As Bad As Things Got: Fulham, 24th February 1987
As ever, when professional football is threatened with financial peril, the galaxy-brained have come crawling out of the woodwork to tell us why their version of reforming the game – which somehow always seems to end up benefitting the club most closely connected with the galaxy-brain concerned – is definitely the idea that will save the game from penury. It’s not always a bad thing. Promotion and relegation, play-offs, the entire concept of league football, have all come about because of the game’s need to keep evolving. But it’s also not uncommon to see wrecking balls getting involved, suggesting that to keep football viable, we have to try to kill it.
Few ideas on how to reform football have such a capacity to enrage supporters as mergers, and indeed there hasn’t been one involving a Football League club since Rotherham Town of the Midland League merged with Division Three North side Rotherham County to form Rotherham United in 1925. For a while, though, the idea became popular idea again amongst club owners during the 1980s, possibly most famously when Robert Maxwell announced his plans to merge Reading and Oxford United as Thames Valley Royals, in 1983. Maxwell was beaten back by legal challenge at Reading by a former player who’d become a successful businessman, but the idea didn’t go away.
Robert Maxwell eventually dropped his plans because Roger Smee ending up as the chairman of Reading blocked that club’s interest in moving the plans any further beyond Maxwell’s fever dreams. Maxwell carried merrily on at Oxford for several years before upping sticks and moving to Derby County, leaving his son Kevin to mind the ship at the Manor Ground. When Robert’s empire fell in on itself in the early 1990s, Oxford United almost ended up ruined as well.
The key to this story, however, was that Maxwell wanted to own Thames Valley Royals. He had a vested interest in making it a success, and didn’t lose anything much – Oxford United were in the First Division by 1986 – by trying. But what if those forcing the merger through have no significant interest in football, other than for how the game might be used to leverage a land deal?
Football’s downturn in the first half of this decade affected the whole country. As attendances collapsed across the game, many clubs found themselves facing a financial abyss. As happens at these times, there was a broader conversation about the state of the game. This tended to be drowned out by talk about what to do about hooliganism, partciularly as the decade wore on, but Robert Maxwell’s merger plan came in a world in which there were occasional demands to reduce the number of clubs.
The presented logic to this was that smaller clubs would mean more fans per club, thereby guaranteeing solvency. It was a typical chairman’s solution, which didn’t even seem to consider that most supporters’ attachments are to their club first and the game in a broader sense second and that the most likely outcome of a smaller league would be even fewer people turning out to matches than before, while simultaneously disregarding the possibility that they were running their businesses badly.
But there was also a darker side to this, as well. Two clubs merging into one wouldn’t need two grounds any more, so selling one of them would be expected. But where would the money from that sale go? Into the club’s coffers, one would expect, but the truth can get darker than that. The FA’s effective abolition of Rule 34 – the FA regulation which prohibited directors from being paid, restricted dividends paid to shareholders, and protected grounds from being asset-stripped – in the early 1980s would come to have lasting ramifications for the game in this country.
This was seen most sharply in West London, where one property development company threatened two of London’s better known grounds. Marler Estates purcased the freehold to Stamford Bridge in 1984, which resulted in the formation of the Save The Bridge campaign two years later. Chelsea wouldn’t truly be secure in their home for another decade. A short distance up the road, though, something of an altogether different magnitude was brewing.
At the start of 1983, Queens Park Rangers and Fulham were both Second Division clubs challenging for promotion. By the end of the 1982/83 season, though, Rangers had been promoted while Fulham, who’d been five points clear of fourth-placed Leicester City with five games to play, missed out under controversial circumstances at Derby County on the last day of the season. Derby needed a win to ensure that they avoided relegation to the Third Division and got it, but crowd trouble throughout the afternoon – including a pitch invasion after the only goal of the game, which led to the crowd standing right on the touchline for the closing stages of the match, which resulted in one Fulham player being kicked by a fan while the game was going on and the referee blowing for full-time with a couple of minutes left to play. The Football League allowed the result to stand.
