VIVE LA REVOLUTION: BEHIND THE SCENES WITH FULHAM
It’s Friday lunchtime at Motspur Park, New Malden, training ground and administrative headquarters of Fulham football club. Somewhere around back of the large three-storey house that serves as the club’s office facility, and way over the other side of the new purpose-built training complex, there’s a game going on. Not any old game, mind you. It’s the real match of the day, the game that the staff of Motspur Park look forward to all week.
Fulham Football Club has grown beyond all comprehension in the Al Fayed era. In their first season in Division Two they had only 28 full-time staff – now, four years later, they can boast over 140 on the payroll. But whether you’re just a junior in the marketing department or the Managing Director himself, the club’s Friday staff kickabout is everybody’s chance to play alongside the gaffer: French footballing legend Jean Tigana.
Success might have come relatively suddenly to Fulham, but as a club they seem desperate to avoid the swelling of heads and self-congratulatory arrogance that comes with life in the higher echelons of football. They’ve done a lot of work here – based on both research and gut-feeling – to keep the core values the same; Fulham may have an ultra professional approach to all things football and business, but they’re damn keen to ensure that their unpretentious approach and friendly outlook continues to make this a very special club. After all, this is the only ground in the Premiership not to enforce a dress code in the director’s box – and it’s also probably the only club in the country to organise a formal staff kickabout with the manager!
To the press, Jean Tigana is an enigma. He doesn’t read what is written about him, he rarely does interviews, and – the unthinkable – almost never does post-match press conferences. But there isn’t a man, woman or child at the club who has a bad word to say about him. After all, it was Tigana himself who introduced the weekly football match for the lads (and the fitness session for the ladies). A disciple of modern motivational techniques and a believer in the unifying qualities of team spirit, the kickabout gives him the opportunity to see many of the employees throw themselves around a football pitch for the greater good of club morale. “When the manager first introduced the game it was quite an amazing thing,” explains Publications Manager Patrick Mascall, the man behind, among other things, the matchday programme. “I arrived a bit late for that first game and I was just told to put on a bib. I slotted into midfield and when I looked to my left I thought ‘ah, there’s Jean Tigana, wasn’t he in that legendary French midfield of Giresse and Platini?’ and here I am, threading passes through to him.”
Managing Director Michael Fiddy is another member of this ‘Friday Club’. Eighteen months ago Michael was a partner in a city law firm specialising in business reconstructions and numbering Mohamed Al Fayed among his clients. Now he finds himself, once a week, playing football alongside a French midfield legend. “The first few times it was awesome,” he says. “Now it’s just really irritating that he beats me all the time. I try to be competitive but I’m not quite as competitive as Jean. He always likes to win.”
“It’s a good laugh,” adds Patrick, “and it’s better than any kind of corporate team-building exercise that you’d pay good money for. The ex-pros take it pretty seriously though. It’s ingrained in them. You put a football in front of them and they have to win at all costs. Jean plays every game like it’s the World Cup semi-final. He’ll shout at you and tell you to get back – just like you see him doing when he’s on the sideline on matchday. He’ll have this look in his eye where he can’t believe that you’ve just run into a certain position and he’ll shout at you in the same way as he’ll shout at Louis Boa Morte or someone.”
The last of the hot, sweaty, red-faced amateur footballers are back behind their desks when the stars of Fulham start to file out for afternoon training. They’re stars with different backgrounds but a common cause. Barry Hayles and Rufus Brevett, for instance, are stalwarts of Fulham’s two recent championship seasons, but they jog out alongside big money additions Edwin van der Sar and Sylvain Legwinski. It is here, on the training park, you can really see that the approach of the coaching staff is unscrupulously detailed. Tigana has imposed a strict code of discipline, while his assistants are scientific in the way they approach the game. The strategy is to focus on: i. the tactical; ii. the technical; and iii. the physical condition. In doing so, Tigana and his coaches work closely with the players, talking to them, cajoling them, making them understand this different approach to how the game should be both prepared for and played. And despite the absence of traditional British motivational techniques – shouting, swearing and personal abuse – the players seem keen to learn. They are under no illusions who the boss is, though. Tigana tells them once and they do it – they know there’s no second chance.
