Listening to Mark Schwarzer attempt to talk about Fulham on Radio 5 Live tonight when the pundits all wanted to get his opinion on the destination of the Premier League trophy got me thinking.
There’s plenty still at stake this season. We’re pretty safe on 40 points as I rather loudly told the two blokes behind me staring intently at their programme and discussing the results at the bottom of the table as we walked along the river on Saturday. I can’t see any of the sides in – or even around – the bottom three winning enough games to catch us. Mid-table mediocrity is definitely preferable to the crazy relegation battle we fought last year, but it’s become unexpectedly exciting too.
We’ve had the experience of watching a team in transition grow as the season’s gone in. We’ve watched the side get stronger as they understand Hodgson’s philosophy and what he wants from his players. Like him or loathe him, we can all recognise that Bobby Zamora makes us a better side when he’s in the team. The one who we thought would prove the weaker partner in our double purchase from West Ham this summer has actually turned out to be an excellent right-back as well as a bit of a cult hero. We’ve savoured the coming of age of Clint Dempsey as a Premier League player and watch Danny Murphy defy the ageing process to move from holding player to all-action midfielder. Even the much maligned Dickson Etuhu looks a lot better now that he’s had a few games to bed into our midfield.
Watching the side take shape has been fun, but some of the results have been even better. I wasn’t sure it would get better than beating Arsenal on a balmy summer’s evening at the Cottage. But it did. We snatched a sweet draw against Chelsea and, of course, saw off United with real style on Saturday. For good measure, there’s even been an away win sprinkled in (but Schwarzer was right, we’ve largely been good on our travels and unfortunate not to break our away duck until Bolton).
Despite being trounced by United in the Cup a couple of weeks ago, our season isn’t over. It might be soon if we follow the Fulham pattern of failing to build on a good result. People have talked about the possibility of European qualification, which still remains extremely remote, as far as I’m concerned. We might get lucky with the FA Cup final participants or the Fair Play League but the way Wigan and West Ham are grinding out results, we’ll find it difficult to improve on ninth.
There’s certainly potential there, though. Just have a look at our run-in.
Liverpool (H, April 4): I wouldn’t like to predict a win because Rafa’s boys are back on form. They’ll have the opportunity to leapfrog United when they come to the Cottage and we’ll have to be at our best to stop them. Even factoring in our win against the defending champions, I can’t see us pulling off another shock. While we’re talking Liverpool, though, how silly do you think the boys at Shankly Gates look about now?
Manchester City (A, Apr 12): City’s home form has been the primary reason that they’ve managed to stay above the relegation fray. Not that Mark Hughes will be particularly grateful considering the money and the players he’s got at his disposal. We normally do well at Eastlands but I feel silly even predicting a point from this one.
Middlesbrough (H, Apr 18): Should be a home banker. Middlesbrough, seriously threatened by relegation now, will probably come and try to keep us at bay and hopefully we’ll do a better job of putting them away than we did against Hull or Blackburn. Has the potential to be an immensely frustrating afternoon but I’d like to think we could reprise some of Saturday’s style.
Stoke City (H, Apr 25): I hope we’ll be able to record back-to-back wins. Stoke have done really well to be in with a real chance of staying up and Tony Pulis must be one of the candidates for manager of the year. Nobody gave him a pray and, playing a little more football than the press care to them credit for, Stoke have quietly crept above the relegation fray for now. But their away record is almost as bad as ours and we should be able to give their defence a few problems.
Chelsea (A, May 2): I was laughed at on the Tube home a while ago for suggesting we had a chance of nicking a famous win at the Bridge. We might have already missed our chance a year ago but, with Guus Hiddink unlikely to stay beyond the summer, it could be the season for uncertainty at Chelsea. A boisterous away following will ensure the players are up for it and, after our performance against the hotel in Fulham earlier in the season, you’d be foolish to count us out.
Aston Villa (H, May 9): Villa have been on alarming slide recently and might miss out on that coveted Champions’ League spot. O’Neill’s done a fantastic job to make them the force he has even if he’s relied on a version of the rather direct tactics that had Leicester punching above their weight a decade ago. What a price a repeat of our breathtaking late win over the Villa from last season?
Newcastle United (A, May 16): The Magpies look like they might be permanently engaged in the relegation battle this time around. Joe Kinnear might be back on the touchline for this one we hear and you’d fancy Michael Owen to inflict more misery upon us if he’s fit. Of Newcastle’s horrible run-in, this is one of the few fixtures the pundits highlight as a winnable game.
Everton (H, May 24): We always win at home to Everton, don’t we? With it being the final day of the season, there could be a party atmosphere to celebrate. A truly liberated performance would be the perfect way to round off a thrilling season. Too much to ask? Probably. But you never know.
Of course, I’d like to set a new mark for our highest finish in the Premier League. Even if we fail to beat the ninth place that Cookie achieved back in 2003-04, I’m feeling remarkably confident that we won’t be pitched into another relegation battle next season. Some fans have worried that Roy Hodgson’s average managerial tenure has been two years in his previous jobs. I’m not too concerned. Hodgson will want to finish what he’s started and establish Fulham as a top-flight club. With a bit of luck – and some more investment – he might just succeed.