Ernie Clay had taken control of Fulham following the suicide of Sir Eric Miller while being investigated on fraud charges in 1977. Clay had been on the board at Craven Cottage since the 1960s, and wanted to make money off his investment. He brought rugby league to the ground and submitted planning applications to incorporate flats into Craven Cottage, primed to take advantage of its riverside location. Fulham’s failure to get promoted into the First Division in 1983 seemed to be the catalyst for Clay to decide to cash in his chips, and when he did come to sell both the club and the ground, he did so to… Marler Estates.
At the end of the 1985/86 season, Fulham were relegated into the Third Division with crowds, wich had averaged almost 11,000 just three seasons earlier, having dropped to just over 4,500. Queens Park Rangers, however, were a different matter. Following promotion, they had played European football in 1984 (albeit not at Loftus Road – their match against Partizan Belgrade was switched to Highbury because UEFA were unhappy with their artificial pitch) and had ended the 1985/86 season in 13th place in First Division, having also reached the final of that year’s League Cup before losing to Oxford United. Jim Gregory had been the chairman of Fulham since 1964, but on doctors advice he decided to sell Rangers at the end of 1986. And the buyers were… Marler Estates.
The announcement came on the 24th February 1987 from David Bulstrode, who was now the chairman of both clubs. Fulham would be leaving Craven Cottage and merging with Queens Park Rangers under the name of Fulham Park Rangers. The club would keep Rangers’ First Division place, and the Rangers manager, Jim Smith, would be managing the team. The subtext was pretty clear – Fulham would only really continue to exist as part of the name of this new club. There was, of course, immediate outcry from just about all corners of the game. A meeting was held at which the anger at the decision of the property developers was readily apparent, and local councillors spoke out against it.
Fulham’s last match prior to the announcement, a home match against Rotherham United, had been watched by just 2,352 people. Their first home match afterwards, a home match against Brentford, was watched by 5,994. The match was disrupted by a pitch invasion at half-time, and it was rumoured that stewards had opened the gates to let fans onto the pitch. A little earlier at Loftus Road, hundreds of QPR supporters had occupied the centre circle there prior to their First Division match against Manchester City, delaying the kick-off there by twenty minutes.
While the protests continued, the team’s form in the league collapsed. At the time of Marler’s announcement, Fulham had been in 13th place in the Third Division. From the Brentford match on, though, they failed to win any of their next eight league matches, but at this point it rather felt as though the truly important battles were going on away from the pitch. Jimmy Hill, who’d spent most of his curtailed playing career with Fulham, fronted a consortium containing Cyril Swain and David Gardner, but the power behind the throne was local-born businessman Bill Muddyman, who would become the vice chairman but also the money behind the consortium.
By the second week in April, the proposed merger was dead in the water. The Football League confirmed that they would not be allowing a name change, and it was clear that the council were not willingly going to let Craven Cottage be demolished, even though they had previously given planning permission to Clay for the site to be developed. Hill’s consortium managed to wrest control of the club from Bulstrode, and on the 11th April 1987 his faced beamed out from the cover of the match programme for their game against Chesterfield, above the slogan, “Happy days are here again!” Fulham beat Chesterfield 3-1, their first win in eleven matches, and ended the season having done just enough to keep themselves clear of any significant relegation danger, finishing in 18th place.
The aftermath of the Bulstrode affair would come to wreak havoc upon Fulham for a full decade, though. The Hill-fronted consortium had wrested ownership of the club, but they didn’t own the ground. That remained the property of Marler, who were subsequently sold to another company, Cabra Eastates. A storm, however, was brewing in the property market, and the crash that followed pushed Cabra into liquidation, with the Royal Bank of Scotland, who had a charge secured against Craven Cottage, emerging as the club’s new landlord. Bulstrode died suddenly at the age of 48 in September 1988, reportedly in the arms of, the use the vernacular of that year, “his blonde mistress”. Rick Thompson took control of QPR shortly afterwards.
In February 1993, and with Fulham’s lease on Craven Cottage ticking down towards a deadline of the 31st May, supporters unveiled their ‘Fulham 2000’ scheme, inviting supporters of all clubs to join for £10, with all monies raised going towards the cost of a high-profile campaign to get ownership of the ground back. The bank agreed a short-term rental back to the club, on the proviso that they make provide plans to redevelop the site, thereby adding to its value.
