improve for all sorts of reasons: new players, greater experience, even a change of menu in the canteen. According to Chris Coleman, the main reason his Fulham team are riding unexpectedly high in the Barclaycard Premiership this season is simple: “We want to stick two fingers up at everybody.”
Coleman praises his players’ reaction to “a lot of negativity surrounding the club”, as expressed in the press. There were the alleged irregularities in the transfer of Steve Marlet, the problems in finding a new ground and the sacking of Jean Tigana, the manager, that ended up in court.
Amid all this, the appointment of Coleman in April as caretaker manager was not exactly seen as the beginning of an upturn in the club’s fortunes. Moving the untried coach upstairs, it was said, was a desperate move by a club in disarray. At 33, the recently retired central defender was too close to the players and would be the first manager sacked this season. The team would struggle and pay dearly for the decision of Mohamed Al Fayed, the chairman, to take the cut-price option.
With Fulham now seventh in the Premiership with a game in hand on most of those above them, two fingers is the least that those critics deserve. Coleman, though, had known what was coming. “Even before I accepted the job, I knew that was going to happen and of course you were going to write that,” he said. “I’m 33, so you were going to print that I’m too young to manage in the Premiership. That didn’t bother me — it was one or two other things that were mentioned: that we were a club in crisis, that we were a shambles, in disarray. That’s never been the case and I think our early season results and form have shown that we’re not ‘a club in disarray’ — the complete opposite.
“We’ve used that to our benefit and it’s worked so far — but we don’t want to get carried away. We’re only six games into the season. We’ve had a good start, but there are a lot of points to play for and it’s going to be a long, hard season for us.”
Fulham’s recent results have continued the good work that Coleman began last season, winning three of the past five matches and convincing the club to make his appointment permanent. The good form has continued into this campaign. Two away wins so far, most recently against Blackburn Rovers last Sunday, have equalled the total for the whole of last season and the team now have three successive home matches, against Leicester City today, then Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United, who are at present occupy the bottom two places.
A siege mentality, of course, will take a team only so far and Coleman has made small but significant adjustments to the systems used by Tigana on and off the field. “I’ve changed a lot of everything, but I’ve kept a bit of everything,” he said. “We’ve lost one or two players, but we’ve still got the nucleus of the team that we’ve always had.”
The chances have been made despite a system that has seen either Barry Hayles or Louis Saha playing as a lone forward, both at home and away. “We have played the same formation all season, it’s just that we do different things with it — 4-5-1 or 4-3-3, or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “But it’s not the shape, it’s the players. I could have played 4-4-2, but the form and the frame of mind the players are in, I’m sure we would have got the same results.
“At home we’ve attacked a lot more because we’re expected to be more exciting. But I think we’ve realised we can’t go away from home and play like that. It’s just not going to work and it hasn’t worked. That’s why we had poor (away) results last season. So we’ve just made sure we’ve had a better shape and more men behind the ball. It’s worked so far.”
Coleman knows that Leicester will be a stiff test, not least because Micky Adams, their manager, was unfortunate to be dismissed as Fulham manager when Al Fayed took over the club. If Adams wants to win this match more than some others for personal reasons, then Coleman has similar reasons for wanting to win every match. Being the youngest manager in the Premiership may also be making him the most determined.
“We’ve got to keep producing results,” he said. “That’s the only way to keep answering our critics.”