Thursday, 25 August 2011

FFC at a crossroads?

Despite the fact that the new season is very much at an embryonic stage, concerns about the direction Fulham FC are moving in are starting to arise amongst supporters. In fact, were you to log on to a messageboard on Sunday evening after the abject performance and defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers and you would think the team had just lost a end-of-season relegation decider, that our fate was sealed and the doomsday scenario of relegation lay before us.

Whilst this is perhaps indicative of the highly exaggerated and over-emotional reactions found on almost any football forum, the fact is there is certainly some grounding in the worries of some supporters. It is not so much down to the team’s on-pitch performances; although it is true that we have hardly been impressive in any of our matches so far, most fans understand that Martin Jol will need time to familiarise himself with the squad and work out its strengths and weaknesses, and vice versa the players need to acclimatise themselves with the way he wants his team to play. Indeed, our previous two managers both had difficult starts, and very few would convincingly argue that either was anything but a success.

So whilst Jol’s somewhat baffling decisions to play Aaron Hughes at right back and to start the increasingly laboured-looking Dickson Etuhu over the Steve Sidwell can be tolerated with a small dose of the benefit of the doubt, what is abundantly obvious is that the squad needs investment. Most notable are the limitations of Jol’s frontline options; Zamora seems to really be struggling with fitness, Johnson is hard-working and useful when playing off a partner but is totally ineffective on his own, and Moussa Dembele, whilst listed on the squad page as a striker, isn’t really one at all. Despite being linked with a whole host of centre forwards over the past few weeks (Jerome, Cole, Ruiz, Cisse, Borriello), nothing has materialised and time is beginning to run out. It would be crazy to go into the season with our current striking options, particularly considering the rigours the Europa League will likely place on the squad. Whilst Dempsey managed to step up and fill the goalscoring void left by Zamora’s absence last season, it is risky to expect him to do it again. Quite simply, at least one striker is needed before the window closes in a week’s time.

The frustration inspired by the squad’s perceived thinness is heightened by the club’s apparently frugal spending policy. Reports of ‘half-bids’, from FC Twente referring to an offer for winger Nacer Chadli, are likely to provoke much eye-rolling and sighing from supporters who, since being bank-rolled to the Premier League by Al-Fayed’s millions, have been forced to accept that the expenditure has had to be reined in. There is no arguing with the logic; after all, the club has a noose of £150-200m debt around its neck, a fact that most seem to deal with by simply ignoring it and assuming it will all work out ok, but one day the club will have to move onwards without Al-Fayed’s financial backing propping it up. Attempts to make the club self-sufficient will no doubt be applauded by supporters, but nevertheless the club cannot afford to be negligent in terms of player recruitment. From the outside, it seems that there must be more money available; the club haven’t really granted significant spending on players since Hodgson’s first summer in charge in 2008 (when Andy Johnson was signed for circa £8m), around £10m was received for Chris Smalling from Man United in 2010, plus there’s the money earned from getting to the Europa League final. Added to the usual incomes budgeted for, such as Sky money and gate receipts, and fans’ frustrations at the unwillingness to pay the necessary transfer fees to attract quality players become more understandable. Mark Hughes walked out on the club because he didn’t feel they would sufficiently back him in the transfer market, and the lack of significant arrivals have perhaps vindicated his decision somewhat.

It certainly feels that Fulham are currently standing at a crossroads. Three years of almost unprecedented success under the guidance of Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes have left the club in a healthier position than ever – comfortably established in the Premier League, recognised throughout Europe for the incredible Europa League run, a highly-reputed manager and, of course, European football. All this has been done on a relatively meagre investment, but the consequences are starting to come home to roost; key players are all getting old together and, whilst Jol has begun the process of bringing in young players to eventually replace the old guard, the process is unlikely to be easy or cheap. The club can either invest more to consolidate and further build upon the strong position in which we find ourselves, or continue with their prudency and jeopardise the good work that has been done so far. The distinct impression gained is that the next seven days will be very revealing as to the extent of the club’s ambitions.

Friday, 12 August 2011


Non-footballing summers are always the most painful times for football fans across the country. Without the comforting bookends of weekend fixtures, the weeks blur into one very long, very dark tunnel, with the light at its end seeming very far away. But thankfully we’ve all survived the summer tedium of rehashed and baseless transfer links, pre-season ‘tournaments’ on the other side of the planet against teams with names seriously deficient in vowels and cricket; the first day of the new Premier League season is almost here.