By this point, Fulham needed all the help they could get. They were relegated into the new Division Three (formerly Division Four, now League Two) in 1994, and their slide didn’t end there, either. With the club’s finances remaining in a somewhat perilous position, they finished the 1995/96 season in 17th place in Division Three of the Football League, just six places from relegation into non-league football and the worst finish in the history of the club.
In 1997, however, everything changed again. On the pitch, the 1996/97 season ended with Micky Adams taking the team up to Division One as runners-up, separated only by goal difference from champions Wigan Athletic. The following summer came a more important victory still for the club. The club had an option to purchase Craven Cottage for £7.5m with some time left to run, but in July it was announced that the Harrods owner Mohammed Fayed, though The Muddyman Group, had purchased the club with enough money for it to buy back from the bank. Fayed threw money at the team, and by 2001 Fulham were a Premier League club.
Even then, though, Fulham’s future wasn’t completely secure. No work had been carried out on Craven Cottage for years, and even with promotion to the Premier League the ground still had terracing. Such had been their rate of acceleration that they weren’t breaking any rules for a season, meaning that Craven Cottage saw the last standing at a Premier League match during the 2001/02 season. This, however, couldn’t last. In February 2002, Fulham announced that they would be ground-sharing at Loftus Road while Craven Cottage was redeveloped.
After a season and a half at Loftus Road, however, no work had been done on Craven Cottage. During this time, many Fulham fans only went to away games in protest of moving from Craven Cottage.’Back to the Cottage’, later to become the ‘Fulham Supporters Trust’, was set up as a fans pressure group to encourage Fayed and his advisers that Craven Cottage was the only viable option for the club. In December 2003, plans were unveiled for an £8 million refurbishment work to bring the ground into line with Premier League requirements. With planning permission granted, work began in January 2004 in order to meet the deadline of the new season, and Fulham finally returned to Craven Cottage. Plans to further redevelop the ground, increasing its capacity from 22,000 to 30,000, were granted in the summer of 2012.
Fulham, Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers all emerged from this period with their clubs and their grounds intact, but they were the lucky ones. Across London and the south-east of England, property developers and morally bankrupt owners had declared war on football clubs, picking off their ancestral homes to be redeveloped over a period of years. Charlton almost lost The Valley. Wimbledon did lose Plough Lane. There was merger talk involving various combinations of Crystal Palace, Brentford and Wimbledon. West Ham United jettisoned the Boleyn Ground for the London Stadium.
Further down the pyramid, things were even more desperate. Non-league clubs, without the large support bases that could kick up a stink and sway popular opinion, were particularly hard hit. Leytonstone, Ilford and Walthamstow Avenue were forced into an unseemly merger with Dagenham in 1992, their grounds all having been sold for housing. Local rivals Enfield, Hendon and Barnet all lost theirs, along with others, such as Edgware Town and Fisher Athletic.
Leyton, one of London’s oldest amateur clubs, folded in 2011, a year and a half after chairman Costas Sophocleous and former director Philip Foster pleaded guilty to their parts in a £16 million VAT fraud which led to them being sent to prison for 8 years 3 months and 5 years 3 months respectively. Their former home still sits derelict. Dulwich Hamlet only managed to stay in their ground after an almighty fight with property developer owners.
Fulham and Craven Cottage, however, did survive, and the ground is now well-known as one of English football’s most unique venues, even allowing for redevelopment work that remains ongoing. But they only did so because the a lot of people fought for the club when it needed people to do so. Had the fans not protested, had a former player not launched a high-profile campaign to save the club, and had the local authority provided more encouragement to Marler Estates, things might have turned out very different indeed.
And the merger has fallen from fashion. Even in the non-league game, in which every day is a fresh battle for survival, there have only been a handful at senior clubs in recent years, and there now seems to be a general agreement that mergers that are pushed through without the full consent of both clubs involved will only likely lead to the death or diminishment of both of the clubs involved. In the 1980s, it often felt as though supporters were the only people who could clearly see or cared about this existential risk. When you can’t trust the people running the clubs or the bodies that are supposed to be regulating and protecting the game, the fans themselves became – just as they are now, in all honesty – just about the only people who could be trusted. The threats have been there for the last forty years. All that’s changed has been the amounts of money concerned.