On 10 April 1999, a little under two years since their takeover by Mohamed Al Fayed, Fulham were a third-tier club being propelled remorselessly upwards, running away with the league title – they were 16 points clear, with seven games to go – inspired by Kevin Keegan and rocket-fuelled by their owner’s chequebook.
Still, Keegan apart they were short of superstars. Their record transfer and most famous player was Chris Coleman – at £2.1m his was the highest fee paid by a third division club, a record beaten only when Sunderland signed Will Grigg 21 years later. The Welsh centre-back was a fine defender but not exactly box office, though they also had the Belgium international Philippe Albert, another centre-back, on loan from Newcastle. Hugh Grant, whose most successful film, Notting Hill, would be premiered in Leicester Square later that month, stood alone as their most famous fan. And then Michael Jackson turned up.
The home fixture against Wigan, then seventh in the division, attracted 12,140 to the banks of the Thames and one of them was the King of Pop, whom Fayed coaxed to Craven Cottage after spending the morning showing him around the toy department of Harrods, which the Fulham chairman also owned.
“I remember warming up, and then Fayed was leading him around the pitch,” the goalkeeper Maik Taylor recalls. “It was a glorious day, very hot, and he had an umbrella up, waving and clapping the fans. Obviously we paused our warm-up. He did have an aura about him and we were blown away by it all.”
Not every Fulham player was quite so overwhelmed. Indeed, some didn’t even notice. Speaking to the media after the match, the striker Barry Hayles admitted that “I didn’t find out he was here until we were warming down after the game. I shook his hand and posed for photos with him. He just said: ‘Good game lads.’”
More seasoned football-watchers agreed that it most certainly was not a good game, but Fulham had done well enough to beat a defensive Wigan 2-0. “It was not a classic and I thought they’d come here with more ambition,” said Keegan. Afterwards Fayed brought his special guest to meet the players.
“I was about to start my team talk when Mr Fayed marched into the dressing room with a big grin on his face, followed by a tall, rake-thin guy who looked a bit like Michael Jackson,” Keegan – who seems to remember the visit taking place pre-match – wrote in his autobiography, My Life in Football. “He smiled shyly, then I heard him say ‘Hey’ and it dawned on me that, crikey, this was the real Michael Jackson. It was pointless trying to continue with my team-talk – the players weren’t listening to a word – so I walked the King of Pop through the corridors of the old Stevenage Road stand to make him a cup of tea in the players’ lounge.”
“Most of us were half-naked, having showers, in good spirits because we’d won,” says Taylor. “Al Fayed was a great character and great among the lads in the dressing room. He came in leading Michael Jackson, and his quote, which made us all howl hysterically, as he came in was: ‘Hide your willies boys.’ He came in and met the guys briefly, then we all agreed to get our clothes on and go back out on to the pitch to have our photos with him.
“We all got a signed photo of him with the team – I don’t have it on the wall or anything, but I’ve still got it. At that point he’s one of most famous guys on the planet. I’m still a fan now of his music – I’ve been to watch the musical Thriller in London; incredible talent.”
After the game Jackson gave an interview to the Mirror, in which he described Fayed as “very wise and creative, talented and kind-hearted, very giving”. Though the game, and particularly the scoreless first half, was by no means a thriller the singer seemed impressed.
“I knew nothing about soccer and I’ve never been to any sporting event, so it was a great experience for me,” he said. “I’m a soccer fan now, definitely. I’m addicted. It was so exciting and passionate – the fans were like the people who come to my concerts. They were screaming and shouting and cheering their players on. I wanted to jump up and start dancing because I’m used to performing on stage when I hear all that noise. Fulham seemed a really good team with a great spirit. I met all the players and they were so kind to me.”
Fulham were promoted three days later, when they beat Gillingham 3-0, and made it to the top flight in 2001. Jackson never returned to the club (though there was an even more unexpected visit to Exeter City in 2002), but after the singer’s death his visit was commemorated with a controversial statue, which stood outside Craven Cottage for a little under three years before being returned to Fayed in 2013 by Fulham’s new owner, Shahid Khan.
“I was long gone when the statue arrived,” says Taylor. “But I still tell people the story of the day I met Jacko. It’s something people aren’t aware of. It was short and sweet, but it was amazing to meet him and that was it, really.”