Remarkably, Fulham are at home on the opening day for the first time since 2005; Premier League officials are still frantically working to find the fault in the fixture computer which stopped it from assigning Chelsea the usual comfortable home tie against a newly promoted team (instead giving them a tricky test away to Stoke), but rest assured they will have remedied the error for next season. So tomorrow will be a rare opportunity to savour the comfortably naive optimism that the opening day brings whilst trotting through Bishop’s Park, with Aston Villa the visitors. It is a fixture that often produces an entertaining game of football, with two teams that look to play attractive football and win games. One (relatively) recent fixture that particularly sticks in the memory was the thrilling 3-3 draw in December 2005; three times Fulham led and three times Villa drew level, with the game’s highlight being a magnificent looping header from Brian McBride. There was the 3-1 win under Roy Hodgson in 2009 with two goals from Diomansy Kamara, and in last season’s encounter Villa dominated only to be robbed of victory at the very death by a towering Brede Hangeland header in a 1-1 draw.

Tomorrow’s game is something of a milestone for both clubs, as both teams take to the field in domestic competition for the first time under their new managers. Martin Jol’s appointment was discussed in some depth in last Sunday’s season preview and so doesn’t really need to be covered in too much detail here, but Alex McLeish’s arrival at Villa was one of the shocks of the summer for a number of reasons. Firstly and perhaps most pertinently is the fact that he was taken from Villa’s arch-rivals, recently relegated Birmingham City. The rivalry isn’t usually considered one of Britain’s most hateful, but the anger and spite incited by McLeish’s choice to walk the rarely-trodden route to Villa Park shows that strong emotions are buried deep. Secondly, Villa fans were particularly underwhelmed at the calibre of the appointment; McLeish’s CV at Birmingham contains a Carling Cup, two relegations, and a reputation for playing solid if depressingly turgid football, precipitating a remarkable protest outside the gates of Villa Park as rumours of his appointment gradually congealed into reality. It is clear that if McLeish’s reign at Villa is to be a success then he is going to have to get off to a good start; he can be certain that fans aren’t going to remain patient for very long in the face of poor results.

This all adds an extra level of intrigue to tomorrow’s game, as well as a pinch of the unknown. The biggest question mark in terms of Fulham’s team selection is who will play in defence; will it be Hughes or Baird at right back, the outcome of which will determine whether or not the impressive Senderos will be deployed alongside Hangeland in defence. The safest solution seems to be to stick with the back four that served the Whites so well last season, with Baird at right back and Hughes continuing his formidable partnership with Hangeland at the heart of the backline. However, Jol seems to be a big Senderos fan given the number of starts he has given him in pre-season, and the big Swiss hasn’t put a foot wrong so far in Fulham colours. What is surprising and in fact slightly baffling is that he has preferred to start Hughes at right back, a position in which he looks decidedly uncomfortable and which brings his limited distribution to the fore, over Baird, who has developed into an accomplished performer and an integral part of the back four over the past 12 months. In fact, given the lack of pre-season time that Baird has been given, it would be somewhat astonishing if Jol performs a u-turn now and plays him at right back, and would raise questions about why he persisted with testing out Hughes at right back in so many games this summer. So whilst I would prefer to see Baird there, I expect to see Hughes at right back with Hangeland and Senderos in the centre and Riise at left back.

In midfield, Jol will have to decide whether to partner Danny Murphy with Steve Sidwell or Dickson Etuhu; Sidwell is the more exciting option but Jol may well favour Etuhu’s power against a Villa side that is likely play three in the centre of midfield. Duff will start on the right, whilst I expect Dempsey to start on the left, with Dembele probably not yet up to full match fitness having missed a lot of pre-season through injury. Up front will be Zamora and Johnson, who have both looked lively in pre-season and will hope to establish a partnership that has always had promise but been held back over the past couple of seasons with the injuries the pair have suffered. New signings Gecov and Kasami will be on the bench; depending on how the match is going, I hope we are given another chance to see Kasami in action towards the end of the game to see if he can build on his promising cameo against Split.