From his second floor office window, MD Michael Fiddy can look right out over the training session. In the distance he can see Tigana, assistant manager Christian Damiano and fitness coach Roger Propos conferring on the edge of the pitch. A tight but effective three-man team, they are the trio behind the remarkable revolution that has taken the club to a completely new level.
“As a manager Tigana really is on a different level,” says Fiddy, “so it’s no surprise that he has taken the club to another level. Everything about Jean is different – he knows every detail of what you have to do to be a successful football club and I don’t think many people understand just how tough that is. Even many people within the game don’t realise that you can actually push the standards a lot higher by using the appropriate science, like with motivation. In Jean’s case it’s by not shouting at the players, by encouraging them, giving them confidence… all of those are important psychological building blocks to make each athlete perform at their highest. But the supporting staff too – the coaching methods used by Christian Damiano and the physical preparation of Roger Propos – are, to coin a footballing phrase, different class. It’s not that it’s just slightly better. It’s genuinely a different class!”
And it seems to be working for the players. “Tigana has been a breath of fresh air,” says Sean Davis after training has wound down. “As soon as he came in he instilled a lot of confidence in me and I just need to try and learn as much as I can from him. Hopefully if I’m half as good as him I’ll have a good career.”
Sean Davis is probably best placed of all of the players at the club to have a perspective on the Fulham revolution. Signing at 16 on a YTS contract, Sean made his debut in the third division to ensure his place in FFC history as the only player to have turned out for the club in every division. “There’s no-one still here from when I first joined,” he smiles. “Nearly everyone else has come here from much bigger club. Someone like Edwin Van der Sar is probably far more used to being at a club where there’s a big staff and a big hype about playing, but it’s only Barry Hayles and a few of the other boys who have played in non-league and in the lower league that are going though the changes too and can make the same comparisons as me!”
Revolution or not, Davis also aware of the qualities which make Fulham such a special club at the moment. “When you come down to the Cottage on a Saturday there’s a real feeling of togetherness – not just with the players, but with the whole staff.”
John Collins might not have been at the club as long as Sean Davis but he’s in full agreement. “There’s a great atmosphere here from the top to the bottom,” he says, “from office staff to cleaners, everybody is pulling together. A lot of the staff have worked here from when Fulham were in the third division and that has left them a special affinity with the club.”
Tigana might now be enticing the big names to Fulham in quick succession, but for a few of the squad coming to the club was a bigger leap of faith. After all, when you drop down a division or two, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever be back. “When I signed for the club we were in Division Two and the training ground was not the best,” says Rufus Brevett eyeing up the place. “But look at it now, it’s unbelievable. When Kevin Keegan signed me he said I’d be back in the Premier League within four years but when you’re playing Macclesfield away you can’t really think that you’re going to be in the Premiership one day. It’s unbelievable how quickly it has all happened.”
Likewise John Collins. “This time last year people said I took a huge gamble when I left the Premiership to go to the first division,” he recalls, “but I said at the time it was one step back to go two steps forward. People weren’t convinced but I think we’ve proved everybody wrong. We walked away with the First Division and we’re going to make a real impact on the Premiership.”
Saturday morning. It’s ten o’clock on matchday and Craven Cottage is already alive. Wherever you look there are people: Carmello from the Press Office is in early to make sure that everything is okay for the early arrival of the TV crews; Frank the groundsman and his staff are conferring around the edges of an immaculate pitch; and over in the Riverside Stand there’s a lad with a feather duster whose sole job seems to be dusting down the seats of the Director’s Box. This may be Fulham’s second home game of the season after their 2-0 crushing of Sunderland, but it’s the first big Saturday match and there’s a palpable sense of excitement in the air. It’s bank holiday weekend and it’s got the weather to match. The day has all the makings of a scorcher – things couldn’t be better!
Back in the top flight for the first time in 33 years, for Fulham this season has been a long time coming. Nevertheless, it’s hard to calculate whether the club’s new found unity is a result of history and heritage or a consequence of the team-spirit of a bunch of people who largely – but not entirely – have come together in the post-Fayed era. There’s a huge awareness at every level of the importance of Fulham’s traditions, but few of the staff pre-date the Al Fayed revolution. The expansion has been so rapid that even staff with just ‘three years in’ are accorded the kind of respect and seniority usually reserved for those heading for a gold watch. Scratch the surface and you’ll find the long-serving staffers (ticket office manager Sandra Coles, for instance, has 30 years under her belt), but the spirit of the place seems more a product of the ‘revolution’. Four years ago Al Fayed told these believers to shoot for the moon and this has left the staff with an overwhelming sense that everything is achievable!
