Settling the score

If one game epitomised the desperate nature of Fulham’s winter slump, it came at Loftus Road on December 15. Leaving that ground, Fulham’s home in name only for a couple of seasons before their return home almost a decade ago, after watching a performance hardly worthy of the name was a desolate experience. Spineless, supine, sacrificial: several synonyms could sum it up. Fulham were wretched and meekly surrendered in a second half that unfortunately isn’t forgettable.

The sight of Adel Taraabt, who famously sought a quick getaway from Craven Cottage after being substituted at half time in last season’s 6-0 drubbing, dribbling through the remnants of a lackadaisical Fulham defence to score QPR’s second, winning a loose ball from Brede Hangeland just past the half way line, will send a shiver down my spine for years to come. For me, it wasn’t so much that QPR had secured their first league win of the season and glimpsed survival after the poorest start in Premier League history, but that Fulham were so devoid of fight, passion and spirit. It seemed fitting that Mladen Petric’s deflected strike came too late – it was almost an apologetic afterthought.

Rivalry for me didn’t come into it, although it certainly will have bothered others. I grew up with a raging dislike of Brentford, who were a division above Fulham when I first started visiting Craven Cottage regularly and had aspirations of climbing higher, while Chelsea feel like more natural geographical rivals these days. Passions will rise in anticipation of Monday’s return fixture for many, however. 1983 still lingers long in the memory, an abject 3-1 defeat securing the Second Division title for Rangers, and the deathly phrase ‘Fulham Park Rangers’ should serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come in the years since Fulham conjured up images of the halcyon days of the 60s, the 1975 Cup final and the latter stages of Bobby Moore and George Best’s careers.

More recently, of course, the fortunes of the two clubs have been inextricably linked. From Mark Hughes’ own ‘ambition’ to that of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, there’s been a fair bit of traffic travelling down the Askew Road towards Shepherds Bush. Hughes’ departure from the Cottage looks more and more like a moment of hubris that might prove one of his biggest managerial miscalculations – his time at Loftus Road saw an expensively assembled squad plumb depths that few pundits could have predicted in the summer – while his two striking recruits have endured uncomfortable injury-plagued spells at their new club. Andy Johnson’s lack of fitness was the reason why Fulham were unwilling to extend his contract, while Lorcan’s already adequately covered the subject of Zamora’s return.

Monday’s meeting assumes massive significance for QPR as Harry Redknapp runs out of games to prove he can still claim his Houdini mantle. It goes without saying that Rangers badly need a win, even though they’ve climbed off the foot of the table thanks to Arsenal’s pummeling of Reading on Saturday, but the importance of the fixture for Fulham shouldn’t be understated. Jol’s side have quietly crept towards the top half of the table – and as both Swansea and West Brom stumble ahead of them – there’s a slim chance that Fulham could climb even higher. The Whites have acquired the handy habit of finishing seasons strongly in recent years – and Monday’s game offers the rare opportunity to clinch consecutive London derby wins following the defeat of Tottenham before the international break.

Victory tomorrow night would prove cathartic for a number of the Fulham faithful. It shouldn’t be taken for granted, however. QPR do have the ability to score goals – Redknapp’s capture of Loic Remy and Zamora’s return to fitness have offered the strugglers a striking threat that they had previously lacked. If Fulham can console themselves that the mercurial talent of Taraabt might start on the bench, they’ll face a physical and explosive partnership in the shape of the French forward and a man whose ability to infuriate central defenders we know all about.

In their media comments in the build up to this game, it seems as though both Jol and the players have got the message. They seemed lacklustre and leaden-footed at Loftus Road. It wasn’t good enough. There’s a score to settle this time – and a few psychological scars to repair.

