IT HAS taken 22 months, three managers, 51 players, pounds 10.7m in transfer fees and plenty more in wages but Mohamed Al Fayed finally saw his Fulham side gain promotion last night.
It was, ultimately, achieved in style, with their 14th successive home win but the scoreline was an inaccurate reflection of a match which kept the home side's fans on edge until the final eight minutes. Even then it needed a brace of defensive blunders to defeat a Gillingham side harbouring their own promotion ambitions.
The first of those errors enabled Barry Hayles to ease the leaders' early nerves with his eighth goal for the club after 26 minutes. The second, after 82 minutes, handed Chris Coleman his first goal of the year. The celebrations were capped when Geoff Horsfield tucked in the rebound from his own penalty to add a gloss finish.
Al Fayed himself led the party on the pitch with Kevin Keegan, his other job as England manager far from his thoughts, close behind. It was the club's second promotion in three years and the next target is the title: it would be Fulham's first honour since winning the old Second Division in 1948-49.
After that Keegan is expected to dip heavily into Al Fayed's pockets as he strengthens the team in an attempt to gain promotion to the Premiership at the first attempt. Rob Lee and Les Ferdinand are likely signings as - to judge from his transfer record while he took Newcastle from the bottom of the old Second Division to second in the Premiership - he will overhaul the team.
He has done so once already. Fulham did not field a single player last night from the squad which went up from the Third Division under Micky Adams two years ago. The only link was Simon Morgan, who captained that team, and he was among the substitutes.
For a few minutes at the start of the game he had illustrious company. Michael Jackson was not present but as well as Keegan, the bench also contained Al Fayed himself. However, a wet and cold night quickly sent the Harrod's owner to the comfort of an executive box. Morgan was thus left alone to reflect on the change in the club's fortunes since January 1996 when he was part of a team which found itself among the bottom clubs of the Third Division after a home defeat to Scunthorpe in front of just over 2,000 spectators.
There were 11,000 more at Craven Cottage last night and most had arrived in confident mood. Even the public address began by asking the crowd to keep off the pitch after the match to enable the players to enjoy a lap of honour. Despite having been unbeaten since their FA Cup defeat to Manchester United two months ago it seemed a little presumptuous, especially as Gillingham began the match fourth in the table.
So it proved as although they had the bulk of the early possession, Fulham failed to create clear chances and Gillingham threatened, with Paul Smith going close. However, after 26 minutes, Fulham were given a hand as Mick Galloway, sent off here last year, gave a back-pass straight to Horsfield. He ran into the box and, though Adrian Pennock tackled him, the ball ran to Hayles to score.
The goal gave the Thamessiders sufficient confidence to produced a concentrated spell of pressure. Vince Bartram made a brave double save from Coleman and Horsfield, then Coleman again, Paul Trollope and Steve Finnan all went close.
Gillingham, having held out to half-time, took the game to the leaders in the second period, with Nicky Southall bringing Maik Taylor to his knees from 20 yards. Fulham responded with a drive from Jamie Smith that went just wide. Then Coleman, heading in from a corner after Mark Patterson and Bartram both left each other to clear, and Horsfield settled the match. On the terraces they thought it was all over and, when referee Wolstenholme blew his whistle, it was.
Fulham (3-5-2): Taylor; Symons, Albert, Coleman; J Smith, Finnan, Hayward, Trollope (N Smith, h-t), Brevett; Hayles, Horsfield. Substitutes not used: Peschisolido, Morgan.
Gillingham (3-5-2): Bartram; Ashby, Pennock, Butters; Southall, Hessenthaler, P Smith, Galloway (Hodge, 70), Patterson; Lisbie (Asaba, 16), Taylor. Substitute not used: Carr.
Referee: E Wolstenholme (Blackburn).Reuse content