Football: Fans banking on a promised land: Simon O'Hagan unravels the saga of Fulham's crusade for a secure home

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The Independent Online
IT IS a wet Tuesday night in London SW6. In the fashionable streets that lead off Fulham Palace Road, where expensive cars are tightly parked and lights glow behind the stained glass of Edwardian front doors, small groups of scurrying figures are making their way towards Craven Cottage, home of Fulham Football Club.

They are among the 3,721 people who have ignored the rain to see what Fulham v Stoke City, in the second round of the Coca-Cola Cup, has to offer. For most of them, it's an act of faith. Fulham are struggling, like they have never done before.

Plenty of clubs fall on hard times, but there is something especially poignant about the plight of Fulham, the friendly little club on the banks of the Thames, whose off-field problems never seem to be solved as the ones on the pitch go from bad to worse.

As histories of clubs under threat go, with all their boy-crying-wolf elements, the Fulham saga can surely out-do them all. It feels as if it has been going on since the days of Johnny Haynes. And as the plot about the plot of land has unfolded - in fact only since 1985 - so it has assumed a Dickensian complexity, all shadows and fog as the 'action' has shifted back and forth less between people than the gloomy corridors of institutions - boards of directors, local councils, property companies, legal firms. Craven Cottage should be renamed Bleak House.

The tale began nine years ago when the then chairman, Ernie Clay, bought the club from the Church Commissioners' for pounds 900,000 and then plunged it into darkness by selling it to Marler Estates for pounds 9m and making off with the money.

Last week's report that Fulham's latest proposal to redevelop Craven Cottage had been turned down by the local authority will have read like just another meaningless dispatch from a distant conflict whose roots are so entangled that not even those most closely connected with it seem fully to understand what has happened.

True to the Fulham saga, that report did indeed turn out to be erroneous. The situation today, after years in which the club has had its fate in the hands of property developers, might have moved to Chelsea or Queen's Park Rangers, and more than once been on the brink of closure, is a relatively simple one.

The ground is now owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has given the club the chance to buy it provided it can raise pounds 7.5m by 2003. So the fund-raising is under way, and the search on to find a scheme to redevelop it which will a) attract a developer interested in the housing potential of a prime site in a desirable area but one who will ensure the future of football there, and b) meet the requirements of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

The Fulham saga underlines a point that one supporter made last week when he said that 'for supporters of little clubs, the ground is almost more important than anything else'. Certainly Fulham's, with its celebrated cottage and Victorian architecture, retains an old-fashioned warmth one can be justifiably sentimental about, and when even three-quarters empty, as it was for the Stoke game, can generate a terrific atmosphere.

It is the club's misfortune that it finds itself slap in the middle of an area that was once poor but is now so affluent that it hardly seems feasible for Third Division football to continue there, on land many people would love to build on.

The men trying to work their way through these difficulties have a big task on their hands. There is the club chairman, Jimmy Hill, and a man who knows what it is to be under pressure, the new manager Ian Branfoot, still fresh from his tribulations at Southampton, but charged with the task of getting the team out of the bottom division to where they were relegated for the first time last season.

After a promising start, four successive defeats left Fulham sixth from bottom, so a stirring 3-2 victory over Stoke was just what was needed. 'I'm always a supreme optimist,' Branfoot says, already looking an embattled figure in his trench coat. 'But having worked here for three months you know that in some departments we're not good enough.'

Already the criticism of Branfoot has begun, chiefly that he has too many players who are too old - men like his 35-year-old striker Alan Cork. 'The older players have been our saving grace,' he says. 'Without them you'd have a team full of innocents. You'd get slaughtered.' As it is, Branfoot has two young full-backs he describes as 'incredibly nave', but recognises, reluctantly it seems, that you have to build for the future.

But will there be a future? That is as much down to Hill, a figure whose own standing with the fans suffered, to say the least, when in 1990 the club did a deal with the property firm Cabra which could have led to Fulham ground-sharing with the dreaded Chelsea. Cabra's collapse, and the subsequent involvement of the Royal Bank of Scotland was, in the context of Fulham's troubles, the best thing that could have happened to them.

Hill's tone is determined, even upbeat, and he talks about a 15,000 all-seater stadium incorporating flats to which no local resident could possibly object. Ah, the local residents, those just back from their offices in the City as, a few yards away, Fulham and Stoke City take the field. There is a contradiction here, and not even the acumen of Hill and Co combined with the efforts of Fulham's dwindling support may be enough, in the long term, to save the club.

(Photograph omitted)