The Return Of Bobby Zamora

I remember feeling genuine shock when Bobby Zamora’s transfer from Fulham to QPR was announced. In fact I was so disappointed I treated the situation at the time with complete apathy. It really was a demoralising blow to lose a striker who had been so key to our success over the last few seasons and won who earnt a lot of adulation, if not love, for his stunning 19 goal season during that incredible Europa League run – to our most vicious rivals, no less! But hindsight is a wonderful thing; we’ve gone from strength to strength since he left, and his immediate replacement, Pavel Pogrebnyak, coincided with a fantastic run of form, demonstrating that actually Zamora was maybe more of a hindrance to the team than a help by the time of his departure. Monday marks the first time Zamora will line up in QPR colours since his switch, and as such it’s a good opportunity to have a look at a player who I appreciate, but can probably never really respect again.

The supporter-player dynamic between the fans on the Cottage terraces and Zamora himself was fascinating however. There was a genuine love-hate relationship, with fans wanting him to score goals for the good of the team and demonstrate limited appreciation without ever really warming to a player who visibly disliked them.

After a catastrophic goal return over his first few months at Fulham – after a goal on his debut in August he didn’t score again until we beat non-league Kettering in the FA cup – a number of fans were on his back. The supporters were split into two camps: those with him (responsible for the “his hold up play” cliché which became a running joke) and those against him. It was a huge shame though that there was even an “against him” camp for a player who did genuinely contribute significantly on the pitch to our highest ever league finish despite his lack of goals, and who showed little negative contribution really (you could never question his work rate and he didn’t say anything out of turn). The abuse was vicious and unnecessary and I do have some genuine sympathy for him.

However, there were two paths Zamora could have gone down after this. He could have risen above it and taken the one Chris Baird has since travelled; the Irishman has certainly undergone a remarkably transformation from boo-boy to cult hero. Instead, Zamora took the other and responded in kind. After Kettering he scored twice more in the 2008-09 season, both in front of his home crowd and both celebrated with a hand cupped to his ear as if to say “So what’re you saying now?” before hurling a few choice comments of his own at the stand.

This was the start of a frosty acquaintanceship, whereby Zamora would generally celebrate as if he just discovered his wife was being unloyal before cupping his ear to the crowd. There were a couple of extreme episodes between the striker and the infamous Babygrow Man, a fan at the front of the Hammy End who did not like Zamora nor think much of his ability and let it be known too, so when Zamora scored against Sunderland at home at the Putney End he turned, pointed, mimed himself eating a burger (presumably in reference to Babygrow man’s large belly) before quite clearly yelling “f*** off” in Babygrow’s direction. A surreal moment but a very real demonstration of how Zamora felt.

Then there were his inexcusable actions while he was managed by Martin Jol. The two clearly didn’t get on and Jol implied as much in his press conferences, once saying “He does’t like crosses, he doesn’t like defending, he doesn’t like the fans.”, but in that situation both parties must remain professional. Zamora instead leaked information to the press about players discontent in what really amounts to slander. Zamora’s exit was inevitable and clearly motivated, even if he tried to cover it up with a false impress of QPR’s ambition.

As I said, it was a real shame that this is how Zamora chose to behave. While I do not, and would never, condone malice from the stands – and would even go as far to say as if you give some then you should expect some back – I believe Zamora could have been a genuine legend in the same ilk as McBride had he chosen to behave differently. Strong, hard-working and possessing genuine guile and quality following a rocky career carved in the lower leagues, when on song Zamora was undeniably supreme (just ask Cannavaro!) and just the sort of player we love to support. Instead, we are left unfortunately disliking someone who fired us to a European final and unable to celebrate a forward’s 19 goal season.

So when Zamora returns on Monday, expect a chorus of boos and a player utterly determined to bite back. A crying shame indeed.

LRCN

Fulham pair aren’t for sale, says Jol

Martin Jol has insisted that neither Moussa Dembele nor Clint Dempsey are available for transfer and that Fulham have not received an offer for either player.

The two midfielders have had excellent seasons at Craven Cottage, with Dempsey leading the club’s scoring charts with a 23-goal return and Dembele having been superb since he reverted to a deeper midfield role, and media speculation has linked them with a move away from Craven Cottage as they both have only a year to run on their current contracts. Jol, however, reiterated that the club has no interest in selling their best players and he wants to strengthen Fulham’s squad during the close-season.

