If anyone doubted whether Chris Coleman was tough enough to withstand the rough and tumble of Premier League management, they couldn’t have spent any time with the man. The likeable Welshman, universally known within the game as ‘Cookie’, certainly didn’t crumble in the aftermath of the horrific car accident that eventually claimed his outstanding playing career and showed plenty of resilience when handed the hospital pass of keeping the Whites above the relegation trapdoor when handed a hospital pass from Jean Tigana last term.
He’s had plenty of tough spots to negotiate this summer as well. From Sean Davis, around whom he had wanted to reshape his midfield, going public with his desire to leave Fulham in July to Steve Marlet, a matchwinner against Middlesbrough, abruptly announcing he wanted to return to return to France as well as a vocal dispute between Mohamed Al-Fayed and the club’s supporters over the future of Craven Cottage, it has hardly been plain sailing. Coleman has been content to confine himself to insisting he will prove his doubters wrong but he had to lambast his players both in public and private after the underwhelming display at Everton last weekend.
One of Coleman’s key tasks during the close season was working out a way of Fulham being able to pick up more points away from home. His first attempt at Goodison Park floundered badly. He questioned whether enough of his side were ‘men and leaders’ after a miserable afternoon on Merseyside. But after aiming broadsides at his players, Coleman and his assistant Steve Kean knuckled down to come up with a plan to nullify Tottenham’s attacking threat. They drilled the team in it incessantly at Motspur Park throughout the past week – expecting to face Glenn Hoddle’s trademark 3-5-2 system – and then executed the blueprint flawlessly at White Hart Lane on Saturday.
Fulham were quite content to allow Spurs to see plenty of the ball in areas where the home side wouldn’t hurt them. Coleman also utilised a deep-lying five man midfield to nullify the impact of Tottenham’s wing backs, Simon Davies and Rohan Ricketts. Jamie Redknapp, thought to be the missing piece of Hoddle’s jigsaw, was hassled to within an inch of his life. Fulham pressed the centre halves relentlessly, with Coleman admitting he had selected Barry Hayles for two reasons: a) his experience of discomforting defenders from his non-league days and b) the extra motivation of the Jamaican international being a boyhood Tottenham fan. Hayles ‘roughed up’ the Spurs backline magnificently, twisting and turning away from white shirts wondrously to put Fulham ahead, and then pouncing on an error from Dean Richards to double the lead.
The gameplan was simple enough: frustrate Tottenham long enough to get the home fans on edge and keep the ball sufficiently to allow Fulham’s own playmakers the time to influence proceedings. Whether there was a psychological element of asking his experienced players to prove their mettle after Merseyside, we perhaps will never know. But this was an assured away display that hints at Fulham’s fine start to the new campaign being much more than a fluke. A clinical exhibition of counter-attacking suggests that the common conception of the Whites as a soft touch on their travels might just be out of date.