Reaching the Division Three play-offs in 1989 was a real achievement. Money was very tight and it had taken all of Ray Lewington’s blossoming skill to cobble together a side which not only scored freely, but kept the odd clean sheet too.
The signing of Doug Rougvie, a Scotsman carved from granite itself, had been shrewd business and he ‘toughened up’ the defence from February onwards.
We faced Bristol Rovers in the first leg of the play-off semi-final, and more than 9,000 were shoe-horned into their temporary home at Twerton Park. It was a scorching day and I remember being squeezed into the open terrace behind the goal. Rovers won 1-0 and their fans invaded the pitch afterwards.
With the very real potential for trouble in those days , most of our players ran for cover but Doug Rougvie strolled over to the Fulham contingent to show his appreciation. No one dared to go near him and he seemed to have a ten-yard exclusion zone around him.
We left Bath with hope in our hearts but it all went pear-shaped in the home leg after Peter Scott was sent off. I can’t remember the offending challenge but I recall being none too surprised. Scotty was that kind of player!
At 4-0 down I was heartbroken and left the floodlit Cottage reverberating to the sound of ‘Goodnight Irene’ from the thousands of Bristol fans who had travelled.
The games against Grimsby Town, nine years later, were seen as a huge under-achievement.
A certain Mr Al Fayed had taken control the previous summer and we were the mega-bucks team that everyone wanted to beat.
Ray Wilkins had been relieved of his duties but Kevin Keegan had not yet had time to work his magic. The first game was at home and played in front of 14,000 fans. Small by today’s standards, this was the second largest crowd at the Cottage for a dozen years and was an indication of the growing ambition and fan base at Fulham in the late nineties.
With the chairman’s wealth we all knew that good times were just around the corner but we received a bloody nose from a well organised Grimsby team. Paul Moody received his marching orders and Grimsby Town hung on for 1-1. A certain Peter Beardsley (yes, in the third tier of English football) scored our penalty.
The return match overlooking the North Sea was remarkable only insomuch as it is the only time I have been to Cleethorpes and not needed gloves and a scarf!
Fulham fans had travelled in numbers (just how long is the M18?) but yet another sending off meant our chances were slim. The usually mild-mannered Paul Peschisolido received his marching orders fairly early in the game and the writing was on the wall. There was a winner from Grimsby, the usual pitch invasion, jubilation from home fans and utter heartbreak in the away contingent. It all seemed rather familiar.
So no, I’m not a massive fan of the play-offs. Unless you’re a neutral, they’re agony to watch. Too tense, too hyped, too nervous.
But I’ll be there on Saturday alongside more than 20,000 others and I already have my ticket for the Madejski on Tuesday. Will it be the same old story for Fulham? Or will this fresh, exciting team have what it takes to get us to Wembley for the first time in a generation? I’ll be watching, but not enjoying, the absolute theatre that is the play-offs.