As for Villa’s line up, it seems that Darren Bent has been passed fit to play and so naturally he would be expected to start; Hangeland and Hughes have actually done a good job of keeping him quiet over the years whenever we have faced his teams, but his goalscoring prowess is undoubted and so will have to be watched closely on Saturday. Their major outfield summer signing was Charles N’Zogbia, who has the pace and the ability to cause us problems on either flank (particularly if coming up against an out of position Aaron Hughes) and is the player I would be most worried about going into the game. Their midfield will probably be a central three with Makoun and Petrov providing a defensive base with Stephen Ireland, who has been given another chance at Villa by McLeish, apparently likely to start. He will push high up the pitch at every opportunity and can be an effective player if his mind is in the game and will need to be shackled by our midfield. When assessing Villa’s side I can’t help but feel that their defence is vulnerable; whilst Dunne and Collins are powerful in the air they aren’t especially mobile, and whilst AJ doesn’t have blistering pace anymore he is always making runs in, behind and around defenders, moving them around and opening up space for others, exactly what Dunne and Collins will not want. Coupled with Zamora’s power and the tendency for Duff and Dempsey to cut in from the flanks and arrive in central positions, the centre of their defence is an area that can be exploited. Also in goal for Villa is Shay Given, a renowned shot stopper but quite small for a goalkeeper; this, coupled with the fact that he has spent the past year slowly rusting on Man City’s bench, mean that it will be interesting to see how he deals with the first few crosses and corners of the game. 

The first fixture of the season is always the hardest to predict simply because there is no form to go on. However, in my (admittedly slightly biased) view I believe that Fulham have the players to take advantage of Villa’s weaknesses, which, coupled with the backing of the home crowd and the extra fitness gained from having already played competitive fixtures, will see them to an entertaining 2-1 win.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Season Preview 11/12 - A leap into the unknown

Just over a year on from the messy debacle that was Roy Hodgson’s departure and the equally messy appointment process of Mark Hughes as successor, Fulham fans could be forgiven for cursing in exasperated frustration when the news broke on June 2nd that Mark Hughes had walked out on the club. A year on from one of the most frustrating off-season periods in recent memory and we were back to square one.

It is still unclear as to exactly why Mark Hughes chose to leave a post to which he had repeatedly expressed his commitment towards the end of last season when speculation over his future began to mount. Whether he thought he would walk into the vacant Villa job or was unhappy with the transfer budget allocated for the summer, this observer was disappointed to see him go. Whilst some may not necessarily have warmed to Hughes as a person, his performance as a football manager was admirable as he steered us from a position that looked nothing short of perilous at Christmas to our second highest ever placing of 8th, playing some superb football along the way and even mustering a string of away wins. 

But the reality is that Mr. Hughes is now nothing more than a short footnote in the long history of FFC, with the club doing itself credit by swiftly moving to appoint Martin Jol in his place, ironically the man who we so desperately tried to prise from Ajax’s clutches prior to Hughes’ appointment. Jol was probably the stand-out name from the list of candidates available and so it isn’t really possible to lament his appointment; there is no denying the quality of his work in leading Spurs to two successive 5th positions, before admittedly going somewhat off the rails after losing the trust of the board. Interestingly, the perceptions of Jol in England and in continental Europe don’t really match up; popular and highly rated on these shores, doubts persist over his managerial abilities on the mainland, no doubt fuelled by two unspectacular and somewhat under-whelming spells in charge of Hamburg and Ajax. Jol has a point to prove and a reputation to re-invigorate, and this can only be to Fulham’s benefit.

So what can the Fulham faithful expect from their team this coming season? Well, in all honesty it’s very difficult to know. In terms of playing style, Jol has a reputation for forward-thinking, positive play but is also known to use traditional wingers, a strategy at odds with our preference for inverted wide midfielders in the shape of Duff and Dempsey over the past couple of seasons. With the transfer budget unlikely to stretch to two additions in this department, it will be interesting to see whether Jol will stick with the tried-and-tested system or perhaps use Mousa Dembele, whose pace and dribbling prowess are undoubted, in a wider berth compared to the more central positions in which he was often deployed by Hughes. 

At this point in time it looks likely that Zamora will partner Andy Johnson up front, the latter of whom has impressed in pre-season. AJ gets his fair share of stick from time to time, particularly over his goalscoring record, but his return when playing alongside Zamora in a straightforward 4-4-2, the role which he was originally bought to play, has always been good. 10 goals in his first season, the only season in which him and Zamora have been able to play as a regular pairing, is a respectable record and he has looked sharp in the pre-season Europa League games. Worryingly, there is a serious lack of depth up front, with Zamora and Johnson the only two recognised strikers in the squad, assuming that it is generally accepted that Dembele and Dempsey are far more comfortable in attacking midfield roles. It is well known that a bid for Cameron Jerome was rejected by Birmingham, so it is clear that Jol has recognised this shortcoming and will hopefully move to bring in another forward in the next few weeks.

