When Fulham, newly promoted to the Second Division, took on Crystal Palace, newly promoted to the Premiership, at Craven Cottage on Tuesday night the home side's manager, Micky Adams, was off watching Luton, who his team will shortly face in the league. But there was no lack of effort from the Fulham players, who put themselves about as if the match had been a Cup final. This may not have been unconnected with the presence in the front row of the directors' box of Mohammed Al Fayed, recently returned from a rather public holiday in the South of France, and recently installed as chairman of Fulham Football Club.
Al Fayed's fondness for British institutions is well documented. He is synonymous with Harrods, but in recent months he has been diversifying. He has resuscitated Punch magazine - though it can hardly be said to be off the life- support machine - and has now turned his attention to another once-glorious enterprise that had fallen on hard times. Down at Craven Cottage, the fans think it is Christmas.
There are eight new players, taking the squad to 28. But neither the newcomers nor the old-timers will be turning out just yet in a green and gold strip, as cynics had suggested. The shirts remain white and the logo on them remains that of the GMB, the trade union which will continue to sponsor the club despite its glamorous new connections. The changes at Fulham in the nine weeks since Al Fayed became involved have been less spectacular than a flashy new strip, and have mostly been concerned with refurbishing the quaint but crumbly ground.
As the new chairman put it in his programme notes: "In every corner of the ground things have been made better, safer, more efficient or at the very least will have had a fresh coat of paint." Frankie the groundsman has had some money to spend on grass-seed and as a result the pitch on Tuesday night was emerald-bright. "It was this green last summer," one regular observed. "But that was weeds."
The new chairman seemed to enjoy watching his team, but stayed apart from the crush of suits in the bar beneath the directors' box at half- time. On his way out to the Riverside Terrace, he stopped for a moment. "It's lots of fun here," he said. "It's very exciting. There's lots of fun to come for years and years."
Then he was off, to a satellite phone call, perhaps, or a video conference link-up. It later transpired that Mr Al Fayed's pressing business was in the supporters' club, where he was greeted warmly and a bus conductor told him that he had made him very happy. One suspects that Al Fayed, who also likes to go walkabout at Harrods, lives for this kind of reception.
The fans will have been as pleased as the chairman with their side's performance. Palace scored the only goal, Neil Shipperley tapping in from a Bruce Dyer cross, but the Second Division side were composed in defence, creative in midfield, and manufactured more chances than their more illustrious visitors. Bill Muddyman, the vice- chairman, who has helped to keep the club afloat for the last 10 years, was full of relief and elation. "The new players did well and the others have to fight for their places now," he said. "That's the joy of a bigger squad."
The new players, such as Steve Hayward from Carlisle, Neil Smith from Gillingham and Aidan Newhouse from Wimbledon, are hardly in the Juninho class. But they did enough to keep the incumbents honest, and spurred new efforts from the home favourites, among whom the floppy-haired wing- back Robbie Herrera particularly impressed.
But however chuffed Muddyman was with his revivified team he still sounded a note of caution. "It can be very traumatic going from scrimping and saving to having a bit of money to spend," he warned. "We won't be pressured into paying huge fees for players - I'm going to spend Mr Al Fayed's money as if it were my own. We both believe in investing in youth, we've worked on the infrastructure here for the last couple of years and we're going to work harder on it now."
Such investment will have to pay its way in the long run. For all his fondness for tradition and romance, Al Fayed is a businessman rather than a dreamer. He considered investing in Chelsea, but the numbers - or perhaps the egos - did not stack up. Fulham, with an equally affluent catchment area and a picturesque ground with potential for development - in the best possible taste - into a "super stadia", seemed a better bet.
Al Fayed wants to take the team into the Premiership, and in the process make the bus conductor and his fellow Cottagers happy for life. In the meantime, the first-team home strip is on sale in Harrods and it is thought that the away strip has potential for change. Green and gold has not been ruled out. As the new chairman concludes in his programme notes: "In the words of that other great Fulham fan named Al - Al Jolson - 'You ain't' seen nothing yet'."