There are no clubs who have come in for bids. Even if they put a bid in they are not for sale. Of course you worry because I want to keep my best players. If we can do that and add two or three, we could have a very good squad. I feel they still will be here.

Cynics will recall that Jol also told journalists that Bobby Zamora wasn’t for sale either.

Hangeland locks the back door

The only mystery surrounding Brede Hangeland is why a ‘big club’ haven’t been beating down Fulham’s door to sign him. Tall, physically strong, rarely beaten in the air or the on floor, composed on the ball and with a decent turn of pace, the commanding Norwegian centre half has got it all. Since being plucked out of the Danish Superliga by Roy Hodgson, Hangeland has been one of the most consistent defenders in the top flight – and perhaps the crucial factor in turning Fulham’s fortunes around.

Hangeland gave a complete demonstration of his prowess at Loftus Road. There were more than a few worries about the prospect of a fired-up Bobby Zamora doing some serious damage to his former club before the game. As it transpired, all those concerns were misplaced. Hangeland completely dominated Zamora in the air and when the ball bounced threateningly towards him in the penalty area, he was there to mop up the danger in his usual understated manner. Only once did the QPR striker get a clear sight of goal and, even then, Mark Schwarzer produced a brilliant block from point blank range.

Perhaps the most important part of the modern defender’s game is to know when to go to ground. With referees persuaded to give penalties for the slightest touch these days, diving in can be very costly. Hangeland rarely rushes to make a tackle, preferring to jockey a forward away from goal. It was noticeable yesterday how many times he was happy to shepherd an attacker away from danger – even out to the channels – and his peerless positioning offers him a great opportunity to read the game.

Hodgson used to play Hangeland in midfield at FC Copenhagen and, with his almost effortless distribution, you can see why. His comfort on the ball means he rarely wastes a pass and frequently starts attacks. Indeed, it is this ability with the ball at his feet – shared by most of the current back four and Philippe Senderos – that has orchestrated the change in Fulham’s style. Under Martin Jol, the side are much more likely to play the ball out from the back, with two fine distributors in Danny Murphy and Moussa Dembele offering an out ball immediately in front of the defence.

Hangeland was joined at the back by Aaron Hughes again yesterday – something of a surprising selection given that Senderos was available again after injury. The Swiss defender hasn’t really put a foot wrong since becoming a regular in the side but Hughes, whose partnership with Hangeland at the heart of the defence has been first class for the past three and a half years, was unlucky to lose his place at the start of the season. The Northern Ireland international, perhaps preferred because of his familiarity with Zamora’s style of play, looked as though he had returned to his best form.

All of this solidity helped Fulham record their first clean sheet in ten games and, of course, pick up their second away win of the season. More than a few Fulham fans will have walked away contently from Loftus Road afterwards thankful that others haven’t spotted Hangeland’s consistent quality.

State of the Fulham Union

The middle of last week was not the best in Fulham’s long history. Common consensus, before the opening of the transfer window pointed towards the need for a new right back and an intuitive striker. However, when the window closed, our first team squad had the same number of players as we went into the month. Hardly what you’d call strengthening. Whilst, on the pitch we squandered a safe 1-0 lead to Woy’s West Brom to draw meekly 1-1 on a freezing night at the Cottage.

I’m not going to use the following paragraphs to portray a sense of doom and gloom though. Yes we may have ended January having lost our preeminent front man, Bobby Zamora (to he who shall not be named at the upstarts up the road no less); but in losing Bobby we lost a player who for long spells this season has frankly looked disinterested and is definitely on the downslope of a career that had more undulations than the Cotswold countryside.