The back four, the bedrock of our success over the last few seasons, is another area of the pitch in which it is difficult to ascertain Jol’s intentions. Hangeland is a certain starter in the centre of defence, whilst the shrewd acquisition of John Arne Riise at left back looks to have considerably strengthened a position that posed the team a few problems at times last season as Carlos Salcido struggled to adapt to the Premier League. What is intriguing is Jol’s plans for the other centre half spot; occupied immaculately by Aaron Hughes for the past three seasons, it seems that Jol is strongly considering playing Philippe Senderos, judging from his team selections in the Europa League so far. Senderos has looked impressive every time he has played for us, but to break up a partnership as reliable as Hughes and Hangeland is a risky move. What is more, Jol appears to favour Hughes over Chris Baird, many people’s player of last season, at right back. This would be disappointing for two reasons; firstly Baird, popular amongst the crowd for his commitment and professionalism, has developed into a reliable and consistent performer and worked very hard into making that position his own over the past 12 months. Secondly, Hughes, calm and composed in the centre of defence, doesn’t look anywhere near as comfortable on the right, and in fact reminds this observer of the Sanchez-era Baird. Personally I believe that the most sensible policy is the age-old ‘if it isn’t broke don’t fix it’ mantra and simply stick with Hughes and Hangeland in the centre, with Baird and Riise at full back. Senderos has shown what he can do and has proven himself a more than worthy alternative at centre half, however unfortunately for him he is competing with one of the best central defensive partnerships in the country and may have to be patient for a bit longer.

Along with Riise, Jol has moved swiftly to bring in two young midfielders to freshen up an area of the pitch in the form of Marcel Gecov and Pajtim Kasami, signings that will hopefully quell the perennial fears about what our fate will be when Murphy finally ‘loses his legs’. In truth, very little is known about these two. Gecov, signed for around £700k, featured in the Euro Under-21 Championship, notably contributing two assists against England, and is apparently a more defensively minded midfielder. Kasami, formerly on the books of Liverpool, on the face of it seems the slightly more exciting prospect at £3.5m; mustering 24 appearances in all competitions at the age of 19 in a team featuring the likes of Javier Pastore is more than impressive. A more attacking player, Kasami put in an impressive cameo against RNK Split, sending a free kick just over the bar, getting stuck into several meaty challenges and linking up well around the box all in the space of 5 minutes. As for departures, the loan move of David Stockdale to Ipswich coinciding with his signing a new 4 year contract seems beneficial for all parties involved, whilst the club has also allowed a number of first team squad players go, most notably John Pantsil (to Leicester), Jonathan Greening (to Forest) and Europa League hero Zoltan Gera (to West Brom). Jol’s next moves will hopefully be to plug the gaps that these departures have left and to bring in another striker; if he is able to do this then the squad will be looking strong.

Of course, a strong squad will be even more vital than usual this season as we once again find ourselves in the Europa League, the competition in which some of the finest moments ever to take place inside Craven Cottage occurred. Qualifying via the less exulted and somewhat derided fair play back door won’t bother our fans who simply yearn for more unforgettable nights against Europe’s glitterati under the floodlights by the Thames, despite the resulting consumption of the traditional pre-season friendly programme by qualifying games beginning, absurdly enough, in June. Progression so far has been relatively untroubled, however we appear to have drawn the short straw by being paired with Dnipro of Ukraine in the next round, a club flush with cash and led by Juande Ramos, the man who poached Jol’s job from him at Spurs. No doubt this will be the ‘angle’ spun on the game by the headline-hungry media, but the reality is that the club has to focus on the game itself because this team are a genuine banana skin, the passage around which will not be aided by UEFA’s bizarre decision to switch the ties due to Spurs being due to play at home in the second leg. After the dizzying highs we experienced in the 2009-10 campaign it would be a disaster for us to be knocked out so early, so it is vital that we get a good lead at home on the 18th to take to what will undoubtedly be a hostile environment in Ukraine for the second leg.

What would a successful season entail for Fulham then? Well, given that we have just gone through another summer of unsettling transition, a position of comfort in the league will be welcome. In reality, our league form will depend on how far we progress in the Europa League; we finished 12th when we reached the final last time, a position that definitely have been much higher without that most welcome of distractions. As always, the cup competitions are the opportunity for the club to gain some silverware which would top off a marvellous few seasons. Can we repeat our Europa League run? Perhaps not, but at the same time there won’t be many teams wanting to draw us at any stage after the scalps we claimed two years ago. And it’s been 36 years and counting since the Whites walked out at Wembley; we must be due another appearance by now, surely?