The beginning of December would prove to be pivotal. While Fulham recovered from our two-game blip immediately, our biggest threat for the title in the first half of the season – Stoke – began to choke. At the same time as the Whites were seeing off Burnley, the Potters were stuttering to a goalless draw at home to Gillingham. Not a horrific result in the grand scheme of things, but it was the first match in a run of 11 which yielded just a solitary victory and eight defeats. It killed their season and they ended up finishing eighth, seven points outside the Play-Off places.
Fulham took instant advantage of their slip, winning 1-0 at Preston in the last game before Christmas to move into top spot for the first time. That was a stern test against another side with promotion ambitions, but the Whites claimed a valuable win courtesy of Chris Coleman’s late header. “I’d like to think that when I’m looking back at the end of the season, the weekend of December 18th will stand out as a turning point,” our Captain said after the game. How right he would be..!
From that point on, Fulham never looked back. Save for one week in February when Preston sat top of the pile on goal difference having played two more matches, the Whites occupied the Division Two summit for the remainder of the season. However, after taking seven points from meetings with Colchester, Northampton and Macclesfield, there was one blot on the copybook when Manchester City got revenge for their earlier loss at Craven Cottage by inflicting the same 3-0 scoreline on us at Maine Road in mid-January. “It simply wasn’t good enough for Fulham,” remarked Keegan. But the boys wouldn’t have been helped by having had to play an FA Cup Replay against Southampton three days earlier – a match that, for the record, we won 1-0 thanks to Barry Hayles' 85th minute strike. The Saints must have been sick of the sight of Keegan's team, as we had knocked them out of the League Cup as well back in September.
The response to the City defeat was staggering. Over the next 15 matches, Fulham won 13 and drew two, accelerating further and further away from the chasing pack. Keegan being Keegan, though, was refusing to get carried away: “Although the end may just about be creeping into sight, it is imperative that we keep our heads down, keep the rhythm and maintain our high standards. The job is by no means done yet – any team behind us will gladly take advantage of any Fulham complacency.”The Whites were winning plaudits across the country, but it still came as something of a surprise when the Club pulled off a real coup with the mid-season signing of Philippe Albert. An integral part of Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ side at Newcastle, the Belgium international was happy to drop down two divisions to renew acquaintances with his former boss. “I’ve not only been impressed by him but the rest of the Club. The squad he’s got is very talented and will do well in the First Division,” Albert said.