Despite having only just been promoted from the bottom tier, there was a feeling among the Fulham hierarchy that 1997/98 was a disappointment due to the failure to overcome Grimsby Town in the Division Two Play-Offs – perhaps fair given the ambition that accompanied Mohamed Al Fayed’s takeover. England legend Kevin Keegan had taken charge for those matches and was in the dugout again for the new campaign, bolstered by some new signings in Kit Symons, John Salako, Gus Uhlenbeek and Dirk Lehmann, while Peter Beardsley rejoined having featured at the end of the previous campaign.
Off the field, progress was prevalent, too. Work had been done throughout the summer to improve the facilities at the stadium – “Craven Cottage has survived this long and it rightly deserves a bit of love and attention,” said Al Fayed – while the Club was in the final stages of acquiring the University of London grounds in New Malden, now known as our Motspur Park training base.
Keegan knew his brief: “We’ve got great hopes. Our aim is, as it was last season, to hopefully be champions of this division, but certainly to get out of it and into the First Division.”
After a hard fought game at Macclesfield on the opening day was settled by a fantastic long ranger from Salako on his debut, the Whites welcomed Manchester City – not long out of the Premiership – to the Cottage for some televised Friday night football. It may only have been matchday two, but it was already being billed as a promotion six-pointer.
Symons had joined from City that summer, and believed that his former employers’ presence in the third tier could work to our advantage: “Though Fulham will be the team to beat, City will be even more so. They’re hot favourites to go back up, and that could do us a big favour by taking the heat off.”
Sky Sports had hardly been regular visitors to the black and white half of SW6 over the years, but the players were far from camera shy, wrapping up a 3-0 win by half-time courtesy of Lehmann’s brace and man of the match Beardsley’s opener. The pair had struck up a good rapport quickly, having also both bagged in a League Cup win over Cardiff that week. “It’s probably more difficult for the players to understand me than it is him,” Geordie Beardsley joked. “His English is very good.”
A bumper crowd of 14,284 was there to witness the statement-making victory. “I’d really like to congratulate the supporters on making the night so very special,” Keegan said in his programme notes at the next home game. “I know how much you enjoyed the evening from reading through my postbag, and you created an atmosphere here that everyone was amazed by. I’ve been told by several of you that it was an atmosphere, the likes of which we haven’t had down here for a long time.”