It’s this team spirit that leaves you with the feeling that there is something of a ‘Wimbledon’ about the current reinvention of Fulham. Tigana’s intelligent passing play might be light years away from the long-ball of the classic Dons, but there’s the same sense of spirited common purpose. With their wholesome family charm and informal manner Fulham may be more Brady Bunch than Crazy Gang, but the togetherness and unity of everyone associated with the club means that the comparisons are, to some degree, warranted.
Like the Wimbledon of old Fulham have their share of characters – kitman Adrian Bevin, for instance! Nicknamed ‘Pudsy’ because he happens to be the bloke who dresses up annually in a large yellow bear costume at BBC TV Centre for ‘Children In Need’, Bevin is one of the bigger personalities at the club and this morning’s stab at crazy japery is a joke at the expense of Sky TV. During a live feed to the ‘Soccer AM’ programme, Pudsy’s assistant interrupts the interview with a delivery. “Hmmm, my favourite – Pizza Hut!” deadpans Pudsy to camera. And while the contrived plug for Fulham’s sponsors is more downhome charm than downright crazy, there’s a lack of pomposity about these Craven Cottage folks that makes it all rather endearing.
With the TV tomfoolery out of the way, Pudsy is able to divest himself of his Adidas branded cowboy hat and boots, but his Country & Western fetish remains a dominant dressing room force. He is insistent that the team arrive at the Cottage each week to the sounds of Brad Paisley’s ‘Me Neither’; and while it may not be to everyone’s taste, it seems there’s to be no sonic revolution at Craven Cottage. Word in the dressing room has it that the minor insurrection started by John Harley after his £3.5m move from cosmopolitan neighbours Chelsea – “Surely this music can’t be for real” – was quickly crushed by team lynchpin John Collins. “This is what he likes,’ said Collins, “and this is what he plays!”
Another of the club’s characters is Gerry Kerton, a fan since 1948. Having worked at the club looking after the dressing room area from the early 1970s, at 75 years of age and not so steady on his feet, Gerry is no longer on the Fulham payroll but he still comes in on a match day, pottering around the Cottage, making the tea and helping out. Everyone knows him. Today’s opposing manager Jim Smith shakes him by the hand on arriving at the ground and Derby’s goalkeeping coach Mick Kelly (a former Assistant Manager at Craven Cottage) smiles fondly at the sight of him. “Gerry? He’ll still be here when they knock this place down,” he jokes, standing in the doorway of the Cottage. He manages to make the joke a further three times before the end of the day but Gerry is happy now – unlike that day in the early 1980s when he believed his beloved Fulham were heading for oblivion under the latest of a succession of dubiously-motivated owners.
“There was a time when we thought this place was going to fold,” he recalls. “Jimmy Greaves even announced on TV that Fulham would be closing their gates for the last time on one particular day. I walked down to the ground with my wife and daughter and I was gutted.” Given all the traumas of the past, though, Gerry is delighted by the revival of the Al Fayed years. As a member of the old guard, he still doesn’t like the idea of demolition and reconstruction of the stadium, but he knows things have to move on. “Personally it don’t take with me,” he says. “I would like it to remain as it is but at my age I can’t expect that, can I? I’ve just got to accept that in May next year this will be a building site.”
As we speak, Mohamed Al Fayed sweeps by, guided by MD Michael Fiddy and flanked by minders. Gerry looks pleased to see him and wants to greet him on this first home Saturday of the new season, but his legs aren’t as fast as they once were and by the time Gerry has got moving the Chairman has stepped through the Cottage doorway and is heading down the short hallway to the dressing room to wish the team good luck. “I like to go over and say ‘hello boss’ and shake his hand,” says Gerry. “He’s a nice man and I think he’s very enthusiastic about Fulham. He might miss the odd match now and again, but he doesn’t miss very many.”
