I normally enjoy reading the Sunday papers. Over breakfast or just before the afternoon’s football, I catch up on what’s being going on in the world – but in common with most of the world’s male population I like to read the sports section first. But last Sunday, my paper of choice, The Observer, included a statistic within their results section that nearly made me choke on my corn flakes. Fulham, they said, have not won an away league game for 20 matches, easily the worst record of all England’s professional clubs.
I knew our away record was bad, but blimey, that’s ridiculous. I remember, shortly after HammyEnd.com was born, Chris Coleman was talking about improving our disastrous away record in his first full season in charge. It seemed he scarcely stopped talking about it, bar a few memorable away days in that season that saw the mighty Whites finish ninth. And with Wigan, the scene of one of our more wretched performances on the road under Coleman, coming up in a couple of weeks, I’ve been wondering why on earth we’ve found it so difficult to string together decent displays away from Craven Cottage.
By a remarkable coincidence, a full calendar year will almost have elapsed since our dramatic late win at St. James’ Park, when we walk out at the JJB Stadium. It will have been 364 days since Carlos Bocanegra’s close-range strike sent our away fans into delirium, but why on earth has it taken so long for us to even threaten to record another three points on the road?
The most common theory is that we alter our style of play for games away from home and, therefore, become less adventurous. Whilst that argument might have held some weight under Coleman (who persisted with his rigid 4-5-1 formation far too long for his own good), Lawrie Sanchez has generally fielded attacking sides on the road. Twice this season alone we have come close to breaking the hodoo. At Arsenal, we looked set to punish Jens Lehmann for his horrorific error until the controversial (for me, anyway) award of a late penalty prompted a late collapse. At Villa Park, we once again relinquished a lead under late pressure.
Like Tim Henman, then, we could be labelled as ‘chokers’. Yet that description would be unfair, especially after the remarkable Lazarus-like recovery on Saturday against Spurs. Although many of the players have changed given the revolving door that seems to have replaced the entrance at Motspur Park, our best bet to finding a solution seems to be that our problem seems to be all in the mind. Whilst we seem to be able to play expansive, attacking football at the Cottage, our game doesn’t seem as durable on the road. It looks as though we lack a little bit of bite in midfield – plenty of people, wrong in my view, have already pigeon-holed young Steve Davis as too lightweight for the Premier League – and we don’t necessarily carry enough threat in attack. Whilst we don’t appear to find scoring a problem, we can’t seem to finish a game off. Clint Dempsey missed guilt-edged chances at both the Emirates and Villa Park and Diomansy Kamara struck a post after the Villa too. And that is a problem with our leaky defence.
So, what’s the solution to our problem? If I knew that, I’d be writing to Lawrie Sanchez. Whether it’s bringing in a magician or a psychologist to try and convince the boys that we are actually playing at home or just keeping the tactics exactly the same and hoping we’ll pull through is anyone’s guess. We’ve certainly been perceived as a soft touch by the rest of the Premiership and we lack a little bit of bite, with the recent departure of our supposed ‘enforcer’ Papa Bouba Diop to Portsmouth, the problem still remains.
With the impressive return of Hameur Bouazza (who has seen his starring role against Spurs rewarded with an international call-up by the way) and the goalscoring exploits of Dempsey, there is every chance that Sanchez will start against Wigan with a similar set-up. I’d question the wisdom of leaving David Healy – in such good form for club and country (he tops the Euro 2008 goalscoring charts for Northern Ireland don’t forget) – on the bench again because he still looks the most likely to grab a goal and Sanchez will certainly be convinced that Wigan (away) is one that we should win if we’re to realise our ambition of pulling away from the relegation scrap.
Here’s hoping that we’re successful – and that us long-suffering Fulham fans don’t have to wait another year for our next away win.
– Dan –