They say you always remember the first game you ever went to. For many of us, though, we may remember the occasion, the two teams and possibly some of the players. But so often we remember little of the game.
This was exactly how it was for me.
It was a present for my ninth birthday and my Dad was taking me to my first game. There were some stars on show too, although I didn’t really understand how famous they were.
I grew up in South East England and many of our nearest league clubs were in London. Fulham was one such club.
1975 had seen them reach the FA Cup Final. They hold the record for playing the most number of matches to reach Wembley, as those were the days when multiple replays existed. The year before they had signed one of the most famous players in the world. Bobby Moore.
As everyone knows ‘Mooro’ captained England to their World Cup triumph in 1966 and after more than fifteen years at West Ham, he was allowed to leave. He moved across London to Craven Cottage. Alan Mullery, who was in England’s 1970 World Cup squad with Moore, had encouraged his former captain to join him by the Thames. The two were inspirational in helping Fulham reach the FA Cup Final in their first full season together where they came up against, of all teams, West Ham.
By the start of the 1976-77 season Mullery had retired from playing to take over as manager of Brighton. Fulham also had a change of manager as Alec Stock was sacked and replaced by Bobby Campbell.
Campbell set about improving the profile of the club further and encouraged Rodney Marsh to return to the club he’d started his career at back in the early sixties. Marsh was contracted to Tampa Bay Rowdies in the North American Soccer League (NASL), and as it was off-season in the States he was loaned to Fulham.
Marsh of course was good buddies with a certain George Best, who was living in the Kings Road. To the amazement of the Fulham fans and the watching football public, the two rocked up in South London.
At the end of August, Marsh made his debut in a midweek League Cup tie at home to Peterborough. The following Saturday, George Best pulled on the number 7 shirt and took to the pitch at home to Bristol Rovers. He scored the only goal of the game after seventy-one seconds, heading in a cross from Marsh. It was the stuff of dreams for the watching crowd and would’ve been manna from heaven for Sky Sports, had they been around in those days.
21,177 turned up to see the two play, along with Moore. The average crowd at the Cottage up to then had been around nine to ten thousand.
Best scored again the next week when they knocked Peterborough out of the League Cup, and when Wolves arrived at Craven Cottage, so too did 25,794. The corresponding fixture the previous season attracted fewer than ten thousand. Best scored again in the next round of the League Cup, and these performances encouraged London Weekend Television to send the cameras down to the Thames to see what all the fuss was about. Fulham took on Hereford and footage can still be found on YouTube of what became an iconic match for the day.
Marsh had scored his first goal a week earlier at Luton and in this match, he hit two. The most famous incident occurred when Fulham were clearly cruising, and Marsh tackled Best in front of an adoring support.
The game was played in a great atmosphere with smiles all round. In the interview afterwards both Best and Marsh certainly seemed to be enjoying their football.
Seven days later things were a little different. Best was sent-off at Southampton and ten-man Fulham were thumped 1-4. The game was a niggley affair and although the incident is slightly off-camera, it appears Best’s reputation earned him the red card as he reacted to yet another heavy challenge on him. He received a typically acrimonious reception as he left the pitch. He was then quickly followed down the tunnel by his girlfriend (probably a former Miss World), who’d been taking pictures from behind one of the goals. Fulham’s next home game wasn’t until a month later when we turned up. Hull City were the visitors and as if to emphasise how the Second Division was becoming a home for footballers in their twilight years, their team contained former Scottish international, Billy Bremner.
Bremner had signed for Hull from Leeds two days before Marsh and Best were taking Hereford apart. Bremner had spent sixteen years at Leeds United in an illustrious career which saw him win League Championship, FA Cup and League Cup winners medals. He captained Scotland during the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.
Also on the pitch that day was Peter Daniel, who was already a U21 international for England. He went onto win a League Cup Winners medal for Wolves when they beat Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1980. Jeff Wealands was in goal for Hull City. He then moved to Birmingham a couple of years later and was their Player of the Season in 1980. John Hawley was up front for Hull. After six years there he moved onto First Division football at Leeds United, Sunderland and then Arsenal. For Fulham, Terry Bullivant was in midfield. After his playing career he went into management, where he managed Barnet, Reading and Crystal Palace and then assistant at Brentford and Aldershot.
So there was I, a fresh faced spotty youth, watching four of the biggest names the game has ever seen on the same football pitch and I hardly remember anything about the game.
I’m the youngest in my family and all my brothers were well aware of these players, so I knew them by name only rather than having seen any footage. Needless to say, I was very excited.
We drove most of the way up from Surrey, then caught the train and got off at Putney Bridge. A short walk brought us to the ground. My recollection is being sat in the Johnny Haynes stand, watching the place gradually fill up. As the players came out onto the pitch, very few warm-ups and pre-match routines in those days, the respective protagonists were pointed out to me.
If I can’t remember much about the game then it’s at least reassuring to know I didn’t miss any goals, as there weren’t any. I remember seeing Best on our side of the pitch, the Fulham left wing, but I don’t recall any special tricks or flashes of brilliance. But then reading back on Best’s days at Fulham he’d lost much of his pace. He only spent one season at Fulham and later recounted it was one of the happiest periods of his life.
Marsh managed to stay at Fulham until mid-February, before heading back to the sun, sea and women in Tampa. God knows why he didn’t stay.
Moore left at the end of the season too. He also moved over to North America. Best lasted the season as well, but left early into the next one complaining of unpaid wages.
My most vivid memory of the day was at half-time. A crisp packet had blown onto the pitch and was in the penalty area at the Putney End. I watched, slightly puzzled by the packet, as the wind gradually blew it towards the goal. At the time I believed I was the only one who had seen it, but as it was blown over the goal-line into the goal, a cheer went up in the away end.
Unfortunately, it was the only cheer of the day and we made our way home. Me, still buzzing at the whole experience, but I’m pretty sure my Dad was a little disappointed the game hadn’t been as exciting as he’d hoped. To add to the frustration Best scored in his next two matches, including the next home match. But we could both at least come away with having said we saw Bobby Moore, Rodney Marsh and George Best play.
Saturday 23rd October 1976, 18,671
FULHAM (0) 0
HULL CITY (0) 0
FULHAM: Peter Mellor; John Cutbush, Bobby Moore, Ernie Howe, Les Strong; John Evanson, Alan Slough, Terry Bullivant, George Best; John Mitchell, Rodney Marsh
HULL: Jeff Wealands; Peter Daniel, Paul Haigh, Stuart Croft, Roger de Vries; Gordon Nisbet, George Lyall, Billy Bremner, Chris Galvin; John Hawley, Jeff Hemmerman