Sometimes it can be a struggle to explain to an outsider just how hard it is to be a supporter of a football club. The emotional roller coaster we all board when we nail our specific colours to the mast can leave you drained. We all love the highs, but the crushing lows often take a long time to flush out the system. Indeed, they sometimes never leave us.
Take the example of Fulham in the 1982/83 season. Promoted to the Second Division during the previous campaign, the club were flying under the management of Malcolm Macdonald. A team full of quality – keeper Gerry Payton, defenders Tony Gale, Roger Brown, Jeff Hopkins, midfielders Ray Houghton, Robert Wilson, Sean O’Driscoll, and Ray Lewington, along with strikers Gordon Davies and Dean Coney – it appeared as if back-to-back promotions was a serious possibility.
Playing an entertaining brand of football, Match of the Day viewers were treated to an example of this when Macdonald returned to Newcastle and led his team to a stylish 4-1 win. Houghton, a free transfer from West Ham, ran the show, and before Christmas, Fulham would also score four at Middlesbrough, Grimsby and Wolves.
At the start of 1983, Fulham sat in the final promotion spot, with only Wolves and QPR above them. When Grimsby were again hit for four at Craven Cottage in March, the club were seven points clear of Leicester, with a game in hand, and seemingly destined for a return to the top flight after a 15-year absence.
Leicester would not go away, though. In fact, Gordon Milne’s team put together a 15-match unbeaten run at the end of the season that cranked up the pressure on a Fulham team that still held a five-point advantage with just five matches remaining. Sadly, the last three weeks of the 1982/83 season would see things unravel for the Cottagers.
“I think it was a mixture of inexperience and squad size,” Lewington recalls. “We had one or two key players out for games and we started to stutter – and we did have a hard run-in.” Losing at home against Leicester did not help matters, and further losses at Sheffield Wednesday and QPR saw Fulham drop out of the promotion positions for the first time since November.
Level on points with Leicester, but with an inferior goal difference, Fulham’s destiny was now out of their hands. Despite missing Division Two top scorer Gary Lineker, a 2-1 win at Oldham pushed Leicester to the brink of promotion. All they had to do was beat a relegation threatened Burnley at Filbert Street in their final match.
Fulham had at least managed to take it to last day of the season, halting their three-match losing streak by beating Carlisle. Needing all the help they could get, the club managed to get the Fulham rugby league team to move their match scheduled for the day before to Stamford Bridge. The rugby version of Fulham had already gained promotion; the football team needed a helping hand if they were to complete the double.
A trip to the Baseball Ground awaited, against a Derby team that were still not mathematically safe from the drop. Macdonald tried his best to employ a few mind games, but not too many were convinced with his analysis of the situation. “Burnley want to stay out of the third division more than Leicester want to be in the first, and as for Derby, they will be more nervous than us.”
The truth is, Fulham, who had taken just 14 points out of the last 36 available, needed an in-form Leicester to drop points against rock bottom Burnley to have any chance of going up. There was a small glimmer of hope; Burnley had won three out of their last five league matches and had beaten Tottenham 4-1 at White Hart Lane on their way to the Milk Cup semi-final. But surely Leicester would get the job done.
Yet there were a few twists in the tale on Saturday May 14, and beyond. Try as they might, Leicester could not break down a resolute Burnley team, that would suffer relegation three days later at Crystal Palace. Missing chance after chance, it appeared as if the Foxes had timed their run superbly, only to fall at the final hurdle due to the goalless draw. A Fulham win would see Macdonald’s men promoted.
But Fulham were not having things their own way. Coney was denied by goalkeeper Steve Cherry in the first half, and a superb Bobby Davison volley in the 71st minute edged Derby closer to safety and dented Fulham’s hopes. And then the trouble began.
“I looked at the clock on the ground when the goal went in and noticed fans coming on to the pitch then,” Wilson explained. “They simply kept coming off the terraces and it became very difficult to play.”
The last ten minutes of the match were played out in chaotic scenes; Derby fans lining the pitch, many spilling on to the playing area, with one supporter running on to pat Cherry on the back after he superbly tipped over a late Houghton effort.
“It was very intimidating,” Wilson added. Despite announcements over the PA system, the fans would not be moved, and one even kicked out at Wilson as he moved down the left flank. “My instinct was to have a go at the fellow but then I realised it might lead to a riot.”
When referee Ray Chadwick blew his whistle as the match neared its conclusion, there was nothing to hold back the tide. “I have never been so frightened in my life,” Wilson noted. “I wondered if I was going to make it.” Hopkins was not so lucky; punched repeatedly and left with a torn shirt, the young defender returned to the dressing room in a state of complete shock.
The messy situation did not stop there, however. Chadwick informed both teams that the match still had 78 seconds to go – his final whistle had actually been for an offside decision – but there was little hope of a restart. Fulham were also reluctant to return, seeing as they now only had ten fit players remaining. Macdonald, who had cut a frustrated figure throughout, was fuming.
“The rules state the game should last for 90 minutes,” Macdonald protested. Immediately appealing for the game to be replayed, Macdonald found allies in Derby chairman Mike Watterson, and Leicester boss Milne, the latter admitting: “If I was in Malcolm Macdonald’s position I would have the referee by the throat and make sure there was another game.”
Fulham lodged an appeal that was heard on the Monday after the match. But the three-man committee meeting at Lytham St Annes ruled against the Derby match being replayed. “It would be monstrously unfair on other clubs affected, most of all Leicester City,” Football League secretary Graham Kelly said. “The circumstances cannot be recreated unless you replay almost the whole of the second division programme.”
Cancelling a proposed team holiday to Majorca, and keeping his players in full training, Macdonald announced that the club would again appeal. But on Wednesday May 25, Fulham’s fate was sealed. Their 38-page document was not enough to reverse the original decision, the Football League quoting regulation 19 that referred to the absolute discretion of the organisation.
Fulham briefly considered taking the matter to court, but two days later admitted defeat. Thus ended a bitterly disappointing last month of what had been a thrilling 1982/83 season for the club. A case of so near yet so far, of what might have been, as a campaign cut 78 seconds short provided a devastating conclusion. “It just faded away and it was a terrible way to end the season,” Lewington comments. “The whole last month of the season was terrible, climaxing on that day.”
Things were never the same again under Macdonald. Fast forward to the start of 1984 and Fulham were in the relegation zone, and although Macdonald steadied the ship, he resigned in April. Instantly linked to management roles at both Arsenal and Tottenham, Macdonald’s star was bright. But he never did get to manage a team in the top flight. The agony in Derby was the closest he ever came.