Fulham optimism well-grounded

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Seeing Peter Shilton at Craven Cottage on Saturday underlines just how long he has been playing. The first time he kept goal there in January, 1968, Fulham were still in the top flight. Labour were in power, the Beatles were still together and Manchester City were to be crowned champions. Strange days indeed.

The decades in between have been kinder to Shilton than Fulham but in recent years, both have fallen on hard times. Each has been beset by financial problems and the sight of Shilton hanging on in West Ham's reserves, touting himself round the game as he sought the chance to make a bit of history - and a few quid - has been tinged with the same sadness as Fulham's decline.

Last season the one-time haunt of the music hall favourites became a joke themselves, slipping to 91st in the League. Like several clubs in recent years Fulham supporters began to wonder which would come first, bankruptcy or relegation from the League?

Micky Adams' appointment as manager induced a revival which lifted them to 17th in the Third Division. It was still their worst-ever placing but a start had been made and, this season, they have stormed to the top of the division.

Success has been matched off the field, with planning permission finally granted (pending a last ditch appeal by a local resident to the European court) for what could be the final act in the long campaign to save the Cottage from redevelopment.

The plan involves purchasing the ground, for the first time in a 100 years' residence and building flats alongside the river and at the Putney End with rump stands in front of them. It is not dissimilar from the first redevelopment 11 years and umpteen inquiries ago - though this time the Cottage itself is saved.

The planned 15,000 capacity seems conservative - despite freezing weather and the lure of Christmas shopping half of that were enticed out on Saturday.

Such a restricted capacity, on what will be a very small site, effectively condemns Fulham to a future outside the top flight.

Some Fulham fans feel the board should have been more ambitious but for many the price is worth paying if it means that the club can stay at Craven Cottage. More than most clubs, Fulham are synonymous with their home. The prospect of ground-sharing or playing in a new but soulless steel barn off the M4 is a chilling one to most supporters.

This is especially so as that support does seem significantly older - and thus maybe more protective of their heritage - than most London clubs. The lack of success and the changing nature of a small catchment area must make it hard to attract new recruits.

However, with only Wimbledon at home of the Premiership's capital clubs there must have been a few unfamiliar faces on Saturday, drawn by the chance to assess Fulham's progress and watch Shilton make his 999th League appearance.

Though Shilton failed to match the clean sheet he kept in 1968 he emerged the better from a lively 1-1 draw. Welcomed with a chant of "dodgy keeper" he was anything but. It took a curling shot that went in off the far post from Paul Watson to beat him while Mike Conroy, seeking his 16th goal in 22 League games, was denied six times. The final save, a superlative arching fingertip around the post rolled back the years. For a 47-year- old the save almost defied belief. It was certainly beyond the referee's comprehension as he gave a goal-kick.

Conroy was first to congratulate Shilton at the end and the veteran goalkeeper said: "We had a bit of a laugh about that. It was my best save. This was the most I've had to do since I've been here. I'm getting better every game."

Assuming the inevitable stiffness has subsided in time the 1000th match will be at Brisbane Road against Brighton on Sunday. It is some achievement. Not that he will be stopping there, his contract is to the end of the season and on Saturday's evidence he will still be in the team.

Fulham may still be top. They are well organised and have the right mix of talent and commitment to succeed in this division.

It was no surprise to find good footballers like Nick Cusack, Glenn Cockerill and Robbie Herrera in the side but Adams, and his predecessor, mentor and current general manager, Ian Branfoot, have instilled a hard edge. Several challenges showed that the days of Fulham being regarded as a "soft touch" are over and Branfoot's programme notes revelled in the fact that some managers have euphemistically described them as "physical" this season.

Not that they are cloggers. The game was full of hard but honest challenges until the 74th minute until Scott McGleish left his foot in on Mark Blake. Referee Knight decided intent was involved and off went McGleish. That seemed it for an Orient side already trailing to Watson's superb 65th- minute goal.

But Fulham, though clearly the better side, had looked vulnerable when pressured at the back and it was not great a surprise when Mark Warren headed an injury-time equaliser.

With Wigan and Cambridge also dropping points, Fulham remain six points clear. Shilton, meanwhile, went off to prepare for Sunday. To his relief he has been let off Orient's midweek camping trip (Barry Hearn is clearly not one for mini-breaks on the Algarve) to handle the media interest.

Goals: 1-0 Watson (65); 1-1 Warren (90).

Fulham (3-5-2) Lange; Blake (Cullip, 82), Cusack, Angus; Watson, Carpenter, Cockerill (Scott, 88), Morgan, Herrera; Conroy, Freeman. Substitute not used: Thomas.

Leyton Orient (1-4-3-2): Shilton; Joseph; Channing, Chapman, Warren, Naylor; Ling, Arnott (Martin, 78), Howes; West (Inglethorpe) 61, McGleish. Substitute not used: Garland.

Referee: B Knight (Kent).

Bookings: Fulham: Blake, Scott; Orient: Naylor, Chapman, Arnot. Sending- off: Orient: McGleish .

Man of the match: Shilton. Attendance: 7,355.