In the concluding part of his Memory Lane feature, Luis Boa Morte discusses Premiership beginnings with Fulham, the Intertoto Cup, and his coaching ambitions.
When a team is promoted from the Championship into the Premier League – as the respective divisions are now known – they are almost certainly tagged with the assumption that they will be one of the favourites to get relegated the following season.
That was not the case when Fulham made the leap from Division One to the Premiership in 2001, though, with some bookmakers in fact making us joint-sixth favourites to win the title. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but a solid debut campaign saw Jean Tigana’s men end the 2001/02 season in a respectable 13th position – just two points off a top-half finish.
But the following campaign proved trickier for the Whites. Now dubbed ‘second season syndrome’ in some quarters, we struggled for consistency, so much so that the then-Chairman Mohamed Al Fayed announced that Tigana’s contract would not be extended when it expired at the end of the season.
The Frenchman didn’t even last that long, though, with the decision made that the risk of relegation with Tigana in charge was too great and he was subsequently relieved of his duties with five games remaining.
It was regrettable for Boa Morte that the man who had taken a chance on him was no longer at the helm, but the attacker had enough footballing nous about him to understand the decision
“The first season in the Premiership went quite well for us,” Boa recalled. “We got off to a decent start. Even though we lost away to Manchester United in our first game, we played well.
“There was one bad run, though, when we had that spell where, if I can remember correctly, we had nine games where we drew two and lost seven, or something like that. I think that was the worst period for us – nine games in the Premiership is a lot of games to go without a win.
“But the second season was even tougher. It always is when a team comes from the Championship, the second season is the one which is more difficult. Towards the end of the season we were struggling for form and, after losing three games in a row, Tigana got sacked. That was sad for us because Tigana was the one who took us from the Championship to the Premiership. He helped a lot of players, including myself, but that’s the way football goes.
“It was sad for us when he left, but that’s football for you and we had, of course, had a bit of a torrid time in that second season.”
The 2002/03 campaign was far from a total disaster, though, as the Whites secured European football courtesy of their successful navigation of the UEFA Intertoto Cup.
Fulham visited a series of obscure football grounds, seeing off four sides from across Europe along the way, to make it into the First Round of the UEFA Cup. Not bad for a side that was playing fourth-tier football just six years previous.
“The Intertoto was amazing,” Luis admitted. “There was a great togetherness amongst all the boys. At the start of the season we were complaining and whinging because we were starting too early in June, and after nine days we were playing the first game at home against a team from Finland.
“Then everyone was whinging because they didn’t have enough holiday but, at the end of the day, we all enjoyed it because we won the competition. Everyone was moaning because they were worried that if we got knocked out early then we’d have so long to wait for the Premiership to start.
“So that could have been a bit of a problem but Roger Propos – who was the fitness coach – made us work really hard and we ended up cruising the first games [against FC Haka and Egaleo] and then we got to the Semi-Final against Sochaux. That was a hard tie but we managed to pass them, and in the Final we got Bologna. That was an unbelievable tie.
“We drew out there 2-2 but ended up beating them at home 3-1 and Junichi Inamoto had an unbelievable game. Then we felt that the lads were really, really together and that we had a very solid and very good group. Everyone was buzzing to play in the UEFA Cup – we were looking to qualify, and we managed to do just that.”
Boa Morte remained at Fulham until January 2007 when, having scored 54 goals in 250 appearances for the Whites, the Portugal international made the move across London to sign for West Ham United.
It was a move that the winger doesn’t look back on particularly fondly, such was his affinity to Fulham and its supporters.
“I enjoyed every single season at Fulham,” Boa insisted. “Over the six-and-a-half years that I was here, I enjoyed a lot. I always enjoyed my relationship with the fans – it was very special. When I left in December 2006/January 2007, it was a sad time for me to leave Fulham, but actually my first Premier League game for West Ham was against Fulham when we drew 3-3.
“At the end of the match it was nice to hear the whole section of Fulham supporters singing my name. I went over to them and gave them my West Ham top and we’ve always kept that relationship.”
Since his four-and-a-half seasons at Upton Park came to an end, Boa Morte has been something of a journeyman footballer, taking in spells in Greece and South Africa, before joining up with former Fulham colleague Mark Crossley for a brief stint at Chesterfield.
These days he’s a regular at our Motspur Park Training Ground as he looks to make the transition into coaching – a pathway the 36-year-old is relishing exploring.
“Now that I’m coaching, I’m enjoying it,” he said. “It’s a challenge working with the Under-21 squad, but one that I like. I’ve worked with Steve Wigley, Mark Pembridge and Kit Symons, to name a few. All of them have been really helpful to me and I’ve been taking this opportunity as well as I can.
“I’ve spent time with the 16s, 18s, 21s and it’s a challenge because they all see football in a different way and think differently, so it’s a challenge but I’ve been enjoying it.”
It’s a career change that Boa is taking extremely seriously as he sets about completing a two-year plan that he’s laid out for himself.
“I’m going through the B licence at the moment and I should have the B done before the end of the year,” he explained. “Then, around January or February, I’ll start my A licence. I’d definitely like to be a manager one day. I will have time to take my pro licence but my goal now is to, by summer 2015, have my A and B complete, and another programme that I’m on now with the Premier League. I want to have all that complete by summer 2015.”
It’s admirable ambition from the Fulham hero, and it’s clear from talking to him that he’s pleased to be back at the Club. Indeed, he’s one of a number of former players now working behind the scenes at Motspur, and that’s a situation he insists creates a positive atmosphere for everyone.
“Of course, it’s important for people to know the Club very well, people who have played for the Club before,” he said. “They have the right mentality and they know the way things work.
“It’s always important to have people around who have played football before. I’m not saying the ones who didn’t play for Fulham before don’t want the best for the Club, but definitely it’s important to have people like that.
“For me, it’s brilliant to work for Fulham because I’m a Fulham supporter. I’m between Fulham and Arsenal because Arsenal was the team that brought me to English football, and Fulham is the place where I lived for most of my years in English football.
“So, for me, when Fulham play Arsenal then I’m right in the middle but definitely I’m more than happy to be here at Fulham. I’ll try to do the best for the Club and serve the Club in the best possible way.”