We replaced him with Pavel Pogrebnyak, a 6’2” Russian international with a somewhat disappointing scoring record in recent years. Having fallen foul of management at VFB Stuttgart, (Bruno Labbadia, Martin Jol’s former skills coach at Spurs and Hamburg, is current coach at Stuttgart), we have signed Pogo (as international teammate Andre Arshavin affectionately called him in a good luck tweet last week) on a deal similar to that of Steve Sidwell from Villa last year. With six months remaining on his contract, he is ours to keep, should we wish. Martin Jol has revealed he sought the advice of fellow Dutchmen Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink, both former Russian national team coaches, before signing the player who is looking to rebuild his career and reputation after a disappointing spell in the Bundesliga.

Pavel "Pogo" Pogrebnyak

Our only other business involved the Development Squad and Under 18s. In came Australian winger Ryan Williams from Portsmouth, Scotland youth international midfielder Jack Grimmer from Aberdeen and Danish Under 17 international Lasse Viggen Christiansen. The latter of whom caught my attention due to him sharing a name with the Viggen fighter jet, another Scandinavian export of recent times. Finally, Swedish winger Alex Kacaniklic was loaned out to Watford for the remainder of the season to gain some vital first team experience and by all accounts if off to a tremendous start being named in the Championship Team of the Week.

The window left more questions than answers though. Who will score our goals for the rest of the season? What do we do if Dempsey gets injured? Is Stephen Kelly really our starting right back for another 15 games? Will Kerim Frei, Marcelo Trotta, Pajtim Kasami and Marcel Gecov all begin to get serious first team minutes? Where is Orlando Sa?

Martin Jol has yet to vindicate himself as a tactical genius. Fulham have been a team of disproportionate schizophrenia this season, going from the sublime to the ridiculous in a matter of seconds. Martin wants us to get younger, yet he consistently refuses to show faith to our promising band of up and comers such as Frei and Kasami. We also account for 2 of the 3 occasions this season when a Premierleague team hasn’t made a single substitution, including Jol’s ridiculous passivity against West Brom last week.

Our exit from the FA Cup last month means that we are now only fighting a battle on one front. Having started the season over seven months ago this is not the worst thing for me to be saying. Indeed, this also presumably impacted on our reluctance to spend vast amounts on overpriced reinforcements in the transfer window. Lucas Barrios or Jordan Rhodes would have been fine and dandy, but the exorbitant fees, wages and inadequate medicals that last minute January dealings bring would perhaps have been unnecessary for a campaign with so relatively few games to go. We turned a profit last year, and hey, that’s a nice feeling. Just look at Portsmouth and Darlington to see what can happen if you ignore the red lines on your balance sheet.

From this point, our season really could go either way. There will be goals aplenty both for us (hopefully!!) and against us that’s for sure; along with a fair share of drama. The way this season has gone we’ll win games we shouldn’t and lose ones we should win.

The fairly gutless performance at Man City on Saturday served as evidence that we are still a long way from being the team we should be. We actually had more possession than our hosts, but such is the problem of playing six midfielders and no strikers that we barely managed to coax Joe Hart from his late afternoon nap. The lack of faith in youngsters again reared its ugly head when an out of position Chris Baird was chosen ahead of Matthew Briggs to play left back despite the latter being well, a left back. Meanwhile a fully fit John-Arne Riise sat willfully on the bench; tactical genius at work? I’m not so sure

We didn’t address our needs in January and we definitely need to develop a sense of collective unity and tactical cohesion that is present in successful sides, but this Fulham outfit aren’t too bad. We have some of the league’s most skilful and exciting players, some top young prospects and a Russian striker who in his own words, will train like a bear. Let’s stay together and support the team we all love.

COYW

Finally, please take a moment to think about the events that happened in Port Said, Egypt last Wednesday when 73 people lost their lives in clashes between fans of Al-Masri and Al-Ahly. The latter are arguably the biggest club in African football, and dominate Egyptian football. The violence was believed to stem from Al-Ahly’s most fervent fans having become politicised in recent times following the Arab Spring. Violence at sport is never acceptable. After all, these people just went to see their team play.