When this season’s fixtures were published, one of the first dates many Albion fans looked for was the visit to Fulham. As well as being a regular source of points, friendly and picturesque Craven Cottage has always figured among the most popular of away grounds.
And the London club gained some extra fans on the south coast when Albion legend Bobby Zamora turned up next to the Thames, banging in goals against some of Europe’s big names as Fulham reached the 2010 Europa League Final.
Many Fulham fans have a similarly soft spot for Albion according to Dave Kidd, the chief sports writer of The Sun and a lifelong Cottagers supporter. “I can’t think of any other club that Fulham fans have more affection for and that stems from two things,” he says. “First is the fact that we came so close to losing our ground, so the Brighton experience resonated with us.
“But mainly it was because of Fulham’s 1996-97 League Two promotion team, who were managed by Micky Adams. Most of them left after the takeover of the club by Mohamed al Fayed in May ‘97. Micky went in September and half of them eventually followed him to Brighton.
“And they did exactly the same thing there, winning promotion from the same division all over again. People like Darren Freeman – an absolute legend - Richard Carpenter, Danny Cullip, Paul Watson, Paul Brooker, then later Simon Morgan. For those few years Brighton were certainly every Fulham fan’s second team.”
However, not all Fulham fans shared our love for Bobby Z. “In his first season he wasn’t that well-liked by everybody although I don’t include myself in that,” Dave says. “He struggled and he was getting booed.
“I could see how good his overall centre-forward play was, but I’d also seen him score that incredible Van Basten-style goal for Brighton against Halifax, I was there that day for The Sun for some reason, and don’t think I’ve ever seen as good a goal in the lower divisions. He had that technique that enabled him to score special goals.
“But even despite that incredible run to the Europa League final in 2009-10 and how integral to it he was, with a goal against Juventus, and one at Wolfsburg in the quarter-final, he’s not remembered at Fulham as fondly as he is at Brighton. It didn’t help that he left for QPR. So he had a bad start and a bad finish but one absolutely glorious season.”
That European campaign under Roy Hodgson also provided Dave’s personal favourite Fulham moment. “The Juventus game has to be my all-time Fulham highlight,” he says.
“We’d beaten Shakhtar Donetsk, the holders, in the previous round and they were a really good team. I remember talking to Mark Schwarzer recently and neither of us could work out how we’d beaten them!
“I went to Turin for the first leg and we came back 3-1 down and went further behind only two minutes into second leg. Three goals down to Juventus, so we were thinking, ‘Well it has been fun.’ But Bobby scored, they had a man sent off, Gera scored two and then Clint Dempsey got the winner.
“I wasn’t at the playoff final last season because it was the same day as the Champions League final and I was gutted but going there instead would have been a sacking offence. But for games I’ve been at, the Juventus game and Dempsey’s winning goal were the pinnacle.”
Losing Craven Cottage, as has seemed likely more than once, would have been the opposite extreme, for all Fulham fans. “It has been going on as long as I can remember,” he says.” I was talking to [former striker and manager] Malcolm Macdonald the other day and he remembers Ernie Clay, who was the first one who tried to sell the ground.
“There were other property developers and a saga that went on for 12 years until Fayed bought the club. But even he was still looking to move away.
“He actually ran the club very well, and always had good chief executives. They always say that successful and sane businessmen go into football and lose their minds. But Fayed was the opposite: someone who seemed a bit of a madman at times but who went into football very sensibly and ran the club very well.
“But even he moved us to Loftus Road for two seasons and was looking for another ground. We said goodbye to the Cottage in 2002 and didn’t expect to go back. But they couldn’t find another site so we ended up redeveloping the two ends and staying there through a lucky accident.
“I always feel that our link with our ground is as strong as any other club’s and perhaps more. Fulham’s identity is intrinsically linked to Craven Cottage. Other clubs have successfully moved grounds but it definitely wouldn’t feel the same for Fulham.
“Brighton’s case is different because you lost the Goldstone and had to fight hard to get the new ground so the Amex is looked upon with fondness.”
Dave’s point about Fulham’s idyllic riverside location is well made but has also led to the ‘Does your butler know you’re here?’ jibes from some visiting supporters.
“The idea that we are all posh and middle-class is a bit overblown,” he says. “Although the setting is one of the most expensive locations in London and therefore in the country, which is partly why we have always been very nervous about keeping the ground because we all know what prime real estate it is.”
And Dave agrees that – Brentford and QPR fans apart – few people seem to dislike Fulham. “They love the actual ground, the Cottage itself and the Stevenage Road stand and the walk through Bishop’s Park, along the Thames,” he says.
“And we have tended – although Micky Adams’ team was a slight exception – not to be very threatening on the pitch either. We haven’t had many bastards in the team. A nice team and a friendly club, and a bit eccentric too, although not as middle-class as we’re made out to be.”
Even with fans like Hugh Grant and Richard Osman? “But they are both genuine fans, not just ‘celebrity’ fans who latch onto fashionable clubs.”
This season has been a test for even the most loyal of supporters, after present owner Shahid Khan sanctioned spending of over £100m last summer.
“They have put a fair bit of money in but have been relatively naïve in some ways, such as recruitment. Under [previous manager] Slavisa Jokanovic it was excellent for a couple of years. But even when he was there it was often fraught between him and the owner’s son, Tony Khan.
“I don’t think we’re an over-optimistic bunch but I think most people expected more this season. Perhaps we were bamboozled by the sheer amount of money we spent last summer.
“But a lot of things have been thrown at the club that aren’t quite true, for example the idea that we made too many changes in summer. We had six players on loan so we had to sign replacements.
“Five players we played in the play-off final at Wembley left as soon as the whistle blew because Ryan Fredericks immediately joined West Ham.
“That meant that we had to do a lot of business in a truncated close-season between the play-off final and with the Premier League deciding to close the transfer window early and with the World Cup in the middle of it.
“So I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Tony Khan. He got a lot of stick from Fulham fans, some of it quite rightly, but he had very little time to do a lot of business. Some of it hasn’t come off but they have also had a lot of injuries.
“If we had held onto the two-goal lead at Brighton it would have been two wins in the first four games and it might have been different. We might have built a little more confidence and Jokanovic might have survived.
“But then Aleksandar Mitrovic handled that ball for some reason and we still haven’t won an away game. But he is one of the few players who has really acquitted himself brilliantly this season.”
Dave has seen a lot of football in more than 20 years writing for The Sun, the Sunday People and the Mirror (and he also penned one of the best tabloid lines ever when he wrote that rival supporters ‘accused Robbie Savage of one-in-a-bed sex romps’).
So his opinion of the present Albion team is worth noting. “The Brighton team now reminds me a little of that Roy Hodgson team in the way they are set up,” he says.
“Fairly cautious, good defensively, perhaps over-achieving, battling above their average, although we had one or two more experienced characters like Danny Murphy and Damien Duff.“
Who knows? A second-half surge up the table and Chris Hughton’s men might even grab a little Europa League glory too.