member of the Fulham family eventually saw it through to completion.
“At the time, Southampton wanted me to go back,” he explained. “The chairman, Rupert Lowe, wanted me to go back but I was really happy at Craven Cottage.
“I was really happy here and I knew that most of the players were continuing the next season so why should I go back to Southampton? Even though Southampton was the club entitled to my rights, my services, I wasn’t wanted the year before, so I’d dropped a division to come to play for Fulham.
“I just pushed to become a Fulham player and then, at the end, we managed to turn things round for me to make it happen. We had to work hard to make me a Fulham player but, at the end of the day, that was where I wanted to be.”
Be sure to catch next week’s Memory Lane, when Luis talks about his time with Fulham in the top flight and his return to the Club in a coaching capacity.