As Mr Al Fayed makes his way into the dressing room, Pudsy is still running around the edges of the Cottage. “Mr Fayed always has a couple of minders, front and back, but he’s friendly enough,” says Pudsy. “If you saw him on the Ali G show, that’s what he’s like. He has a fantastic sense of humour and people don’t see that side of him.”
It’s 0-0 at the fag-end of the match and from pitchside, just along from the dug-outs, the sound of the matchday announcer resounds around the stadium with news of the additional minutes on the clock. The smooth, familiar voice belongs to ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton, not just a former Radio One deejay, but a former Fulham director and a lifelong fan. “I actually first came here when I was about nine,” he recalls, as Alain Goma limps passed him towards the Fulham bench. “My mother lived in a flat behind Putney Bridge station and I used to stand behind the goal in the days when people like Johnny Haynes played. He was a great player, but we never had a team that was as good as this team now.”
Between announcements ‘Diddy’ observes the contrast in styles of the managers who pace about to his left. Tigana stands cool and thoughtful in a tailored shirt and cufflinks. A trademark toothpick hangs from his mouth and despite his apparent frustration at the ten men that Derby have placed behind the ball, he seems perturbed rather than angry. A few yards down the pitch, Derby boss Jim Smith is a manager straight from the old school. Animated and angry, he hurls a torrent of abuse at his players while doing a passable impression of Bob Hoskins in ‘The Long Good Friday’.“You fookin’ idiot, come over here!” he scream. “Fookin’ come over here!”.
“You may get a great view from the director’s box,” says David Hamilton, “but down here you really feel part of it. You hear the industrial language and you can really feel the tackles!”
You get the feeling that ‘Diddy’ wouldn’t swap this place on the touchline for anything. But then at Fulham you are surrounded by passionate people – by real fans, each brought to the club by a different era. Player Liaison Manager Mark Maunders, for instance, is of the class of 1974-75. “I was ten when my mother first brought me down with my brothers,” he says. “Fulham got to the Cup Final at the end of that season, so I though every season was going to be the same – but it wasn’t!” Patrick Mascall too has been a fan “since the year dot”, while ticket office manager Sandra Coles inherited the bug from her family at aged five and has travelled on the supporters coach to most away of the games for the last 20 years. “I remember seeing men in tears when we were relegated at Swansea,” she recalls, “but the same men were doing the conga across the terraces when we came back up!”
The final whistle blows and after the tremendous opening to the season, there’s a slight feeling of deflation as the fans file away from the last remaining terraces in Premiership football. Having battled his way to a 0-0 bore draw Jim Smith is happy, but Jean Tigana exits the pitch as patently frustrated as any fan. There’s an air of disappointment on the faces of the staff too. “I didn’t enjoy it much,” says Michael Fiddy as he watches the players greet their families from the doorway of the Cottage. “It’s very difficult when people come and stick so many men behind the ball. We had that a lot in the first division but we weren’t expecting it in the Premiership. We were expecting teams to come and play a little more football against us.”
“It just shows how far we’ve come,” agrees John Collins. “We’ve played a team who’ve been established here in the Premiership for a few years and played them off the park – we’ve not managed to score a goal but we’ve not lost the match and everyone is disappointed. It just shows we set ourselves high standards!”
Out on the pitch, Frank the groundsman is surveying the wear and tear. Not traditionally a Fulham man, like every one else at this club he is obviously very much in love with the place. “Am I a fan? Yeah – how can you put your heart and soul into that pitch and not become a really committed fan!” he says. But when in just eight months time this pitch becomes a building site in the name of progress, how will he feel then? His answer betrays more about the attitude of everyone at this club than he could know. “Excited!” he says with a broad, engaging smile. “I’ll just be looking forward to the new pitch.”
Things are winding down and Mohamed Al Fayed scurries around the edge of the pitch, like everyone else respecting the sanctity of the turf. He breezes into the Cottage area, flanked by his entourage and followed a minute later by a couple of immaculately turned out young ladies, each holding a selection of Harrods Food Hall carry-outs. And then, before you can says ‘Neil and Christine Hamilton’, the Chairman is into his limousine and away from the ground – like any fan, obviously on his way home to watch the highlights on the telly with a couple of mates and a takeaway. Well, football’s like that, isn’t it?!
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007