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Down Memory Lane: Brilliant Best and heroic Haynes lit up the Cottage

Nothing is more intriguing in sport than when David slays Goliath and the underdog emerges triumphant.

Fulham’s recent Europa League 4-1 (aggregate 5-4) win over Italian giants Juventus in the Europa League was the perfect example.

Or, as one ecstatic London journalist put it: “Fulham’s virgin soldiers brought the Old Lady of Turin to her knees and tore a remarkable reputation to shreds with the most astonishing of comebacks after conceding a goal and facing a seemingly impossible uphill battle.”

Tomorrow night Fulham play German side Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals.

Fulham, founded as St Andrews Church Sunday School FC in 1879, has a special place in the heart of football lovers, nestling as it does almost on the doorstep of Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, West Ham, Crystal Palace and QPR.

Craven Cottage, the club’s 24,500-capacity stadium on the bank of the Thames, may have been refurbished in recent years yet it still exudes that friendly, family atmosphere. Its contribution to English football has been immense, the crop of international players remarkable.

Northern Ireland has always had a close affinity with the club, particularly during the Frank Osborne immediate post-Second World War era.

When Belfast Celtic withdew from Irish League football in 1949 they agreed terms with the London club for Johnny Campbell and Robin Lawler, two of the heroes of the 2-0 defeat of Scotland in New York.

Jimmy Jones, broken leg victim of that infamous 1948 Boxing Day match with Linfield at Windsor Park, also joined Fulham but difficulties with the English football authorities over his registration forced him to return home.

And after Lawrie Sanchez quit his Northern Ireland post to join Fulham, he soon had David Healy, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Steve Davis on his staff. Only Hughes and Baird remain since Roy Hodgson took over the managership with outstanding success, illustrated by that win over Juventus episode.

We should not forget of course that the great George Best (pictured) turned out for Fulham between 1976 and 1978 when he wasn’t playing in America. Alongside his big pal Rodney Marsh, they had plenty of fun at the Cottage, as did the supporters watching them.

Unquestionably the man regarded as Fulham’s greatest player however was inside forward Johnny Haynes, known to the fans as The Maestro, and the first in English football to be paid £100 per week on the abolition of the £20 maximum wage in 1961.

He made a record 658 appearances, scoring 158 goals between 1952-70, collected 56 England caps, captaining the side 22 times, and also skippered the English League star-studded XI defeated 5-2 by the Irish League at Windsor Park in April, 1956 — a performance masterminded by skipper Tommy Dickson, the Duke of Windsor, Wilbur Cush, Alex Russell and George Eastham Jnr, one of the finest talents ever seen in local domestic football.

Haynes, born in Kentish Town, died aged 71, in 2005 after suffering a brain haemorrhage when driving his car on the Dalry Road, Edinburgh where he had opened a business after returning from South Africa; his third wife Avril was seriously injured in the crash but recovered.

He was the most accomplished passer I’ve seen. Almost daily he would set a towel in the middle of the pitch and practice pinging passes on to it — rarely did he miss.

He remained throughout his professional career at Fulham despite many approaches by other clubs including AC Milan. Today a statue has been erected and a stand named in his memory, by Fulham supporters who over the years fought so hard against economic adversity to keep alive their near-bankrupt club until along came Harrods owner Al Fayed with his millions. Their love of Fulham and pride in Haynes is bred in the bone marrow.

Belfast Telegraph